Nier is the latest of square-enix’ (publisher) adventures outside of the familiar Final Fantasy franchise. My previous experiences with such games have not exactly been pleasant, especially not at a full retail price, yet I have bought and played this game and I wish to share my experience with it.
First of all I wish to be precise about the game’s genre. It is listed as an Action RPG. This is partly accurate, but I find that the RPG elements are not as present as you would think when you see the genre. It has a leveling system, but it does not yield anything more than a slight increase in health and mana. It might increase your damage by increasing your strength or your spell power. However, no such stats are shown to the player unless you want to search out the status page in the menu, and even then, those are just numbers without context. Also, in an RPG you would expect to have some equipment to manage. This is also basically absent, as the only equipment you have is your weapon. The only actual customization that is available to you is what “words” you assign to your weapons and spells. You can assign two “words” to each weapon/spell and they boost certain stats like damage or experience gain. This barely qualifies as an RPG, but it’s still defined as such. The action element however is highly prominent in the fighting system. It’s a real time system based on dodging/blocking attacks while dishing out your own combination of physical and magical attacks.
The story is basically about your main character and his quest to save his daughter from a mysterious disease. It starts out 1300 years before the game’s main story with a man and his daughter who are staying in a ruined city of sorts. The father binds himself to a book with mystical powers to protect his sick daughter from the monsters that are attacking them. The sequence ends with his daughter apologizing for something, followed by her disease visibly worsening and this sequence is supposed to keep you wondering for the rest of the game. It’s just too bad that this is not nearly enough to keep you engaged in the story. JRPGs have a tendency to follow a pattern where your main character is leading a quiet life, but is thrust into a chaotic conflict and forced to fight something much bigger than him. This is why I find it very strange that you spend half the game doing menial tasks without actually moving the story forward. You do get an occasional boss fight to break up the boredom, but this does little to help the story’s pacing.
I often hear that JRPGs have too much melodrama from other western gamers. This is something I myself have never found to be a problem, but this game has too much even for me. The problem is that it seems like the writers thought that developing characters and relationships or setting up a dramatic situation so that it will have some real impact was far too much of a hassle to bother with. The result is that you get a melodramatic situation which is supposed to be really impactful every 30 minutes, but ends up being rather tedious. Characters who barely know each other want to risk their lives for each other, and it’s all rather ridiculous.
Towards the end you are clued into the great secret of the game, however it is hard to see how the main plot ties into it. You are also treated to a hint towards why the main character and his daughter are the same as the ones from the start of the game, but unfortunately this only appears in an out-of-cutscene sentence in a boss fight, never to be mentioned again.
The structure of the game will remind you of “Zelda: the ocarina of time”. You go to a few select locations and after a lot of time has passed, you return. This of course means that there is some heavy backtracking involved. The game’s ending is set up so that there are “multiple endings”. Actually they are only alternate ending cinematics, and do not change the story in any way. These are unlocked by playing through half the game once again, while completing some criteria. The first time it is to simply clear the game once more, but the second time it is expanded to collecting every weapon in the game, which requires you to grind through side quests to be able to buy some of them. I am sad to say that I gave up on completing the third playthrough, so I can’t report on what the final criteria is. The only thing you get for this is one character’s backstory in the form of a great wall of text on your screen. It is actually called the “novel segment” and you get an achievement for reading the whole thing. This expands on the story of a character you probably didn’t care about in the first place, and it doesn’t really say anything other than what you had already guessed. The one alternate ending I have had the pleasure of seeing was a good 5 minute waste of my time, and should really have been a part of the main game if not cut completely. This is horrible game design, and it pains me to say that the bulk of the achievement points lie in this gruesome farm-fest that spans the most boring parts of the game.
When it comes to the design of the game, I was stunned. I never expected to see such outdated graphics come from a square-published game. There is no depth to the textures. If you’ve played last-gen games then you’ve seen the good old textures where you find a flowerbed that looks like a flat picture of a flowerbed has been laid down on the ground. Well, guess what? That’s how the textures in this whole game are. They seem to have put some effort into their lighting engine to complement the enemies in the game, which are called shades. This makes it the best graphical asset the game has, sadly not even that is all that good looking. Now that we’re talking about the shades; these particular enemies have the least imaginative models I’ve seen in a long time. They look like a mass of shredded black and yellow paper curled into the form of a human being. The bosses however, who often are shades as well, are huge and often have much more imaginative designs. As a plus to the otherwise quite horrible design the frame rate is smooth for the most part except for the most eventful cutscenes.
The cutscenes the game has to offer are mostly in-engine. Through the entirety of the game you will find approximately 4 that aren’t in-engine. And I must say that these are some of the strangest pre-rendered cutscenes I have ever seen. They aren't necessarily bad, seeing as they do explosions and such effects quite well, but the faces of the models suddenly look much blockier and it looks as if you turned the brightness on your TV way up.
Every time you enter a conventional building where you are not expected to fight you are treated to a strange sideways 2D view of the room. This is novel at first, but it tends to get tiring because you are prohibited from running or rolling inside, which can make moving through such houses tedious. You will also be forced into an overhead or an isometric view at select locations where you are expected to fight indoors and in tight quarters. To be quite frank this hurts the gameplay slightly. It isn’t all that bad, but it doesn’t help in any way. The camera can be set in awkward positions when in the semi-controlled isometric view, and it also changes the way you aim your spells.
After a good 1300 words of bashing to complement the 1300 year time gap the game contains I think it’s time I mentioned the few redeeming qualities of the game. The thing about this game that can be fairly fun is fighting the bosses. This is mostly fun because of the sheer scale of the bosses. Most of them are the size of the entire town you start out in (and you never actually leave). They are mostly based on pattern recognition and the aiming of your spells. The ones that shoot projectiles at you shoot ones with the exact same model, but I found some of these bosses to be quite fun. Also, something must be said to support Nier’s fighting system. When you enter a fight you will most likely exit it without taking any damage unless it’s a boss, but that is exactly how the fighting system shows its strengths. It is very fluid because of the fact that pretty much any animation can be cancelled by dodging. Also, your attacks never really stop, because you regain mana quite quickly as long as you kill enemies and getting in and out of close quarters combat takes you so little time that you can switch as much as you want. Unfortunately the difficulty is not ramped up to force you to make use of this, and as a result there’s rarely any tension during the fights.
In the end Nier is a badly designed game. Its story is incomprehensible and badly paced, and you never ever feel any connection to the characters. There’s something wrong when the game’s best storytelling comes in the form of pure text on a black screen. The graphics are completely outdated and the combat is far too easy to be interesting. You end up with a combination of bad story and dull combat with the only slight highlights being the boss fights. To me Square-Enix is starting to seem like the abusive husband of JRPGs. My advice is; stay clear of Nier and any other game from square outside of the Final Fantasy franchise.