One of the better games you'll never play
Japanese powerhouse publisher Square Enix saved most of its 2010 marketing thunder for Final Fantasy XIII, but a little over a month after that game hit western shelves, Square quietly published Nier. Online reviewers claimed to hate FFXIII for being linear, restrictive, and over-produced. Not satisfied with being wrong once, the same reviewers decided they hated Nier for exactly the opposite reasons. The only thing they got even kind of right is that Final Fantasy XIII and Nier, despite being published by the same company only weeks apart, are opposites in almost every way. The two games’ common traits include being misunderstood, innovative, and totally, totally rad.
So first let’s visit what Nier is NOT:
1. Immature —Sure, the main character is gruff and macho; and sure, his traveling companion is a leggy woman who swears like a drill sergeant and dresses like a Victoria’s Secret model who got lost on her way to a photo-shoot. But Nier artfully stirs themes of family, friendship, disease, loyalty, violence, and loss into a single coherent and thoughtful story. Not only that, the story continues to change and deepen after your first playthrough.
2. A God of War clone —So many reviewers noted that combat in Nier was serviceable, but “God of War does it better.” That’s like complaining that a submarine does a fine job traveling underwater, but it can’t fly as well as an F-16. There were third-person action games before God of War, and there have been plenty of them since. You want a God of War rip-off, check out Dante’s Inferno.
3. A Series of Pointless Fetch Quests —The NPCs in Nier will in fact ask Nier to collect or deliver items for them, but that’s his role in the village. Not only that, all of the quests relate directly back to the story. Even if you don’t care to learn the minutiae of Nier’s world and plight, the bulk of the sidequests are optional.
4. Attractive —Whether discussing the game in general or its swarthy main character, Nier is remarkably ugly. But as you may have learned from the hot-but-mean dude or lady you dated in high school, personality is more important than looks. And Nier has personality in bales.
Let’s get the last of those traits out of the way first. The character models in Nier not only rise from the uncanny valley like undead mannequins, you get the sense that they were some pug-fugly mannequins when they were still haunting department store windows. Nier himself is the worst offender, and his face is also the one you see the most. Kainé, the rude-talking lady barbarian, at least has expressive eyes. The little boy, Emil, probably has the best design, but that’s not saying much. You know a game is in trouble when the least distractingly ugly character is a little boy with a skeleton for a body and a perfectly spherical skull and a permanent, nightmarish grin plastered across it.
The environments fare slightly better, being hit-and-miss rather than consistently repellent. You can at least tell the concept art for the game must have been awesome before someone in the art department flushed most of their color palettes down the toilet. Every environment, whether indoor or out, is washed with a brown/gray filter and a thick smear of fog. The last game I remember being so foggy was Silent Hill on the original Playstation. On hardware as powerful as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, there’s just no excuse to hide big, potentially beautiful environments behind a curtain of mist unless doing so serves the story somehow.
Enough! Nier’s underwhelming appearance doesn’t even come close to breaking the game, so I’ll quit harping on it. And anyway, the game’s unbelievable soundtrack makes up for any graphical shortcomings. I’m going to go waaay out on a limb and call the style Bliss Orchestral Pop, but even that doesn’t go far enough because many of the tracks have vocals mixed in too. And what’s more, much of the music relates directly to the story.
Fortunately for us, the story is just as great as the music. The opening scene flies you through a contemporary city—the only one you’ll see in the game—and lands on a middle-aged man, Nier, and his daughter, Yonah. Right away you know something is wrong, both with the city and the girl. As Nier and Yonah bicker good-naturedly over their meager remaining food rations, each wanting the other to eat more, you learn she is infected with a virus, the same virus that has emptied the city.
A black book with elaborate silver scrawling rests on the floor at Yonah’s side. Nier glances at it several times but he doesn’t so much as nudge it with his boot, and he instructs Yonah not to touch it either. During their conversation a shadowy, man-shaped creature shambles across their hiding place, and Nier dispatches it with a nearby pipe. But its dying throes attract more company and soon Nier is overwhelmed. With his dying breath, he lays a single finger on the cover of the black book beside his daughter. Somehow the book gives Nier the power to massacre hundreds of the shadow creatures, called Shades, without taking a scratch. Fade to black.
Thirteen hundred years pass. No explanation. Even more vexing, you are STILL playing as Nier, and Yonah is still sick. They don’t discuss the intervening millennium, and you don’t have time to worry about it anyway, because the village librarian and de facto mayor needs to see you right now. Kiss Yonah goodbye for the moment; the real game starts here.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the story. You already know the central conflict (a father seeking a cure for his sick daughter), and the journey Nier and Yonah take across 1300 years is too good to wreck in a review. Much credit goes to Cavia for coming up with a story that is grand, personal, meandering, and which comes clear at the end of your first playthrough. But the fun isn’t over after the credits roll. You can choose to go back to about halfway through the game, retaining all items and skills while giving Nier crucial new ability that turns the story you THOUGHT the game was telling upside down.
As far as minute-to-minute gameplay goes, you’ll spend a lot of time running between locations to perform tasks or find important people to talk to about Yonah’s disease, battling wild animals and shades along the way. Mostly you’ll face the same combination of miniature Shades and wild sheep and goats—don’t laugh, those sheep will kick you twenty feet through the air if you approach them from behind—but sometimes you’ll also run across more unique creatures like magic-using Shades or wild boars that require real strategy and several minutes to take down. These battles could become tedious if the game were longer, but Nier is a surprisingly short game for Square Enix, clocking in between 15 and 20 hours on your first playthrough.
Don’t let the routine battles fool you into thinking Nier is uncreative. Story missions will either take you to a new location, or introduce new areas in locations you’ve visited before. Even better, each one also forces you to play differently. For example, one area uses forced perspective and Nier’s blaster magic to simulate a top-down shooter; another borrows VERY heavily from the original Resident Evil; another involves a puzzle-based temple reminiscent of Zelda; and one even borrows from the likes of Zork, which for you whippersnappers is a text-based adventure. Luckily all of these homages are performed skillfully, and without ever forgetting that Nier is its own game.
So what you’re probably wondering is whether Nier is good enough for you to rush out and buy it. I can only tell you that Nier will be—and is already—a cult-classic. It’s the kind of game that will sell a couple hundred thousand copies worldwide and slowly fade out of retail until it starts appearing on “The Best Games No One Played” lists on the internet. Then new adopters will suddenly find themselves paying $75 for used copies on eBay because people who already have the game won’t want to part with it.