pepsiman's Nier (PlayStation 3) review

Nier: The Most Mixed Bag There Ever Was

Nier is an oxymoronic miracle. Rarely does a game go so thoroughly out of its way to seemingly appear dismissive on virtually all accounts before attempting to reverse course at the very last second, but that's exactly what Nier does. As a game, the myriad problems that you're bound to experience for its entirety, often ones that are easily fixable, make it extremely tough to recommend and its few merits aren't nearly good enough to justify buying it. By no means is it the sort of game that one should want to play. Yet as an experience, Nier is something much more complicated. It is a terrible mess of a game both on the surface and on a fundamental level, but one that does have a surprising amount of impact if you give it more patience than it deserves. That realization doesn't come until well into the ending portions, though, making any remote payoff or redemption from it arrive far too little, far too late.

 That book wants to be Alan Rickman so, so badly.

Nier has no one issue that completely breaks it as a game. In actuality, this is a game that, if nothing else, does manage to remain fully functional from the beginning to the end. Everything will by and large work as expected them without any real incident. If a compliment is to be paid to the gameplay portions, it's that at least nothing is outright broken trash. Nevertheless, Nier just has a lot of content that is half-baked in execution, with no one part ever being particularly satisfying. There is a lot to it, but at the same time, it somehow manages to do too little good with too much ill-developed, mediocre filling, which extends into nearly every aspect of the game, technical, mechanical, and artistic.

This path to nonfulfillment begins with Nier's storyline and is then continually accented by the actual gameplay. You take on the role of a single father who spends his days tending to his perpetually sick daughter. With no cure in sight and fed up with his inability to improve his daughter's prospects, he decides to venture out into the world to find a solution on his own. The friends he meets along the way and the fights he has with innumerable Shades, the game's yellow and black-clad antagonists, all have secrets about themselves and the nature of the world itself that prove to be pivotal in the father's attempts to return his daughter to good health. In practice, what this means is that Nier is an action-adventure game with very light RPG elements. When the game isn't developing its narrative, most of your time is therefore spent either doing exploration in dungeons and the overworld or in combat with the Shades, which consists predominantly of hack-and-slash elements mixed with the requisite magic. A basic leveling system is in place for character growth, as are sidequests that can largely be pursued at your leisure. These are essentially the basic systems that drive Nier and they are, if nothing else, completely functional and playable.

 Pictured: One of many parts of the game going to utter waste.

These premises seem to have some potential at first, even if a lot of its basic tropes in the plot and gameplay have been witnessed in numerous other works previously. However, this potential is mostly squandered from the get-go and is executed so haphazardly that it's hard to really care about anyone or anything going on in the game. There are a lot of tangential elements in the game that try to provide the illusion of depth or a greater purpose to everything, but those promises never come true. The combat, for example, can very quickly boil down to being entirely composed of button mashing, if that's your inclination. Sure, you have the option of different weapon types to try out and numerous individual weapons to wield, but they all operate mostly the same, even between contrasting types. Changing weapons is like switching from pair of shoes to another; they might feel different as you break them in, but you're certainly not forced to change how you fundamentally walk. Nier's attempts a diversifying the combat with switchable armaments is exactly the same way. A parry system is also in place if you want to get that hardcore with it, but no enemy ever makes it worthwhile. Even the presence of an augmentation system in the form of magical words that you can attach to your weapons does very little to change the look and feel of fighting.

You do also have access to the Sealed Verses, which are Nier's magic spells. The fact that each one actually has different mechanics in executing them does bring a little diversity, but since it's easy to run out of magic points and can take quite a while to recharge them, physical combat is, unfortunately, your main meat and potatoes when skirmishing in Nier. That's not to say that the magic is significantly more fleshed out or enjoyable. They only change the pace of what's still a very unengaging part of an even more unengaging game.

Likewise, the Shades that you fight are uninspired and become unoriginal even just a few minutes after being introduced to them. They come in a few different varieties, but like the protagonist, they tend to enjoy nothing but hitting things a lot, so that's all they ever elect to do. Whether they're slamming you, hitting you, or slashing you, their attacks are telegraphed incredibly blatantly and can be countered with the same combos you input day in and day out, regardless of the situation. That's, of course, when their AI remembers that they're actually supposed to fight, which it tends to forget regularly, something that also afflicts your party members. The Shades can also block, but you can always just brute force your way through those, too, despite there being a dedicated guard breaking mechanic, too. Some Shades are also capable of shooting out magic projectiles, often in great numbers that emulate bullet hell shooters. Like regular hand-to-hand combatants, though, these enemies and their bullets, too, are usually easy to counter no matter how much the patterns might change. This thusly makes them feel less like an exotic addition on top of the action-adventure core so much as as a strange afterthought.

The cutscenes in Nier are more complicated than the puzzles without even trying.

Much of the fighting in Nier takes place in dungeons, which are laughably basic and serve mostly as a means of providing enemy encounters in increased doses. There are occasional puzzles, but they're rudimentary in nature, often consisting of nothing more than finding a single key or doing extremely easy block moving. These puzzles are so disposable that they feel like rejected versions of ones you would find in something like the original Legend of Zelda. Bosses, naturally, are at the end of every dungeon, although the actual process of fighting them consists little more of hitting their weak points and avoiding their patterns, things which aren't even always included in those encounters. Beating them does result in unlocking new Sealed Verses, which is one of the few rare instances of gratification that Nier provides. They otherwise continue the same cycle to be experienced day in and day out while fighting in Nier, never to force any noticeable deviation whatsoever. It should also be noted that despite being relatively few in number, the game's plot forces you to repeatedly revisit the dungeons and even more so for side quests. Little, however, is done to make them interesting for your return trips, save for equally mindless alterations of the existing condescending puzzles.

The gameplay is consistently unengaging elsewhere, too. Nier's overworld, as it turns out, doesn't exist for much of a purpose other than providing the roadwork to connect you to the actual destinations in the game. Aside from fighting any Shades you may encounter in your travels, there isn't much to see or do outside of the major hubs and the world is otherwise a pretty barren place. Likewise, the RPG elements, which manifest solely in the form of a typical level and experience point system based on felled enemies, exist only as a means to buff up your character's health, magic, and attack capabilities. They serve no deeper purpose for character development and the level-up process is so transparent and automatic that it's quite easy to forget that the game even has it at all.

 Not pictured: Sheep being a huge part of the problem.

Side quests in Nier are furthermore so malnourished in the creativity department that they almost always feel entirely lifeless. Save for a few that directly connect to the main storyline, the side quests are entirely inconsequential and hold no significant bearing when it comes to fleshing out the world. Worse still is how many of them consist solely of just MMO-style fetch quests in which a townsperson will demand that you get some arbitrary amount of an item dropped by an enemy or creature in the world. That sort of design is already tedious on its own, but when some of the items involved also happen to be rare drops from otherwise common enemies, the experience of completing those side quests just becomes all the more aggravating. In one quest, for instance, you may very well be forced into killing dozens of sheep just to acquire three hides. Despite the fact that you can clearly see the wool just sitting on top of the ones you kill, more often than not, you'll receive sheep meat and only sheep meat. Such are the sorts of fallacies that afflict Nier's alternative pursuits. No reward aside from cash is usually given for completing them, either, which is not that necessary for completing the main storyline anyway. The only legitimate reason for completing them is to gain access to two of the game's four endings, the reasoning for which is non-existent, other than to artificially lengthen the playing time.

Most unfortunate of all when it comes to Nier's abundantly blasé, uninspired content is its story. Despite its heavy, constant developments in both cutscenes and actual gameplay, character motivations and explanations for many plot points are really underdeveloped and executed so haphazardly that it's hard to really care about anyone or any of the events in the game. That's assuming you even understand them at times. At its worst, parts of Nier's story are executed badly enough to make you wonder why they even matter. These sorts of problems are most apparent in the relationship between the main character as a father and his daughter, the most fundamental relationship that's meant to drive the entire game. Why anyone should care about this particular family and its trials is something that is never fully justified. The daughter is sick and the father is deeply bothered about that, yes, but the game doesn't care to substantially explain why they and their troubles should empathetically matter to outsiders, as if to say the only reason we should need is that they have problems. A few cliché bonding moments are displayed periodically, but they aren't nearly enough to elicit any substantial emotions, let alone drive the thirty-plus hours of gameplay Nier expects you to endure.

 Kaine has her interesting points, but the game barely gives them the time of day to be fleshed out.

The same is true for Nier's supporting cast members. While they have some interesting twists, they aren't otherwise sufficiently explored and, for much of the game, they fit specific archetypes all too well. You will come to know Kanie, your very buxom and oddly-clothed lady friend, for example, mostly for her profoundly foul speech patterns and Emil, a boy not much older than your own daughter, as one of those tragic kids whose life is both a blessing and a curse. They both undergo critical changes and transformations as characters, but never completely overcome the initial first impressions that the game provides. The details merely garnish their otherwise often stereotypical personalities and histories. They also don't necessarily compliment each other and the main character well as a cast, either, which makes it that much more difficult for them to really matter as you play the game.

Intriguingly enough, though, Nier tries to turn all of that around at the very last moment in its ending sequences. Only then does the game actually give you a glimpse of the greater forces at work in Nier's world and its characters, something which it entices you to explore further by starting subsequent runs. Replaying the game again unlocks a host of new narrative content that give Nier the substance and emotional depth it so desperately needs, especially with regards to characterizations. Although the main events themselves always pan out the same, the added narrative elements go far in recontextualizing your efforts and character motivations to the point where the game undergoes a radical shift in tone. There are also a total of four endings to access, one of which actually plays on the fact that Nier is a game to a great effect. Adding new events and dialog to new game-plus runs is hardly a new idea, but Nier does it so comprehensively in certain spots that it makes your very first run feel like a retroactive exercise in ignorance.

 Nobody should have to wait for the entire game and then some for Nier to get good.

While the effects of this effort are to perhaps be applauded for at least existing somewhere in Nier, they still come far, far too late to rectify the rest of its problems. No matter how much depth the additions give to the characters, how much emotion is reinserted into key plot points, they still don't get rid of what's a very rough, ugly interior that drives the game to that point and continues to drive it while you're experiencing the story again. You still have to plow your way through repetitive content, lackluster exploration, brain-dead puzzles, and inconsequential side quests while seeing the story unfold anew. Only the context of what the protagonist is doing in Nier changes, not the actual mechanics behind it. That's probably to be expected, but it's still unfortunate that the game is saddled with that reality. What's more, considering how many of the crucial character developments are reserved for second, third, and potentially even fourth runs, it feels as though the game is deliberately holding the good parts of the story hostage during that first time through the game. Nier's plot would have benefited a lot from just being upfront with those developments and including them in the first run. Otherwise, without forcing yourself to play through the game repeatedly, the game feels that much more lacking.

But even a technical level, Nier still can't help being thoroughly subpar. The visuals outside of major in-engine and CG cutscenes are rarely better than okay. On top of sporting an aesthetic style that's bland to see, the texture and model quality during gameplay tends to be fairly poor. The technology behind it all, too, has a knack for seemingly making the visuals spontaneously worse on a whim. Character models when the camera is close on them during gameplay will make them sport blurry, out of focus textures on the spot that can only be cured by moving the camera again. Heavy anti-aliasing is also usually present and can deteriorate even further when numerous models are on the screen simultaneously. The frame rate, thankfully, is the one thing that usually stays relatively stable, although it, too, can falter when there's too much chaos on the screen.

 When Kaine isn't cursing, that's when you know she's in a really bad way.

The sound design also suffers from a similar lack of inspiration, but it at least is more consistently functional. Nevertheless, nothing in particular sounds all that impactful, especially during combat. Meanwhile, the voice acting is of a decent quality, neutered only because of the material that the actors have to work with. Laura Bailey as Kaine is the one standout, though; she does an amusingly good job of bringing the character's angry, expletive-laden personality to life, which is made all the more impressive when considering that she tends to be known for her more subdued roles. Her voice doesn't substantially develop the character much beyond the game's limited scope intended for her, but her vitriolic speech does a lot in making her begrudgingly memorable.

However, in directly ironic contrast to the rest of the game, the one consistently great thing Nier actually has going for it is its music. This is not a relative statement made in comparison to the rest of the game's components, either. On its own, Nier's soundtrack is one of the best produced in this past console generation. Predominantly classical in nature, it has more raw emotional power than anything else the game provides, particularly because of its use of softly haunting, omnipresent vocals. While the musical selection has its share of major stand-outs, such as the credits music, every piece in the game is very well-crafted and as such is a great joy to hear. There's also a great variety of it, too, which means you'll usually get treated to something wonderfully new for critical story moments and important fights. It's all so good, even in isolation from the game, that I honestly wonder why it wasn't put to use in a better game that actually deserves it. But much like the late narrative revelations, the soundtrack's impact on Nier's quality as a whole is still greatly limited because of everything else that holds it back, which is an enormous shame.

 And to think I couldn't find the time of day to cover Nier's riveting farming portions!

Don't be mistaken. Nier is a horrendous mess of a game not worth playing in good conscience. Its broad, but highly shallow gameplay never amounts to any higher standard than feeling tedious and ill-conceived and the narrative has very, very little impact or emotional significance for most of its duration. The technical and artistic aspects, too, save for the music, are exactly of that same quality. No matter how much it tries to reform itself into something better during its conclusion and additional runs, there's simply nothing it can do to make up for all the problems it has short of being remade from scratch. It is admirable that it actually attempts to be redemptive at the least likely moment, but the fact that it happens right at that point is precisely indicative of the deeply flawed nature of Nier's narrative and overall structure. So much goes wrong enough in Nier that you will probably never get a good return on investment, should you make the regrettable decision to do so at all.

Posted by Mento

Comprehensive review, very nice job. 
I notice you didn't pull the error most Nier retrospectives/reviews did (the ones that didn't just abandon it because of its slow pace and gave it the one star kiss-off, at least) and reach the end-game content and think "well, up to now it's been a dull but functional hack-and-slash, but these bizarre new narrative elements kind of lift it above and beyond", and then accidentally boost the score to something higher than it perhaps deserves. 2 stars is harsh but fair, given its faults and how long it takes to get good.
And, uh, I apologize in advance for insinuating this, but I have a feeling you docked it some points because of the sheer tedium you must've suffered when grinding for the other two endings. I couldn't bear the thought of ever playing it again after all that, and in a stroke of meta-game genius the fourth ending more or less helped me along with that.

Posted by Pepsiman
@Mento: Yeah, if a game's best parts, especially with regards to the narrative, are reserved for the very end, it doesn't change the fact that you have to slog your way through the rest of the game experience them. Nier does some really interesting narrative experiments, especially with regards to Kaine's characterization and the actual position of Shades in the world, but not only is the timing of their introductions poor, they should have probably just been in the main game from the get-go. They are points that could have easily been inserted into the main narrative the first time that you experience it without experiencing negative repercussions for doing so. At the very least, I can't think of a legitimate reason for having them implemented as they were in the actual game. The end result feels really strange, and it's nice that it's all in there at all, but it doesn't change the fundamental reality that playing Nier is still bad. I'll never agree with the review mentality that a bad game's score can be boosted just because some little part eventually tries to make up for it. You always have to think of the experience as a whole, since you have an audience who will potentially play the game to consider. They might not be as forgiving and it's something that shouldn't ever be forgotten.
Don't feel bad for saying that the grinding probably contributed to the review score, though. I think that even if none of the additional endings and narrative content existed, it would probably still receive the two stars just by virtue of the gameplay's fundamental quality. Doing that grinding to achieve the other endings did, however, cement those sentiments and made me confident that's what the game really deserves. The bad points outweigh the good, but not to the absolute extreme that it's completely busted like a single star would imply. I agree that the fourth ending was brilliantly therapeutic, though. I would never want every game to adopt that sort of tactic, but it compliments the fact that Nier is a video game very well. It felt surreal to see things happen as they did, but it did provide a good sense of closure that I really was done with Nier because that's what its internal logic and fate dictate. And that's something I'm completely fine with in this instance.
Posted by mutha3

I was thinking "man this game's combat mechanics are basically the same as  Twilight Princess " while playing it (E.G ridiculously simple, enemies very obviously telegraphing their moves, meaningless skills etc.)......'cept with throwing horrible ass dungeons in the mix, thus effectively removing the good parts from TP. It really doesn't do this game any favors that it focused on its dumb combat. I'm disappointment to hear this, though:

 Some Shades are also capable of shooting out magic projectiles, often in great numbers that emulate bullet hell shooters. Like regular hand-to-hand combatants, though, these enemies and their bullets, too, are usually easy to counter no matter how much the patterns might change. This thusly makes them feel less like an exotic addition on top of the action-adventure core so much as as a strange afterthought.

In my short time playing it, I felt this was one of the coolest thing I saw. Guess they reuse the trick a tad too much without variation, huh?....I hope a more talented Dev lifts that idea!
I dunno about calling the VA "decent", Though...Personally, I felt it was one of the most well-done things about this game(ignoring the excellent soundtrack). From what I've played I dug the dialogue. It got a few good laughs out of me and the guys at 8-4 are a bunch of bros. Still, dat soundtrack good.
A shout-out for the MC's character design as well! Very cool to see an ugly, haggard old man as a JRPG protagonist(or hell, videogames in general). Kaine kinda loses some of that goodwill with her retarded design, though.....
Posted by mutha3

Looked up the endings for this.
Okay, yeah, ending D is really really cool and almost 999 like in its use of the medium.

Edited by Pepsiman
@mutha3: The bullet hell stuff is definitely interesting upon encountering it the first few times, but the game abuses it very, very quickly and has to more or less always resort to throwing bullets at you en masse if it wants to even attempt to feign actual difficulty for the combat, since the regular melee enemies sure don't cut it. Even then, you eventually get powerful enough in the game to the extent that you can just slash your way through those, too, so at least after having to see it a bunch and using the exact same strategies to get through those as I do regular enemies. I'm all for weird genre-meshes in my games, but I can assure you, you've basically seen the entirety of what the bullet hell gameplay has to offer in Nier. It's a big reason as to why it feels more like an afterthought in Nier, rather than a fully-fledged, interesting mechanic, unfortunately.
As for the voice acting, the main reason I didn't give it more accolades is that the game's narrative just doesn't often give those actors enough range to really express themselves and their characters very often. They get more and more room towards the end, but they still tend to be held back by generally half-baked material. A good actor can take a bad script and make it shine in their own way, though, and I agree that Nier's English cast did that. Their characters do feel distinct and I don't fault 8-4 at all for the end results of the localization; they did a good job considering the overall quality of the material they had to work with. As a hobbyist translator myself, that's all you can ever hope to achieve at the end of the day. I deeply suspect that the problems I had with the writing are a result of the original Japanese, so I'm willing to cut the localization all the slack that it needs since it's ultimately not responsible for how the game actually plays or is structured in this instance. I hope my review doesn't make it sound as though any of the game's narrative's problems are a result of their work, though, since that's definitely not how I feel at all. Indeed, 8-4 is actually one of my favorite localization houses outside of Atlus USA and Nier doesn't change that.
That soundtrack is indeed utterly fantastic. Despite how much I thoroughly dislike the actual game behind that music, I will gladly buy the soundtrack when the opportunity presents itself. It covers a lot of traditional and classical ground that a lot of games are just too scared to touch these days and the end result is nothing short of beautiful all around. Assuming he still has a job somewhere, I hope Okabe gets to compose more music like it for future games and that Emi Evans gets another shot at doing her vocal stylings in that format, as well.
Likewise, I'm glad that for the American edition, they went with an ugly, rugged old guy. We have too many young, virile guys taking up the main roles in video games and while I don't think Nier's main character is perfect in any sense, his age does change how he is fundamentally examined as a character, a lot like what Pixar did in making an even older retiree the protagonist of Up. And yeah, while I did come to like Kaine as a character, her design will never cease to be ridiculous. I nearly lost it from laughter when I saw her outfight for the first time. There are tasteful approaches to making a sexy, revealing femme fatale and Kaine's design adopts damn near none of them. I know you can get DLC costumes for her, too, although from what I've seen, they don't exactly improve things a whole lot.
After I've gotten some sleep, I'm going to write up one last opinion piece/wrap-up on Nier since there are still a lot of other things I want to say about the game that were either too personal or too inconsequential in the context of a review. It got me thinking a lot more about it as a game and narrative experience than I thought it ever would and I'm curious to see what other people's thoughts will be, although I will warn you for your own convenience that it will be spoiler-laden in ways that the game probably hasn't made remotely apparent to you yet. Just thought I would mention that as an aside.
And yeah, ending D provides a really interesting sense of closure that few games have ever really provided. You are thoroughly done with that game at that point. Also worth noting: you can't reuse your name from a deleted file for a subsequent run. I tried it out of curiosity and it just gave me a message basically saying, "Don't try to pull the wool of over my eyes!"
Posted by mutha3
Ending stuff:


. Also worth noting: you can't reuse your name from a deleted file for a subsequent run. I tried it out of curiosity and it just gave me a message basically saying, "Don't try to pull the wool of over my eyes!" 

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers

Nier is worth it for the soundtrack alone IMO.....its rare to see such a solid soundtrack these days.

Posted by brehonia
You keep saying that they should have put the whole story into one playthrough, but I really could not disagree more. Maximum possible disagreement.

The first run is essential to pull you through the story in the way Nier sees it, as just a band of fantasy weirdos trying to save a little girl, with no deeper, wider issues to draw your focus. The second run without that set-up would be a punchline on its own, or like Memento played forwards.

Posted by Pepsiman

@brehonia: There was already a lot of context provided in the review behind what I said in making the narrative more substantial on first runs. It's a really brilliant tactic that Nier goes for those emotional punches that it does with the subsequent playthroughs and I like it when game stories change your fundamental understanding of your ultimate purpose and actions in a story. The problem that I had as a player with it is that precisely in that first run, I just didn't care or have the motivation to care about much of the story. It is deliberately superficial, I get that, but when I say that more or all of the details should have been inserted into that first run, in addition to my own problems, I'm thinking of the people that don't have the time to go back and redo the second half of the game multiple times, whether it's because of work or they just like to keep steadily moving between games. They shouldn't be forced to come away from playing the game once thinking the narrative lacks elaboration just because they perhaps realistically want to, or only can, play through it one time and one time only. They deserve a return on their investment, too, and that gratification shouldn't have to come in the form of a second run that they might not want to do.

Frankly, I, at least, was in that category and the only real reason I continued was because I knew I was going to be reviewing the game. There are ways where the layering effect could have been achieved while still giving people that will or only want to play it once some more depth and context than what's there in the game. Saying that game would have suffered for it is an argument I find hard to agree with when there are not only plenty of other games that don't have these sorts of issues in one run, but also a good number of games that also add more story details in subsequent runs that still feel like fulfilling experiences during the first playthrough. Nier's narrative structure benefits how it tells its story, but not how the player experiences it in the context of a game, and that's a reality that I think was forgotten when the game was being developed. The parts that are in the actual game are good and they achieve a great effect, but I don't think they erase or make up for the bad portions that are there, including what I see in the narrative; as such, I feel the game has to be held accountable for that in terms of both the score and the text of the review or else it's not fairly contextualizing the good parts and how they manifest themselves in the game.

The wonderful thing about reviews of most anything is that the opinions contained in them are never what's canon about how people think of a game. All they can hope to convey is the writer's own subjective experiences and sentiments about a game to an audience that's willing to read them. That's what I always keep in mind when forming my opinions prior to a review as well as also writing them, that they're mine and that I won't attempt to impose upon my audience the notion that they're wrong if they disagree with me. There's no expectation that consensus will inherently come just because the review is a published piece and our disagreement is a good example of that reality. I'm glad you like what the game does more than I do; it's obvious that its mission was more of a success for you and that's fine. If you feel differently about the game and how it should be scored, then great, that's your opinion. But do keep in mind, this is also my text and my score and what's contained in those two things are simply what I see fit to convey from my perspective. I'm writing what I think and not what anybody else thinks or apparently should be thinking. In this review, as with every other review, I try to expand upon that opinion and explain why I think the way that I do about a game and that's all I can conceivably --let alone want to-- do. Even when people disagree, so long as I've accomplished that mission, I don't think there's much else to do. If I'm not in line with the fans' consensus about a game, especially one with a cult following like Nier, then that can't be helped and I'm okay with that. My thoughts are my thoughts and nothing more.

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