By DonChipotle 76 Comments
Because GiantBomb's community just had its Game of the Generation tournament I thought now would be the best time to educate the community on a game that has a devoted cult-ish fanbase/following to which I belong. It is, to me, the best game of the generation and you can't take that away from me. I am talking about Nier. Nier was released in 2010 by Square Enix to little buzz and absolutely middle-of-the-road reviews. Justin McElroy gave the game a zero because he couldn't catch a fish then refused to go back and actually finish the game when people told him how to do so. Critics did not much care for the game, and I can understand why. It's not the prettiest game in the world, nor is it the most innovative when it comes to action RPGs. The sidequests, which make up a larger chunk of the game than the main quest, range from annoyingly tedious to 'why am I even bothering with this garbage'. But despite that, the game has something many games these days do not: heart.
Strap yourselves in, duders, this is going to be long and probably not all that interesting. I'm going to filibuster this shit.
Nier was made by Cavia, a studio known for making...well...utter mediocre to utter shit games. They are also known for being masters in the art of fucking with their players. Bullet Witch has an achievement for beating the game on the hardest difficulty, which is brutally difficult thanks to the fact that enemies are bullet sponges and the last boss has about a two second vulnerability period every, oh, five minutes or so. The achievement for beating the game on hard? It's with a single point. One point. Cavia hates you. Cavia hates you, the person playing their game. They hate you and they hate fun. Or rather I guess they HATED you because Cavia is no longer a game studio, sadly.
But the biggest fuck you they pulled? Drakengard. You might be familiar with Drakengard. It was a terrible game. No. Do not defend that game. It had boring ground combat that makes Dynasty Warriors look like Bayonetta. The Panzer Dragoon sections were terrible and don't even get me started on the insane things you had to do to get all the weapons and then max them out. Not to mention the fact that the game has one of the hardest final bosses ever in video games for all the wrong reasons. Fuck Drakengard. Drakengard has two saving graces: its story and its soundtrack. At first listen, the soundtrack is nothing more than noise. Pure chaotic dissonance. Just people making instruments do things they were not meant to do. But then you dig deeper and you start to understand that the songs contain entire sections from classical pieces all skewered and fucked beyond recognition. And then you realize that the chaos, the manic sounds of instruments, is exactly the point. The music exists to unnerve you, to make you think that something is very, very wrong.
And oh yes, there is something very wrong with Drakengard.
Can YOU spot the classical piece in this cacophony? Oh yes, spoilers for Drakengard will now follow.
Even though I think the story in Drakengard is pretty shit all around, I like it because of the characters and their eventual fates. No one in Drakengard is likable. Except for MAYBE Angelus the dragon. Or Furiae. And when I mean no one, I mean NO ONE. Not even the protagonist. Your supporting cast, the people in your RPG party consist of the following:
-A child so in love with the story of an ancient hero that he is willing to do anything, including end the world, just to be called a hero.
-An elf who killed and ate her own children and continues to enjoy eating children, believing that all children will be safe inside of her womb. You meet her after she has been imprisoned for eating children and laughing about it.
-A man who is upset at the death of his brothers not just because they were killed while he was away, but because the reason he wasn't there to protect them was because he was off in the forest having sex with young boys. Dude's a literal pedophile. And he's somehow the LEAST worst person.
And then there's Caim, the character you play as. The protagonist. The 'hero'. Caim is nothing more than a psychopathic murderer who revels in the blood and guts of his enemies (and friends). Caim regularly kills children who beg and plead for you to spare their lives. Caim exists only to kill things that stand between him and his goal, he doesn't give a shit who. Because Caim is you. Caim is the player.
But therein lies the beauty. Because every character is an unforgivable moral black hole, the game sees fit to not reward them in any way. The child who wanted to be a hero? He causes the apocalypse by causing the elder gods of the world to descend and destroy it. The gods are also giant babies. Which then proceed to kill and eat the elf who enjoys eating babies. The pedophile also gets killed by the giant babies. But what happens to Caim? He and his dragon buddy get the worst of it. Caim, not fit with literally killing a world so hard that gods came to start it over, sends the QUEEN OF THE GODS into modern day Tokyo where he and his dragon friend kill it and are then killed by an airstrike and the dragon is impaled on the Tokyo Tower. Did I mention this is the ending you get after participating in one of the hardest final boss battles in video game history? Don't believe me? Here's a video of the final boss. Keep in mind, Drakengard is first and foremost an ACTION game and the final boss? Well...it's not an action game boss.
The final boss in this action game is an incredibly difficult and precise rhythm game where if you fuck up you have to start all over again. And what is your reward? The main characters get killed and the credits roll silently over the cloudy skies of Tokyo. It was a giant slap in the face. All that work, all that effort, for a crazy ending with no real payoff. But when you really think about it, the ending was perfect. There was no moment of redemption for the reprehensible characters in the game. Instead, every character ended up getting killed. Every. Single. Character. At no point do these characters undergo a deep moment of clarity or undergo a personality shift in wake of a massive event (such as the end of the world). No. They remain as fucked up as possible until their death.
And this "Fuck You" ending leads into the best game of the generation. Nier is the true sequel to Drakengard, not the shitshow that was Drakengard 2.
Nier has more in common with Drakengard thematically than Drakengard 2. Not to mention that Drakengard and Nier have the same director (that being Yoko Taro who was NOT the director for Drakengard 2). Nier also happens to take place 50 years after the TRUE ending to Drakengard in the remains of our world in the wake of magical god particles causing a worldwide epidemic. Turns out when you mix magic and giant gods into a world not used to magic and giant gods, shit goes south. Another similarity the two games have is their bland gameplay; except the gameplay is much better in Nier because it is functional in its repetitiveness and not the unceasing tedium that was Drakengard’s system. And in Nier, the saving graces are in its music and its story. I’m not going to touch on its music other than saying the soundtrack is fantastic and you should go listen to it.. So instead I will talk about the story and why Nier is as fitting a game as Cavia could ever make both as a sequel to Drakengard and as the final game they ever made. So be warned, I will be spoiling Nier in the next paragraphs. So if you want to play it, leave now or skip to the end or something. If you have no intention if playing it/don’t care about spoilers, feel free to keep reading.
In the seven years between Drakengard and Nier, Cavia learned something about storytelling and characters and that was: If your characters are likable/believable, people will be more inclined to care about them and be affected when shit happens to them. And with that in mind, the character of Nier was created. (For the record, I will be talking purely about the American version of Nier, since the Japanese version has a different character/set up but the game remains largely the same) Nier is quite unlike most JRPG protagonists in that he is in his 40s and is also a father. While other protagonists have some vague goal revolving around destiny or something equally as cliché, Nier cares only about one thing: saving his daughter.
The game opens with a prologue that sets the entire tone. It is set in 2049, nearly 50 years after Caim and Angelus fucked up our world, and it is snowing. In summer. In an abandoned, empty grocery store, a haggard man wields a pipe while black monsters begin to attack him and his daughter. In a last ditch effort, the man touches a book who promises it can give the man power to protect his daughter. This man is named Nier and upon touching the book, he gains magical powers and begins laying waste to these monsters. He returns to the grocery store to see his daughter coughing and holding a cookie. A copy of the book is next to her as she offers a single cookie to her father. He refuses, saying he isn’t hungry. His daughter, Yonah, calls his bluff and the two end up splitting a cookie. And then it is revealed that Yonah touched the book and, in exchange for her health, all she got was a single cookie. Nier takes her daughter away from the store, vowing to cure her sickness.
Cut to 1300 years later.
Nier and Yonah are living in a small village in a dying world where the sun never sets. Yonah is sick with a fatal disease called the Black Scrawl and Nier wants nothing more than to find a cure. This is where the game really starts. Nier does not have his magic book powers, but he does have a sword and a goal. He will do anything to save his daughter. And this is where Nier’s secondary purpose comes into play. At first glance, Nier is nothing more than an action JRPG. But it is more than that. It IS that, but it is also something more.
Nier is, at its core, a systematic deconstruction of Japanese video games, action games, and the expectations of the player.
The first thing the player does in the game outside of the prologue is getting a quest from the village chief, Popola, to kill some sheep for mutton and wool. Nier, happy to help out the village and its people, agrees. To do this quest, Nier leaves the village to the plains where the sheep are. Outside of the village he runs into the black monsters from the prologue. And here is where the player instinct takes over. Given that you just killed upwards of 100 of the monsters not three minutes ago, your first and only instinct is: “ENEMY! KILL!” and you do. You cut the monsters down and then continue on your way slaughtering sheep. But here is the first instance of the game hinting at something more. If you stay your blade, you will find that the monsters are not hostile towards you. They do not attack you. They are just…there in the world. Minding their own business. And Nier kills them for no reason other than you, as a player, have been conditioned to kill enemies and because you have to. After doing some oddjobs for Popola, the friendly leader character points you to a place called the Lost Shrine because A: It is rumored to have the Lunar Tear, a rare flower that can cure illness. B: Yonah heard this rumor and set out to the Lost Shrine on her own, and C: You need to get your daughter back because the Lost Shrine is dangerous because it is home to Shades, the black monsters you just killed. So you, being the resident dadass, head to the Lost Shrine to kill the monsters that have put your daughter in danger.
And once in the Shrine, the Shades appear like they would any other enemy in any other game. Like an enemy in a Zelda or a God of War or any turn based JRPG. They are in your way, so they must be taken care of. Only, much like the Shades outside of the village, the Shades in the Shrine are not hostile to you. They don’t attack. But you don’t know this because you have been conditioned to kill things in your way to the goal. In the back of your mind you might be asking yourself “How did a sickly ten year old get to the top of this place?” and you dismiss it because “It’s a videogame” but the answer is right in front of you. It’s because the Shades don’t mean you any harm. So you wholesale slaughter your way to the top of the Shrine to the obvious boss room. And when you get there, you see your daughter behind some kind of barrier protected by two stone guardians. Obvious boss fight. But when you enter the room, nothing attacks you. The obvious boss just stands there, doing nothing. Shades pop out, but they are not hostile, they are just there.
Nothing happens until you, the player, cause it to happen by picking up the magic talking book being guarded by the boss. As soon as you touch the book, Grimoire Weiss, you gain a magical power and suddenly the Shades and the boss become hostile. Weiss, the talking tome, is an arrogant artifact who boasts about his infinite power and ability, but all he can do is fire some puny blasts. At first glance it is because “It’s a video game”, it’s like Samus losing her powers at the start of every Metroid. It is the ‘hook’ to get you on a quest. You need to get Weiss’ power back by travelling the world and when he gains his power back he can save Yonah. That’s the hook. But what really happens is that it is your fault. It is Nier’s fault because to get to Weiss, he hits it several times with his sword. The book. He hits it with his sword until it pops to life. You, the player, have given the tome a form of amnesia. The entire journey is because you, as a player in an action game, have learned to solve problems with force. This is reinforced when, upon gaining the magical abilities, it is worded as remembering. Weiss remembers how to use magic. Throughout the game, Weiss constantly brings up things in the past but admits that his memory is hazy.
After getting Weiss/saving Yonah/killing the boss, you return to Popola and her twin sister, Devola, and the two of them tell you this ancient legend about a world saving book, Grimoire Weiss, and an evil book, Grimoire Noir, and how Weiss is destined to defeat Noir and save the dying world. But to do that he needs the Sacred Verses, and ta-dah, you have your quest. Why do the twins know this ancient legend but no one else does? Doesn’t matter, you have your quest, go do it. Upon finishing the first dungeon, you open up sidequests, a staple in any JRPG. The sidequests are given to you by random citizens in the various towns of Nier, or by talking to Devola. The sidequests, as mentioned earlier, are often annoying and time consuming and aren’t always worth it in the long run since you aren’t always given a decent reward. But early on you learn that by doing sidequests, you get both a glimpse of the way of the world and insight into the characters you roll around with. The characters banter about the quests and in turn they develop something called a personality. A talking book feels human over the course of these talks. Some of the banter even becomes the characters discussing the general futility of these quests, but as a player you want to do them, maybe not all of them, but a percentage of them because it both extends the length and because you know from past experience that doing optional things often lead to great rewards or game-breaking armaments.
The joke is that when you realize this is not the case in Nier, you have been sidequesting for hours.
On your quest to get the Sealed Verses you both explore the remaining civilizations in the world and meet your ‘party members’. Kainé is the first and at first she seems like a generic JRPG female character: scantily clad and fanservicey and obvious love interest. But in a twist, not only does she have a LEGITIMATE reason for wearing so little, she's hardly a love interest and is far more capable at killing things than Nier. Also she's a hermaphrodite or something. You also meet Emil, a boy forced to wear a blindfold because his eyes turn things to stone. Emil lives alone in a monochrome manor and he is just thrilled to finally have friends. Emil is what happens when you take the 'power of friendship' cliche to extremes.
Your quest takes you to various locales that seem a bit unusual given the world you are in (such as a desert kingdom, a forest village, and a mountain of scrap metal, all within walking distance of your quiet village and a coastal town) and each one contains allusions and parodies of other video game genres. One is a giant Zelda reference, complete with parody Zelda fanfare and ‘mute’ hero. One contains a top down shooter out of something like Gradius. Still one is a fucking text adventure including a boss that you have to fight using text. (Eat your heart out, Saint's Row The Third) It may seem like these things make for a disjointed and jarring experience, but that’s the point. It is pointing out the eccentricities of video games as a whole by forcing you to go through these hoops to get your prize. Why does the desert dungeon have a gimmick banning you from using certain abilities? Because games do that and it is stupid. Nier understands this and is openly mocking it.
Upon collecting the plot macguffin, the game takes a huge swerve. You know how in many JRPGs, the hero’s hometown gets utterly fucked? That happens in Nier. Upon finishing your quest to get Weiss’ power back, you return to your village and then a massive Shade attacks. He starts wrecking the place up as he tears ass towards the village library, where the entire town – Yonah included, is holding up. The way the game has been built up/written, the entire scene is one of desperation. You keep attacking the boss and draining its life, but it keeps getting up and fighting. It is like those battles that you can’t win but you waste the time trying to anyway, only on a much larger scale because the stakes are so high. This monster is going after the place where your daughter is. You don’t want that to happen. But as the situation gets more and more desperate, you finally succeed in sealing the beast inside the library basement.. The day is saved, the village is saved, Yonah is saved.
And then Nier gets stabbed by a man-shaped Shade and his magic talking book.
The man Shade, known as the Shadowlord, rises from the blood of the giant monster while the book, Grimoire Noir, begins to taunt Weiss and telling him that Weiss was made to serve the Shadowlord and that he was a traitor. All the while Kaine, who is sealing the door housing the giant monster, and Emil who was in the corner afraid, are yelling at Weiss about THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP. Weiss snaps out of it, thanks to friendship, and you fight Noir. Noir then stabs you AGAIN; the Shadowlord kidnaps Yonah and flies away. Things have gone horribly wrong. And to make matters worse, Kaine can no longer hold the door shut. The solution? Emil has to petrify her and the door. In a move straight out of MGS3, you, the player, have to pull the trigger. You are given an option to not go through with it because, you know, friendship. But try as you might, you have to do it. You have to essentially kill your friend. Yonah is gone. Kaine is petrified. Nier is wounded. The Shadowlord, leader of the Shades, is out in the world.
And then the game skips ahead five years.
For five years Nier has made no progress in finding his daughter. On the plus side, Emil has discovered a way to cure petrification. He succeeds in freeing Kaine and the party is back together again. And then suddenly Popola and Devola just so happen to discover that the Shadowlord’s castle is tied to the Lost Shrine. As a player no doubt you are thinking “Seems a bit weird for the village leaders to suddenly learn this after five years.” But you brush it aside because “It’s a video game” and thus you return to the Shrine and discover one part of a key. A key in five pieces. Returning to Popola, she just so happens to be able to translate the text on the key and tells you, in very vague terms, how to finish the key. Again you have your hook, your driving force. The keys are tied to the various locations previously visited. One in particular brings you to Kaine’s home village, a village full of xenophobic shut ins who hate outsiders. This village turns out to be full of Shades and the entire village turns into a giant abomination to stop you. This, in turn, leads to Emil nuking the town. One key has you fighting a robot and the Shade that controls it.
Upon gathering all the keys, you go back to Popola and Devola who seem sad to see you go. But go you must. So you and your party go to the Shadowlord’s Castle via an elevator in the back of the Lost Shrine. Now when you think ‘Shadowlord’s Castle’ you, as a player, obviously think some giant evil tower or something because it is the home of the evil guy ruling over the evil Shades. It isn’t. It is a fairly modern looking office building it what appear to be the ruins of Tokyo. There is working electricity and everything. Upon reaching the castle, you are stopped by Devola and Popola. The same people who have been guiding your entire quest have been working with the Shadowlord the whole time. Nier is then forced to fight the twins, his oldest and most reliable friends. They then retreat, taunting you to go further into the Castle. Which you do, stumbling upon a ballroom where ghostly images of humans are dancing as you continue. The ghosts then turn into Shades, you end up killing the Shades and their smaller reinforcements, and then they turn into a giant boss. You deal with it and continue your ascent until again you meet the twins who then drop the plot bomb on you.
You, Nier, are a Replicant. A few years after the ending of Drakengard, the world went to shit thanks to White Chloronation Syndrome, a sickness that turned people into salt, killing them. This is what happened after you killed the elder god in Drakengard. It caused a disease in our world. WCS eventually became a worldwide epidemic after America, in an ironic twist, nuked Japan on August 6, thinking it would get rid of the virus. It instead spread it throughout the world. In response, Project Gestalt was born. Human souls, called Gestalts, would be seperated from their bodies and clones of the bodies, known as Replicants, would be made. Replicants would be soulless husks immune to WCS. Gestalts would be put into ‘sleep mode’ while the Replicants, under supervision of Androids, would go around cleansing the world of WCS and sending it back to Drakengard’s world through bullshit magic. Things, of course, went wrong. Replicants began to develop sapience and sentience. They, essentially, became people. Meanwhile Gestalts were constantly going into relapse. Relapsed Gestalts were mindless creatures that became hostile. You knew them as Shades.
For the entire game, Nier was killing what remained of the human race.
The point of Replicants were to be vessels or ‘shells’ for the Gestalts once the world had become cleansed of WCS. To that end, they needed an ‘Original Gestalt’ to keep the Gestalts in line via magic. Grimoire Noir was created to find the Original Gestalt. He was found in 2049 inside a rundown supermarket. Grimoire Noir contained the files to restart humanity. Grimoire Weiss contained the .exe to activate Noir’s program. The Shadowlord is Nier’s soul from 2049. The Shadowlord had spent 1300 years trying to keep his daughter’s soul alive and after such a long period of nothing happening, he decided to take action by kidnapping Yonah’s body. Devola and Popola were the Androids tasked with keeping the Replicants in line. Only they fucked up because Replicant Nier bashed Grimoire Weiss so hard that he forgot his programming. And in the process of the journey, Weiss chose friendship over purpose.
And the final boss of the game is Nier killing his own soul. He gets his daughter back, yes, but at the cost of killing his own soul. What the game doesn’t tell you is that by killing both Noir and Gestalt Nier, there is no way for humanity to become whole again. The Gestalts/Shades will all go into relapse and the Replicants will all get the Black Scrawl (which is caused by their corresponding Gestalt going feral/relapsing) and die.
You, the hero, end up causing the destruction of the entire world because you thought you were doing the right thing. In the most ironic twist, by preventing Weiss from going with Noir via the power of friendship, you caused the destruction of the world. The power of friendship, one of the oldest clichés of the genre, was the cause of the end of the world. Good job, hero.
But the game doesn’t end there. Oh no. You then start a new game plus and more scenes are added. Scenes involving Shades. That Shade that controlled a robot? As it turned out, the Shade’s mother had been killed and the robot was its friend. As you kill the robot, the Shade is screaming at you to stop hurting its friend. Remember the village I mentioned? The one with the xenophobic people? Turns out they were a village of Replicants and Gestalts living together in harmony and as you kill all of them on your quest to find the key, they are begging for you to spare them. And then Emil nukes the entire city. They had done nothing wrong. You know the dancing Shades in the Shadowlord's Castle? And the little mini Shades that back them up? Those are humans just minding their own business until Shadowlord saves the world. The small Shades? Those are their BABIES. Nier, in essence, kicks down the door to an apartment/orphanage and kills everyone inside.
Nier is a game where the point is illustrating how much of an asshole you are. Because you HAVE to be one for the game to continue.
The final nail in the coffin comes from when you get the final ending. Much like Drakengard before it, to get the final ending you have to collect every single weapon in the game. To that end, you have to do those sidequests. You gather all the weapons because you want to see the ending to the story. And you get all the way to the end again, you kill your soul and the real final boss reveals itself.
Specifically the Shade form of Kainé.
The game forces you to fight and kill your only living friend to beat it. After beating Kainé, you are given the choice to save Kainé’s life at the cost of your own. How does this work, you ask? The game asks you to sacrifice all that you are. Your whole identity. Everything. The world will not remember you. Your daughter will never have any memory of you. Kainé will never know you existed. To save your friend, you have to give up everything. And in one final masterstroke that truly lets you know what Cavia thinks of you…
…to go through with the ending the game erases everything you did. Everything.
The menu opens. The map is wiped out. Your item screen is shown. All your items are gone. All your status buffing words get erased. The keys you acquired disappear. The weapons you worked so hard to get? The sidequests you did because you felt compelled to do them? Gone. Forever. You, as the player, spent all the time doing these quests and getting these weapons and the game then erases them in front of your eyes, fully letting you know how pointless everything you did was. And then, the final fuck you is delivered.
The game erases all of your saves.
All the hours you spent. Gone in an instant. When the game says you will be erased, it means it. There is no real closure. No grand fanfare. By killing your soul, you doomed the world. Your daughter will die. Kainé will die. The entire world will die because you went around killing every last bastion of humanity in the world because you were told to. And then the game erased your saves. It is one final “Fuck You” from the masters of “Fuck You” in video games. Oh, you want to play again? Too bad, start all over again.
Whereas Drakengard ended with the death of the characters, Nier ends with the death of the entire world and the death of the player. In one grand motion they managed to invalidate every accomplishment you did in their game. It is their way of telling you how pointless it is to gather useless items and accomplish useless things because in the end you won’t be remembered for it. No one will care. No one.
And that is why I miss Cavia. No other studio out there would make a game where at the end of it it erases your data and prevents you from going back. Upon starting a new game, you are not allowed to name your character the same name. Cavia made a sequel to a game with the biggest '"fuck you" ending in video games and they ended said sequel with a massive middle finger to the entire player base. On top of spending the entirety of subsequent playthroughs informing the player just how much damage you did by following basic gameplay elements and instincts gained from playing other video games. Replicant Nier had good intentions for the entire quest. But you know what they say about the path to hell.
Cavia hates you. Cavia hates children. Cavia hates happiness. Cavia hates everything. The only thing Cavia loves is tormenting the player. And I will forever miss them for it.
God bless you, Cavia. Shine on, you crazy bastards. And if Drakengard 3 doesn't end with some sort of "Fuck You for playing this game" well then it'll be a worse game because of it.