Nier is a JRPG developed by Cavia and published by Square-Enix. With the new Nier title just announced at Sony's E3 representation, it's no surprise that I was tasked with reviewing the original title. Originally a game that was seemingly unremarkable, it gained a cult following among those looking for something new and dark, going on to join the likes of Dark Souls, Spec Ops: The Line, Prey, Shadow of the Colossus and many others. While the gameplay wasn't really anything special, the story is what really drew players to the world of Nier and his daughter, Yonah. Subsequent play-throughs are required to get the whole story and those going for the true ending should keep a spare endgame save on a completely separate flash drive before attempting the final ending. You'll thank me later.
Nier has a deep and original story
Nier's story begins in present day Tokyo. A cataclysm is ravaging the city, beasts are everywhere. Nier and his daughter hide out in an abandoned food market. Nier's not eaten in days, but pretends to be strong for his daughter, Yonah. The creatures are at the door, and Nier turns to the book that he clutches in his hands. It offers him power and he takes it, using its help to vanquish the creatures before passing out.
Nier and his daughter now live in a quaint little village, doing little odd jobs for people. His daughter is infected with a terrible plague called "The Black Scrawl". Nier searches for a way to try and cure his daughter, taking on any job he can to help support and look after Yonah. With the help of his friends Devola and Popola, he stumbles across something that he thinks may be the key to Yonah's salvation; a black book.
The story of Nier from the very get go is quite bleak. Much of mankind is gone, with only a few remnants left. Those that survived the cataclysm are eking out an existence, constantly protecting themselves from beasts called shades and other hazards. Those afflicted with the black scrawl are terminal. No-one knows where the disease came from or how to cure it.
Character writing is that story's strength
The characters you encounter in Nier are surprisingly positive, considering the circumstances. It's clear from the get go that Nier himself isnt your average hero. Being a father of forty, his perspective is uncommon in games. He can still take down enemies like a boss, but his motivations aren't about saving the world. He cares about one thing only; his daughter. This is evident throughout the game, putting Yonah before even his own health or those he cares about.
The characters in the game are all very unique, and their individual stories are quite tragic and beautiful. Most of Nier as a whole could be described as tragic and beautiful, forcing the player to look at things from new perspectives other than the standard "this is the way it is because vidya gaem". Nier coaxes one to look at themselves as a person, rather than the characters themselves, and it is this that gives the story its strength.
Nier's gameplay is fairly standard and repetitive
The gameplay of Nier is pretty standard role-playing fare. It is an action role-playing game, with combo attacks, dodge moves, and various dufferent abilities. Throughout the game Nier will level up and acquire new skills that opens the game up further. Nier has an experience bar, and levels up. As he levels up, Weiss will recall new spells that Nier then has access to. Each spell uses up magic and will cease to function if Nier doesn't have enough in reserve.
It is through Weiss that the game alters a bit from a standard action rpg, spanning several game genres. The main spell that you will use is dark blast. Dark blast is a repeating magical projectile that through the use of camera angles and boss fights turns the game into somewhat of a bullet hell shoot em up. Just like the bullet hell concept occasionally present in Nier, the game often spans into other genres, occasionally borrowing from games like Ocarina Of Time, Zork, Ikaruga to break up the monotony of hacking and slashing.
With the use of Weiss, Nier can also imbue his spells, weapons and evasion skills with various bonuses like extra experience, more money, item find, extra damage, more efficient magic and all sorts of status effects like sleep or poison. These are done through the use of words. Words will usually be found after killing a certain optional boss, random enemies or just farming shades as aggressively as one can. You never know where you'll find some words to imbue with, and its worth searching everywhere.
Weapons can be purchased and upgraded, and like the spiritual predecessor Drakengard, Nier has several different weapon types to choose from, with different styles and move-sets. Some are heavy, some are light and some are moderate. The interesting thing about the weapons is they provide even more story to the world of Nier. That being said it also makes them pivotal to the plot which wouldn't be an issue if it wasn't for the fact they're all required to get the real ending. Why's that a problem? You must do the menial boring side-quests to get certain weapons.
The bosses much like the rest of the game, jump between genres and keep things quite fresh. Many are homages to various other games to the point many might consider them direct rip-offs, but the world of Nier actually has a sardonic sense of humour that is decidedly self aware. The "homages" are intentional and easily identifiable. Nier wants players to be fully aware that they are playing a game and just going through the motions of what's expected, before turning them on their head.
The art design is strong, but the palette is bland and fidelity not great
Visually Nier is quite impressive. While the graphics aren't anything that special, even for that era, the artistic design was fantastic. The animations, and the art are all high quality, boasting a far more real and gritty feeling to them than traditional Japanese role-playing titles. Choosing to forego the cartoon-like anime style that is so prevalent in Square Enix's other titles, Cavia's last developed world felt far more real than any of those. A world where practically anything can happen and even main characters aren't invincible.
While many may be turned off of Nier for it's somewhat lacklustre graphics, the art direction more than makes up for it. The shades and various bosses are quite menacing, with spiral attacks; runic symbols embedded in each spell and game mechanic, the visuals are fast, flashy, and quite a sight to behold. Often-times you'll find yourself dodging and weaving boss attacks, just to see what they'll do next. While the boss attacks may be somewhat similar in their execution, the spiral patterns and different animation designs are just a delight.
The characters are dressed oddly and the world really gives off a dark, moody and sombre feel that works well with the overall story and of course the soundtrack. Nothing in the world is easily accessible, surrounded by large, sweeping plains and barren landscapes to trek across before reaching each goal and set-piece. While the set-pieces aren't all that varied, the differences are just enough to keep one engaged in the world, and discovering the back-story definitely adds to that effect.
Sound design and voice acting is pretty stellar
The sound design further adds to the desolate themes contained within Nier. The soundtrack is one of the most memorable aspects of Nier, and widely regarded as one of the best video-game soundtracks in existence. Much of the music echoes the dark and sombre tones of the dialogue and the bleakness of the world. There are small smatterings of hope within the music, occasionally uplifting one momentarily but it is short lived. The music always suits the scenes and emotions conveyed, complimenting the dialogue and scenery.
The voice acting is of high quality. Laura Bailey is as always fantastic, but she doesn't steal the show. The other characters are all likable in their way and are a strength to telling the story. All emotions are well conveyed through their acting, making them believable through their hardships and pain. Hearing Kaine go off on some diatribe at Weiss or another supporting cast member with all sorts of profanities and vigor is always a treat, and will make one chuckle. Sadly, the most boring and dull character himself is Nier, who remains with a one-tracked mind no matter his surroundings and experiences.