Developer: Cavia Inc.
When I was living as a student, there'd be times of severe frugality and one would be forced to improvise, especially when it came to food. Picture the scene: you've been subsisting on Campbell's Meatballs and week-old prawn crackers for too long and so, taking a peek into the back of the cupboard, you attempt to concoct something out of the ingredients found within. It is therefore with the utmost optimism that you find a pot, and in goes a tin of beans, some Lea and Perrins, a pepper, three fish fingers, a potato waffle and two Babybels. And then you pray that what you've just made is edible (it was....barely).
It seems that developers Cavia had a similar idea with Nier. This action-RPG is a far-cry from the stripped back approach of Final Fantasy XIII, a new JRPG that essentially does what every single JRPG has been trying to do for the last year or two: introduce one or two updates. Unfortunately, Cavia does this by taking the outline of an RPG and throwing absolutely every single game ingredient they can possibly get their hands on into the mix, hurling often unfinished gameplay features at this title and hoping that something will stick.
The very first thing that I noticed about this game, and I have to say that this may have had something to do with coming straight from FFXIII to dive into this, is that it looks pretty awful. There's none of that trademark Square razzle-and-dazzle to put the blinders on you before you get in, no featherlite hair wafting lazily in a blossom-drenched breeze. Instead we have some vaguely detailed character models mincing around landscapes more bland than a brown paper bag. You start off in 2049 in control of Nier, a 40 something muscular gent who vaguely resembles Fujin from Mortal Kombat 4 and talks like Kevin Sorbo in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, protecting his daughter Yonah from a bunch of ethereal, shadowy monsters known as Shades. Yonah, it would appear, is infected with an ancient disease known as the Black Scrawl, and her prospects aren't bright.
The opening all unfolds in and around a dilapidated shop, in which Nier and Yonah are taking shelter from a heavy snowstorm. Even with everything bathed in white, it's clear to see from the offset that the textures in this game are going to get progressively worse. Nier himself looks alright, but everyone else pretty much looks like they've been attacked with Ugly Stick. The opening jars in another sense too. Perhaps expecting a sedate opening with some lengthy gorgeous cutscene to set the tale, you're instead treated to fifteen minutes of single-button-mashing slaughter as you take down wave after wave of enemies, spraying gore everywhere over the pristine, featureless snow. This all sounds fine until you find yourself checking your watch and wondering just how long it's going to go on for.
I had to check the press release and cover art again just to make sure that this was an action-RPG from Square.
Anyway, after fiddling around with some Devil May Cry-lite action the story skips forward a millennium and you find yourself playing as a seeming doppelgänger with an identical daughter who just happens to be named Yonah too. Now you're in a classic, traditional RPG-esque little farmstead, with your own little plot of land and a bunch of NPCs to whom you can offer your services for a load of fetch and carry side-quests and hunting missions. Follow the story missions and you'll be led out from your little hub into the surrounding areas, the largest of which - the Northern Plains - bears a strong resemblance to a certain field in Hyrule.
The Zelda connection continues, seeping in throughout the game, whether in the initial 'dungeon' design that involves some block pushing, the combat marriage between simple sword moves and powerful magic, and one of the early bosses who manages to incorporate elements of both Bongo Bongo and King Dodongo from Ocarina of Time. The game will also switch around at times into a top down view, generally for no really pressing reason other than the developers felt like it, but it serves to pay a kind of homage to games such as A Link To The Past.
Sadly, neither the action nor the adventure side of things are really up to scratch. The combat system is like an incredibly simplified version Bayonetta's - mash one button for an attack, hit another to evade and roll, another to break an opponent's guard, and two for various magic attacks. Imagine if DMC got crossed with Dynasty Warriors and you get the sort of idea: solid, but hardly satisfying. The adventuring is the same too: the bosses are a lot of fun to fight, and the enemy design on them isn't bad at all, but the dungeon designs leave much to be desired and the puzzles are uninspired, aside from one or two levels towards the end of the game. Later on there's the odd bit of 2.5D platforming that gets thrown randomly into the mix too, but even this is fairly lacklustre and often frustrating.
It's a real shame because every part of me wants to absolutely love this game. The story, once it kicks into gear, is sweet and moving and will certainly surprise you. Even when things start slipping back into traditional JRPG high drama, the core story of a father searching for the cure to his daughter's illness remains resonant and sympathetic. The characters at the heart of this tale help to keep you locked in as well. Nier himself is a welcome change from the spiky-haired pretty boys who tend so often to be filling the dubious role of 'hero'. His travelling companions are even better, Kaine, for example, is a foul-mouthed hermaphrodite who prances around in what looks like half a mummy costume and knickers and isn't afraid to lambast anyone and everyone who comes her way. Even better is Grimoire Weiss, a floating magical book voiced by Liam O'Brien who, assuming the audible disdain and arrogant snarl of any of Alan Rickman's movie villains, is always on hand to dispense a withering aside. It is through these two characters, and their interactions and banter with Nier that the game's personality begins to really shine through and, much to our amusement, gaming convention, and often this particular game itself, is parodied and poked fun at.
Certain gameplay elements are actually handled really well. The RPG aspects of the game are scattered and often unseen, levelling up for example is barely noticeable, but some parts stand out such as the ability to upgrade your weapons (which occasionally requires a fair bit of grinding to attain the necessary parts) and augment their powers with magical words. The magic itself works pretty well too, and you can map out magical skills to the left and right bumpers, earning new powers each time you defeat a new boss. Some, like Dark Blast and Dark Lance are useful for ranged attacks, whilst other such as Dark Hand (like a less naked version of Bayonetta's spirit attacks) conjure a giant fist to smack large groups of enemies around.
Graphics don't make a game at all, but they can certainly make an average game seem significantly better than it is (cough...FFXIII...cough). There's no hope for that at all in Nier, but something else comes to the fore and it's a feature that, when combined with the alluring plot and interesting characters, helps make spending time with Nier actually pretty pleasant: the soundtrack. I gushed about the music in FFXIII, but this simply blows everything out of the water, supporting and augmenting the ethereal atmosphere to the game. Some of the music will literally bury itself into your brain, while other tracks are akin to a Radox bath for the ears.
Nier, then, is something of a mess. But it's an endearing mess, and there are some bright diamond's in amongst the ugliness here, with the game's playful spirit unafraid to laugh at itself from time to time. Rescued from sheer mediocrity by some inventive boss fights and exciting setpieces, not to mention some standout aural work and character design, Nier's is a story worth sticking with - although you'll have to forgive it a fair amount, and you might feel somewhat cheated by the multiple endings. The problem here is not that Cavia have thrown so many elements at this game, but that they all feel underdeveloped and packaged in a visual shell that seems far from finished. Unlike so many games that leave you feeling angry and disappointed at their shortcomings in the face of potential, this is a game that I really want to champion and recommend because I really like it, but unfortunately there are simply too many issues here for me to fulfil that desire.
- Engrossing, often moving, story supported by a sublime soundtrack
- Grimoire Weiss and his pithy put-downs
- Jack of all trades...
- ...yet Master of none
- Uninspired early dungeon and puzzle design
- Feels unfinished
The Short Version: Nier is a brave game, full of new ideas clearly designed to re-energise a genre. It boasts a stunning score, a twisting and turning tale that intrigues and entices, not to mention some cracking character work. But the confused, unfocused gameplay, not to mention presentation so poor that the game feels unfinished, hamper what could have been an absolute triumph of a game.