If you could accuse Final Fantasy XIII of being a tad anorexic in the gameplay department at times (or, most of the time even), Square Enix-published action-RPG Nier is almost a counterpoint; a game dense with ideas – many of these conflicting and often eccentric – while lacking in presentational oomph in almost direct proportion to the gameplay within. It’s a shame too – Nier has stacks of potential, but it never manages to pull its ambitions together as well as it should.
The titular Nier Gestalt is a classic renegade hero with a heart of gold. Grizzled and world-worn, he’s out to find a cure for his daughter, Yonah, who is afflicted by the ‘Black Scrawl’ – a mysterious spiritual disease that’s sweeping across Nier’s lands and killing its people.
The set-up immediately makes it clear that whatever this Black Scrawl business is, it needs sorting out – and as fortune would have it, you’re soon joined by a magical talking book – the ‘Grimoire Weiss’, voiced by a man with the same plummy airs as actor Jeremy Irons. Eventually, the G-string and nightgown-clad KainÃ© crops up and your party is formed, such as it is.
However, this isn’t a typical role playing game – and from the very outset, you’ll notice the gameplay is fractured into several very separate and I’d argue somewhat incompatible elements. For staters, the main physical combat mechanic revolves around combo sword swings, blocking and executions, mapped to just one button. The upshot of this lies in the simplicity – a Zelda-like system that doesn’t offer the depth of something like Bayonetta or God of War, but rather a means to an end.
Structurally, the game’s setting sees Nier operating out of his hub village and wandering far afield in his quest. The landscapes are for the most part fairly bland; open fields, the occasional tree and a blind corner that might take you into a bone-dry desert, a rocky canyon or similar. The game’s design ethic certainly improves later in the game, however, as you begin to encounter some of the worlds’ quirkier inhabitants and cities. In particular, the Greek-inspired seaside township has a lovely organic feel to it that is lacking elsewhere.
The character designs are equally hit-and-miss; some, such as the skeletal ‘Number 7′ character, who you encounter deep into the adventure, harkens back to Devil May Cry’s neo-gothic style, but Nier himself is unappealing and forgettable as a lead character. Enemies too suffer from cohesive design ethic; Shades – the insidious and wispy foes of varying size and threat level – are a curious mess – not iconic or defined, but weird and intangible. The boss encounters are a little more interesting, at least offering scale and scope, but again don’t strike us with originality. Those fans of Zelda: Ocarina of Time will also pick a couple of fairly shameless boss design lifts too.
If Nier himself seems out of place in his own game, perhaps Square Enix have the answer – seeing as the Japanese release of the game on PS3 (titled Nier Replicant) originally had a much younger character in the lead role, and he was out to save his sister rather than his daughter. The weird chop-job is occasionally noticeable through the stilted dialogue and cliched twists.
Eccentric design choices abound, paying homage to everything from the above-mentioned games to more outlandish 80s-era action side-scrollers like Contra and even pixel-precise bullet-wave arcade shooters, where you’re forced to memorize enemy patterns and wave after wave of incoming fire. If it sounds strange, that’s because it is. Nier’s biggest strength – variety – is also its flaw.
Shades. You’ll be fighting a lot of these guys.
During early dungeons, progress is quite linear. The perspective jumps to an over-head angle – again, a throwback or nod to Zelda as much as anything – and suddenly the entire tone of the game shifts from immersive and epic to intimate, retro and resolutely old-fashioned. So too with the infrequent but notable side-scrolling challenges, where the camera shifts side-on and the gameplay takes yet another turn.
The real beef here is that none of these dalliances with different genres are executed particularly well. They work – but it lacks the cohesion that made a game like Bayonetta feel so tight and outstanding as a result. The puzzles (about as complex as crate shifting) don’t cut the mustard these days, either.
The combat system is moderately deep; the standard hack-and-slash rules apply – mash square (on PS3) to slice away or triangle to ram your enemy. R2 is your dodge button – an essential manoeuvre to master early in the game, since most enemies tend to get in your face and it’s pretty easy to become overwhelmed. The D-pad toggles between weapons and abilities on-the-fly, also saving you from needing to pause the game and dig through the menus to upgrade to new weapons and spells. Handy. Conversely, if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of your items, the backstory and training, all of these options are at your disposal.
The standard combat fare is accentuated by a magic system that essentially revolves around projectile-based spears, rapid-fire orbs and similar attacks summoned by Grimoire Weiss. In practice, after beginning to increase the potency of your magical spells with the ‘words’ system (basically, you attach words to weapons and spells in order to increase their damage percentages), it’s far too easy to turn the whole game into one big shooting gallery. To address this, Nier begins to encounter magic-resistant enemies – so it’s critical to construct and collect new swords as you progress.
The best moments in Nier actually draw from the top-down shooting tropes of games like Do-Don-Pachi, where you’re dealing with dozens of foes swarming around you, gorgeous strings and helixes of bullets hurtling their way across the screen. At times like this, you’re actually compelled to ditch the bland hack-and-slash action for some careful dodging, jumping and magical return-fire.
Sub-quests add yet another dimension to the gameplay. If you want to, you can scout dozens of fetch-quests and kill-quests along the way, or stand by a lakeside and do a spot of fishing. The backbone of item collection, crafting and magical enhancements furthers the depth.
One major bone to pick, though, rests with the hours worth of backtracking and repeated locations. We were a little concerned with this during our preview of the game, but there’s a lot of legwork to and fro; if you have a serious aversion to sprinting for minutes at a time between villages and dungeons, just to find you have to sprint all the way back again – and then again, be forewarned.
Flat textures and a bland field that requires constant trekking don’t help Nier in the presentational stakes.
For title this far into the lifespans of the PS3 and Xbox 360, Nier is not an attractive game. That’s not to say it’s consistently ugly, either – rather, the scattered dungeons are generally interesting – each with a neat visual hook at the heart, like a giant circular arena suspended over a void, or a massive branching tree supporting a crumbling walkway. However, the game is texturally very flat and the animation seems stiff and unconvincing. Nier runs like he has shin splints and the non-player characters lack detail and build quality.
However, the soundtrack is excellent – and this is yet another point where Nier begins to pull itself back from the brink. The score, composed by Keiichi Okabe (who worked on Tekken 6 of all games) is actually one of the more memorable and interesting in recent memory. Careful layering of the music allows the themes to fade in and out as you enter dungeons or walk past a girl playing guitar. The cross-fade effect is nothing new, but it’s well integrated here, and the gorgeous choral chanting and strings-based melodies are lovely.
The voice-acting is fairly solid too – perhaps playing a little too heavily into stereotypes, but that’s more the fault of the story that we mentioned earlier, which does tend towards cliched developments and bone-head one-liners. Still, gamers who prefer their RPGs with attitude and a foul mouth will curl their toes in delight from the blue dialogue.
And that’s Nier – a game with split-personality disorder, aiming to please everyone with elements drawn from a raft of sources, but in the process it never excels in any one area. While we do appreciate that a game like this tends to take more risks than a franchise hit like Final Fantasy, we can’t help but wonder if Nier might’ve been a better game if it had focussed in on delivering a few key elements exceptionally well, rather than spreading itself so thinly and watching the good ideas go to waste.