If people give up on Nier in its first ten minutes, the developers really only have themselves to blame. It begins as a hack-n-slash refresher, insisting upon wave after wave of enemies until the idea of mashing an attack button is made clear again to those who forgot. Swinging away with a metal pipe, the story of a father (named by the player) and his devotion to protect his daughter begins — but really, as the waves of enemies continue to numb the mind, it becomes hard to care. He’s fighting these creatures called Shades, — ethereal messes of shifting black and gold matter – and hitting them roughly amounts to the satisfaction of slapping pillows with a wet sock. But the game hasn’t been turned off yet, somehow. Maybe it’s the surprisingly magnificent battle theme thumping in the background that makes it all bearable, buying just enough time for the game to arouse some curiosity.
Fast forwarding 1300 years into the future, and leaving the snowy post-apocalyptic ruins of a modern city, the game restarts in the calm grasslands of a feudal age looking village. Stranger still, is that the father and daughter remain as they were, as if the same characters but in a different book. It’s peaceful here, but the last remnants of civilization are threatened by the same Shades, and a life snatching disease known as the Black Scrawl inflicts the father’s daughter, Yonah. There’s not much opportunity to find work and support Yonah in these end times, but the game manages to break into a series of coarse fetch quests from here. Socking sheep for their wool and meat, digging up shimmering objects in the dirt, delivering letters, and a godforsaken fishing minigame – the mediocrity apparently continues. Yet, there’s that music again — and oh is it lovely.
This song is softer, and the sleepy spell it drapes over the village will become more familiar each time Yonah’s father passes through. The vocals – a fictional tongue that seems to borrow from the very pretty phonetics of French and Japanese – aren’t translatable but cover a great range of emotion in even the game’s first hour. The lullaby of the illusory village changes into an uplifting drum of encouragement when stepping onto to the surrounding plains, but it’s almost unfitting. With music so grand and tasks so mundane, environments so barren, and a jumping animation that looks so incredibly stupid — it’s hard not to feel the beautiful voice deserved a different game.
But Nier soon honors the songstress’s talent in the form of a book by the title of Grimoire Weiss. He’s a magical tome with a voice, and naturally has a vocabulary as rich as a talking novel should. A nagging, English flavored sarcasm convinces the hesitant father to join forces with Weiss, and in their alliance the book’s powers are now available for abuse, a la carte. The combat then suddenly becomes almost silly, and oddly amusing as Yonah’s father can now spit red bolts of energy from the pages of Weiss , and at a semi-automatic pace — a run and gun carnival as the Shades fall in swaths. The immediately ensuing boss fight, however, may find more effective use of the Dark Lance spell – slowing time to carefully line up spikes and jettison them into a weak spot.
Everything is a bit more tantalizing now, a bit darker, and certainly more exciting. The large armored Shade goes down in a fight laced with gratifyingly violent movie intermissions, and ending with a brutal take down from the man and his partner’s demonic power. Grimoire Weiss is clearly no joke, and with his name bearing a connection to an old legend, Yonah’s father is convinced he is the key to curing his daughter’s illness.
Although first at odds with the father’s caveman like features, and equally primitive one track mind and staunch simplicity, Weiss finds refuge in the newfound partnership – perhaps mostly enjoying the sound of his own voice. The mocking banter between the two suggest a rivalry, but it’s most obviously a budding friendship, carrying itself strongly as the two set out to harness more spells from bigger, badder Shades.
Equipped with a blade instead of a blunt object, the Shades begin to gush blood upon striking them. It’s a sort of guilty pleasure considering how primitive the combo mashing and spells feel, but trucking through a group of Shades with a giant sword and a summoned whirlwind of spikes proves to be a slaughter of delightful proportions. After enough blood spattering and a bit of luck, the Shades may drop Words, or stat enhancements that can be attached to weapons and spells. Opening Weiss cleverly introduces the game’s menu and customization interface where this is handled; although the game’s difficulty never really demands for it. And of the eight spells to harness throughout the game, most are fairly gimmicky or just inefficient ways of achieving the same results.
But right there, right when the dryness is becoming noticeable, the game shape shifts. Stepping into the next room of a dungeon will throw the camera upwards into a top down perspective, and blasting away at enemies suddenly looks reminiscent to playing Space Invaders. Approach a series of scaffoldings and now it’s a two dimensional side-scroller. Step through the gates of a haunted mansion and Nier becomes the fixed point camera experience of the older Resident Evil games. Individually, these segments aren’t much to marvel at, but they throw the mind off guard, stimulating it for more surprises to come.
Those surprises are new perspectives, too, but not camera angles. At one point, the screen fades to darkness, and white text forms upon it to create a light game of language, riddles, and mild text adventures. Nier essentially shuts itself off for a respectable span of time and tells the player to read a book, and it’s wonderful. The writing, the imagery, the humor – it’s a segment that really solidifies the hilarious relationship between Weiss and the father. Another dungeon sets the repetitive combat aside as well, turning into a fun series of chambers – each with traps, and each with rules. Dodge an entire ocean of moving projectiles like some kind of a shoot’em up game — but no jumping!
Ditching that combat is often important, as other locales — like a junk heap full of almost infinitely respawning security robots – suffer greatly from stale but effective tactics , showcasing a game that lacked resources in its development. But Nier manages to throw that monotony to the side enough to stay unpredictable, and has characters to match these charming irregularities. One, in particular, stealing the spotlight from the main protagonist.
To call her the actual centerpiece may be too inaccurate, but everything Nier stands for coalesces within the wild personality of a woman named Kaine. Her face is strikingly innocent, but all that leaves her mouth is a fascinating assemblage of profanity. Her slender figure is provocatively dressed in revealing lingerie, yet she’s a masculine fighter fueled by hatred. And though she looks human, a Shade resides inside her. Hardly the main character in a traditional sense, Kaine is curiously more forefront to the game’s story than the central father daughter relationship itself, and somehow the most exciting element in Nier. She demands strong first impressions from the player, but turns all of those assumptions upside down as she develops.
And no, it’s not through some cheesy hook that reveals the soft side of a hardened character; Kaine is delicately constructed in every facet a game could offer. From the aching theme song that follows her, to the way she injects personality into the game’s boss encounters, and to the flavorful volleys of insults she has with the satirical Weiss. Even the haunting mountain village she grew up in is a visually arresting chasm in the game’s otherwise drab collection of locales. She’s an engrossing character with a back story that elegantly addresses topics of sexual identity and isolation, weaving a wonderful personality and in sophisticated fashion. Maybe some will find that her profane language and tough persona sound too forced, but in a tragically beautiful way, it’s because she is forcing it.
In actual terms of overacting, the fourth member to Nier’s freak show is where fingers should be pointed. He’s a young boy named Emil, blindfolded to prevent his cursed eyes from turning people to stone, though tape over the mouth would have been more appreciated. A darkly themed game, Nier’s narrative certainly makes interesting use of such a character, but his representation of a pure hearted child is of the usual and incredibly annoying sort. Desperate for friendship, his sappy whining legitimately damages some otherwise great scenes. If he exists to bait dialogue from the other and more refined characters, however, then he is perhaps tolerable, and only then.
Together, the cast almost makes the hours of side quests involving fetching items, grinding, and garden growing seem worthwhile – almost. Nier fortunately enjoys the comfort of these embarrassments being optional, but what’s certainly mandatory is unlocking the game’s multitude of endings. They have much more to say than the first ending, which while wholesome, is admittedly lacking compared to the others. Asking players to replay the game’s final 5 hours initially seems rather archaic, but upon accepting the challenge, Nier changes shape once again.
Just as the camera so often shifts, how the very way the game is played so often shifts, Nier now shifts perspective on its characters, its world, and its entire narrative. Its true finale is a darkly poetic angle on humanity, wiping the player’s looking glass clean and addressing the misconceptions, judgments, and ignorance of before. Leaving Nier fully completed means leaving with a more matured outlook on game design, and perhaps on more personal musings as well. While rotating the flawed shell Nier encased itself in won’t make its problems disappear; it can provide many angles that look past them, putting a game worth playing steadily into view.
Love it or Hate it: Warning