The first thing you will hear when you start up Nier is swearing. Its intro, as with many other aspects of the game, may be an attempt to be unique. It also foreshadows (or is reminiscent of) a significant plot event. Either way, it’s certainly unusual. Much of the game seems like the intro sequence: it may be an attempt to be unique. It’s harsh and initially somewhat intriguing but each time through it loses a little bit of its charm. In the end, Nier seems to be saying something, but aside from a decent story filled with the requisite twists and turns, it’s impossible to really tell what.
Nier is not entirely a love-it-or-hate-it game, despite all appearances. Most reviewers panned it, saying its quests are too repetitive, its graphics too bland, its gameplay too derivative of the genre(s) it pulls from. I’m inclined to say this is all intentional – all other aspects of the game are incredibly well-done. Its combat system is serviceable if not interesting, it has fantastic music and more than a few lengthy boss fights. I thoroughly enjoyed Nier, but I can completely understand if it isn’t another gamer’s cup of tea.
The majority of the game may be a plot-driven action RPG, but it draws from, or pays homage to, side-scrolling platformers, shoot-em-ups, text adventures, the Zelda series, and even Resident Evil. Much of it is just-sorta-okay, while the parts that are not merely action or exploration are more interesting. Boss battles in particular are the game’s strong suit; they often present a mix of bullet-hell, frantic slashing, and strategic use of magic.
The story is fairly simple, character-driven fare. Nier is desperately searching for a cure to his daughter’s terminal illness, and much of that search takes place in dangerous areas. Along the way he recruits a few other special companions who aid him in his adventures, which mostly turn up dead-ends otherwise. After a significant event halfway through the game, the focus of the plot shifts and the objective becomes more traditional.
It becomes clear at that halfway point that things are bigger than just Nier and his problems. The player, of course, wants to find out what the hell was up with the opening section, what caused the collapse of civilization, how a book can talk, and so on. Not all of these answers are given immediately (or at all). In fact, one of the likely reasons for Nier’s bad reviews is that the game does not give many answers on the first play-through. It takes one full play-through and two “new game plus” runs to experience the full plot. This translates to around 15 hours for your first trip, plus another four or five for subsequent NG+s. The plot is significantly deeper in the New Game Plus mode, expanding both upon the background of your companions and that of the world at large.
Even with all those extra play-throughs, Nier is still a pretty short game. There’s not much depth to the immediate story, or to much of the action. The boss battles make for the only real excitement, as much of the rest of the game is either puzzles or moving between brief, simple enemy encounters in the varied areas. Even the quests – of which the majority are fetch quests – are ultimately pointless, as with few exceptions the reward is gold and there are faster ways to get it. They serve only to add a little more depth to Nier’s world. Ordinarily, I’d be all for it, but the quests are so incredibly tedious that they are not worth the effort just to learn about a few slices of life in a ruined world.
So then – why pay $30 or so for a game that’s tedious to play and only has interesting plot in the last hour and post-game? That’s a good question. The one thing that Nier really has going for it, aside from its cryptic name and odd themes, is its music. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s the best music I’ve heard this generation, and among the best I’ve heard overall. The most fascinating part is that it is sung in imagined future languages, and therefore fits the 1000-years-from-now setting perfectly. The music is, in fact, the original reason I wanted to play the game (“what game could be good enough to fit this music?”), and so I’d recommend the soundtrack even if you don’t want to pick up the game. It’s available in some digital download stores.
Nier does nothing new with its combat system, puzzles, or little subsections of shooting game, text adventure, farm simulator and other oddities. The mechanics of the game feel totally disparate, as if they were pulled out of a hat. The plot is strong enough, but it is slow and at least one of the major twists is very predictable. Nier’s atmosphere – often lonely and depressing – is well-done and vaguely reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. I can forgive its annoyances – for that is all they are – because of its atmosphere and music. It may not be the greatest game in the world, but hey – what is? Don’t answer that, nobody agrees with you.