I’d like to share a secret with you. This secret is a full game with great production value, a variety of gameplay modes in one scenario, and one of the most mind-bending plots I’ve seen in a game in years.
Why is it a secret? Between a noticeable lack of marketing from publisher Square Enix and general bashing from mainstream media who called it an inferior “God of War clone,” it’s hard for most prospective players to discern that what’s to be found in this game is actually worthwhile. The developers track record, too, left a lot to be desired. If you’re anything like me, this game remained secret because it wasn’t on your radar.
It was a strange combination of luck, duty and obsession that led me to discover this secret. And now, let me share it with you.
Words and Their Meaning
Nier is, among other things, a tale about words. Words and their meaning, their interpretation, and their power.
Nier is also a tale about a virus called “The Black Scrawl” that, sometime in the 21st century, wipes out humanity. The game proper then takes place 1300 years after the event. In this world, technology has been scaled back, and while humanity is on the brink of extinction and “The Black Scrawl” remains a threat, there are still people, and even some remnants of civilization.
And in these remnants of civilization, we discover more about words.
Nier is, finally, the name of our hero. Or rather, it can be. While the game does not prescribe a default name, the old, battle-hardened man that serves as the protagonist is supposedly named “Nier” according to a variety of preliminary sources. Note that this “Nier” appears as a young man, and brother to the girl “Yonah” (as opposed to old-man Nier being her father) in an alternate version of the game. In Japan, two versions were simultaneously published: Nier Gestalt and Nier Replicant. Outside of Japan, all versions, regardless of console, were Nier Gestalt (aka “old-man version”).
A Hefty WTF
The game’s tutorial, where we first pick up the oft-touted “God of War-like” combat lessons, takes place in the year 2030. Semi-opaque creatures, colored black and green, occasionally gather and assault an old man and a young girl near an abandoned building. The old man, Nier, uses an iron pipe to beat these nasty critters into submission. Yonah, a sick and hungry child, slouches in the corner hugging herself (as she’s wearing a burly coat). Though Nier was resisting it at first, eventually he acknowledges that he needs more power to protect his daughter. So he turns to a talking book: Grimoire Noir. This book gives him the power of magic. More combat tutorials ensue, and then Yonah touches the book after Nier specifically tells her not to.
Cut to 1300 years in the future, and the actual game begins.
Here we find two individuals that appear to be the same two we saw in the tutorial. Nier and Yonah live together in a small house, as part of a small village. In the introductory scenes of the game, we’re introduced to some key characters. Of note, the twin sisters Devola and Popola appear to be the town’s de facto leaders, though there is no government or structure. Popola is the town librarian and Devola helps run the local tavern. The two have been long-time friends of Nier and Yonah. When Nier is out, Yonah can rely on them for help (as revealed in the “letters” shown in loading screens).
The Nier in this timeline doesn’t seem to speak of 1300 years past; it is as though he is a different person. This suspicion is confirmed when you’re first sent to the Sealed Temple. You go because you believe Yonah has run away to this place in an attempt to find a cure for her disease. It is here that you meet Grimoire Weiss. This talking book sports a pompous British accent and the knowledge of millennia – though he’s having a hard time recalling it. The talking book becomes Nier’s permanent companion and source of magic power throughout the game. And despite some sharp rhetoric, it doesn’t take long for Nier and Weiss to become friends.
Nier’s primary quest, alongside protecting his village from the black and green creatures (now identified as “Shades”), is to find a cure for the Black Scrawl so he can save his daughter. The Black Scrawl’s symptoms include, among general fever and weakness, appearances of black rune-like markings running across the afflicted person’s body. Words, unknown words, seem to be the actual affliction. Can words (found inside a talking book) be the solution as well?
But wait a second… what exactly is going on again? How exactly does the game open with a doomsday scenario, only to cut to those same two characters living over 1000 years in the future in a vaguely European medieval village? Why are there talking books and why does no one question their existence?
If you’re thinking, “Well, they’ll answer these questions eventually,” you’re right. They do. But not before they insert a whole host of other questions and send you on a mind-bending adventure that beats both Drakengard titles by a long shot.
Speaking of which, those few faithful fans of the Drakengard titles will be happy to know that Nier is connected to the Drakengard timeline, thanks largely to the WTF-worthy “Ending E” of the first Drakengard. A red dragon is even mentioned, briefly, in one required quest. You should know who that is.
Before I can touch the details of the gameplay mechanics, the exploration, and the game’s aesthetics, I must quickly speak of the rest of the primary cast of characters.
There are two characters that join Nier as AI-controlled party members throughout the game. The first is Kainé. This young lady wears a strange mix of lingerie, rags and bandages, and she wields two serrated swords. Kainé acknowledges and uses the power of words, but not in the way Weiss does. While Weiss has both an extensive vocabulary and the power of “The Sealed Verses” to wield magic, Kainé’s words are powerful because they are harsh. The opening sequence (pre-title screen) demonstrates her usual verbalizations. In short, this woman curses like a meth-addicted sailor.
There’s a reason for Kainé’s less than rosey attitude toward life, and this is revealed in subsequent playthroughs. But in the meantime, gamers should be sure to enjoy the salty language. While some have accused Nier of taking itself too seriously, there are plenty of moments where I couldn’t help but laugh at the gloriously irreverent banter between Kainé, Weiss, and others.
The other party member in the game is a little boy named Emil. Emil’s back-story is too dark and too important to the plot to recount in this review, but I’ll tell you a bit about him. When you meet him, you find him living in a mansion made entirely out of stone. Emil has a Medusa-like curse going for him; anything he looks at, living or not, turns to stone. You don’t need to meet his gaze: as soon as he looks, BOOM, stone. That’s why he wears a blindfold, a primitive equivalent to the Cyclops (X-Men) solution. Emil is shy, sensitive, compassionate and reserved. When he is forced to spend time with Nier, Weiss and Kainé, you can imagine for yourself how things might play out. But they don’t always play out in the way you’d expect.
Now, though these aren’t full time party members, I should also make mention of the desert-dwelling Masked People. These people speak a foreign language (in the version we received, they are actually speaking Japanese), so no one is able to understand them, at least at first. One girl, named Fyra, uses sign language to communicate to you. This society has a large collection of rules, with no hierarchy to the rules (each are numbered, and there are no subsets to the numbers). All rules are to be obeyed. The subplot of this town and its characters was of special significance to me as a person. Here we see words, written as law, binding people, but not always “binding” – sometimes, “guiding.”
A final note about this theme of words before I move to the gameplay mechanics: Nier’s localization was done by a small group called 8-4. They also localized the Nintendo DS RPG “Glory of Heracles,” and they are batting 1000 as far as I’m concerned. The English script to Nier is top-notch. If my peers in the game-reviewing community are so adamant about comparing Nier to God of War, I will gladly join them, but instead of talking about gameplay, let’s compare script and voice work. Because here, in this case, I can say without hesitation that Nier’s script and VA beat the pants off of any God of War title. Kainé is infinitely more believable in her verbal badassery than Kratos ever will be.
A Little Bit Of…
Yes, for the most part, Nier plays like God of War, except Nier himself doesn’t wield some weird, awesome weaponry. His arsenal includes one-handed swords, two-handed swords, spears, and about 12 different magic spells. When in the usual “3D action adventure” mode, where you’re just killing hordes of Shades, robots, or animals, the game can feel a little clunky. This is especially true if you’re wielding a two-handed sword, which sacrifices speed for added attack power. Considering the speed at which most enemies come at you, I found that it was generally safer to always use the one-handed swords.
The basic command inputs are: jump, attack, “stun” attack, defend, evade, and use one of two different magic spells (technically you can drop “defend” and “evade” for a third and fourth spell, but that seems like a rather unwise idea). Certain button combinations can create different effects. For example, hold defend and hit the attack button and you’ll do a downward stab into the ground, effective for slaying enemies that are temporarily knocked down. Using the “stun” attack while in the air results in Nier doing a beastly ground pound (think of Mario’s butt-stomp in Mario 64). Then there are the magic spells: a giant fist, a series of targeted lances, a spinning “offensive” shield, a magic-absorbing wall, the standard magic bullets, and more.
Playing the “let’s compare to God of War” game: yes, the combat isn’t quite as fun as in God of War. There’s less to do with the weaponry. The best players will need to learn how to use the magic appropriately, and that can be challenging, especially because you have to reassign the buttons on your controller each time you want to switch out different types of magic. But the worst part is probably how easily the enemies can gang up on you and tear you apart. That’s why I recommend, if you play this game, you play it on “Easy” or “Normal” difficulty. Anything harder generally forces you to just fight from a range and use magic, then wait for your magic bar to refill, and use even more magic.
But even with this flaw in place, there’s still a whole lot of good in this game. All boss fights were excellent, in my opinion, and there are plenty of said fights to go around. And, more important than the boss fights, are the different modes of play, most of which come as seamless transitions. With a simple change of camera and controls, Nier switches on the fly from 3D action adventure to a side-scrolling platformer, then to a top-down shooter (a la Smash TV), then to a scrolling rail shooter, then to a Diablo (or more accurately, Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance) clone, and even to a text adventure (see the “Forest of Myth”). The modes of play change for different sections of particular dungeons, and while no one play type is spectacular, it’s the fact that the game is able to so quickly and seamlessly transition the player, without missing a beat, really appeals to me. The game, in my opinion, moves too quickly to be boring.
I’ve read critiques of people being seriously upset that they would have to level grind and “slog through 30 or more hours” to get to the end of this game, which they considered little more than mindless fetch quests. Said critiques are wrong on all counts. I saw the end credits (Ending A, the game has four endings total) before the 20 hour mark, got Ending B at the 24 hour mark. And though “mindless fetch quests” do exist in the game, they are entirely optional. The main story campaign is far from mindless. Everything is plot-driven; the environments are interesting and again, the boss fights are excellent. I just don’t know where the mainstream media got off criticizing this game when it’s actually an enjoyable experience that does not seem capable of overstaying its welcome. The game is simply too small and too short to be considered a burden.
But in that relatively compact amount of time, gamers will witness a deep story with some of the most interesting characters I’ve yet seen on this current console generation, RPG or not. Those who want to learn more about said characters will do well to achieve the extra endings. Most importantly, playing the game after achieving Ending A allows you to hear the voices of all Shades; after the end dungeon’s “big reveals” are in place, this is pretty important, and it also drops the floor right out from under you. Additional cut scenes are added for the second playthrough, and it’s basically an exercise in relativism. But it’s far more interesting than the average “relative morality” tale from other games, if only because of the excellent script and totally foreign scenario.
If you’re ready to experience “a little bit of everything” in your Action RPG, then you’ll want this game. I was pleasantly surprised at nearly every turn as I continued through the game. To bring in another obvious comparison, this game was far more fun, simple, and refreshing an experience than either Drakengard.
This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Song of the Ancients
I said at the beginning of this review that what led me to this game was a strange combination of luck, duty and obsession. The “luck” part was my chance encounter with Yusuke Saito, producer for Nier, at E3 2009. Had I not gone to that demo meeting, I probably wouldn’t have even remembered the game’s name at release time a year later. Though I wasn’t impressed with the alpha demo I saw (it had no music, for starters, and they were trying to avoid the “RPG” label at the time), meeting with Saito left a distinct impression on me. The duty part, well that’s obvious. RPGFan tries to cover every major RPG release, and it fell to me to review this title (I’m late, I know, I’m sorry!). The third part, of course, is the obsession. I am obsessed with game music. I think anyone who follows RPGFan knows that about me.
So, when the Nier soundtrack was released, I had to check it out. It was my first positive experience with the game, months before I’d even begun to play it. As detailed in our soundtrack review, this is basically one of the best soundtracks in a decade. It may be the best soundtrack of the year. Composer Keiichi Okabe, who has a history with Namco including Tekken 6, worked with his team of musicians and sound engineers at MONACA studios to craft one of the most stunning soundtracks of this generation of gaming. Tack on the powerful vocal work of Emi Evans, and… wow. Just, total epic awesome wow-itude. No amount of superlative adjectives can do this one justice.
Of course, this is all being said outside the context of the game. When I finally got my chance to play Nier, I was worried about the soundtrack’s integration into the game. The soundtrack is heavy on vocals – that is, almost every track across two discs of music is vocal-laden. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Part of the sound programmers’ job for this game was to offer multiple layers of each song depending on what’s happening in-game. The vocals fade in and out seamlessly in transition from battle to exploration, from shopping district to library, from cut scene to free play. Incredible as the vocals are, hearing the same vocal track play looped for 30 minutes could become terribly annoying. Thanks to the layering and the dynamic cues, this never happens.
I tend to rate any music I like very highly, but let me assure you, this one is a big deal. Even people who blasted this game are quick to concede that the soundtrack is a remarkable achievement. For game soundtrack collectors, even if you know nothing about this game, this is one of those rare “must-haves.” Within the context of the game, it’s even better, and is one more reason to consider playing the game. When you see how the fictitious language for “Song of the Ancients,” and the four ending themes (in English, French, Gaelic, and Japanese) play into the plot, it immediately hits you that this whole game is genius. More games need to be seeded with the clever, eye-opening concepts that Nier contains. The music is just one more facet.
I’ve already spoken at length over what I consider to be fantastic voice acting. Cheers to the actors themselves, and to the people who selected the actors. Perfect fits on all counts.
From a technical perspective, Nier’s visuals aren’t boastworthy. Not in 2010. And some of the environments can be, at times, bland. A little too much earth-tone. Where the visuals succeed are in concept. The character designs, particular Kainé and Emil, are wonderful. And the visual symbols, the concept of the Black Scrawl, the animation of the Shades … all very impressive from an artistic standpoint. Yes, technically, this doesn’t top Final Fantasy XIII. From an objective standpoint, I have to dock some points. But that didn’t much impede my enjoyment of the game.
Let the Words Be Heard. Let the Words Be Read.
The “words” of Nier are more than the plot. The words play into the music, the voice acting, the gameplay (I didn’t even get into “Word Edit” mode to boost weaponry) – all aspects of the game are affected by this concept. But it won’t affect anyone if no one bothers to play the game.
I’d apologize for making this review sound like a sales pitch, except I don’t really feel bad about it. Sales in the last few months and critical response show that many people simply tossed this title aside and called it a “clone” of superior games (chief among them, for the final time, GOD OF WAR). But this is a poor surface-level judgment of what is actually an entirely strange and unique title. It is absolutely, positively worth your attention if you are in any way an “RPG Fan.” At least rent or borrow it. Give it a try, and see if you are capable of falling for this one like I did.