Nier is an interesting game, and going into it I only had an inkling of an idea of what to expect. It’s a spin-off of the Drakengard series (specifically of the first game), of which I have only played Drakengard 3. If you read my review, you’d know that I have a very mixed opinion on that one. While Nier has substantial differences, particularly in where it succeeds or pales in comparison, there is one main detail that makes this a better game – it’s fun. And it doesn’t conclude with a mechanically broken rhythm game. Okay, so that’s two things.
The story begins with the protagonist, Nier, looking to recover his daughter from a mysterious captor. However, he is quickly pulled into a more complicated matter, as his daughter is wrought with a deadly illness, and Nier encounters a floating, talking book capable of producing magic. Along the way, he encounters two more unusual companions who have their own objectives that may just overlap with his intended path. (Note: For the original Japanese release, there were two versions of the game – one with Nier as Yonah’s father, and another with a younger version of him as Yonah’s brother. The Western release just retained the former of these.)
This is a hack-and-slash JRPG, but instead of relying only on physical weapons for combat, there is also a variety of magic available. This adds more to the player’s arsenal than just the three weapon types, and once everything becomes available, you begin to feel completely overpowered. Of course, this also ties back to the difficulty curve. There are four endings to the game, but instead of each becoming progressively more difficult, the challenge plateaus while your character continues to be strengthened. This is only a problem because you need to play the second half of the game four times. Four times.
To unlock ending A, you just play through normally one time. For ending B, you’re brought back to the halfway point, then play through the second half of the game again. The only differences this time around are some narrative additions that offer more info and a few new perspectives, and a marginally different ending – to be very clear, these additions exist only for the player, and have no bearing on the story or characters. For endings C and D, you play through the second half yet again, collect all of the weapons, and then make a choice. Choosing the D ending actually wipes the game’s save data for that character name (it warns you about five times), so realistically C would be the third. Then you get to play through the second half of the game a fourth time – woohoo! – to finally get the D ending. After getting the fourth ending, I could hardly remember anything that happened in the first half of the game. The monotony knocked it out of my memory.
But wait, there’s more! In a world with a lot of mystery surrounding its past, the world itself is hardly touched upon. The story reduces “extraneous” details so that everything can focus on Nier and the others working to save his daughter. That means details about Weiss and Noir, the nature of Shades, and even the Shadowlord, the main antagonist, are few and far between, making Nier’s journey feel like a non-sequitur that had unintended but substantial impact. The world is far from black-and-white, but Nier views everything in a clear binary – threatening, or nonthreatening. But by showing most things from his perspective, the importance of most details is diminished, resulting in a rather bland final story. That’s why the “Grimoire Nier” exists to fill in blanks that the developers didn’t even attempt to include in-game. Yet they still managed to shove in text-only reading sections for Kaine’s backstory and miscellaneous crap in the forest…
I know I’ve been painting a negative picture, but it’s certainly not all bad. As I said before, combat is plenty of fun and feels dynamic enough – bosses in particular offer some of the most interesting challenges, the first time around at least. As far as the gameplay mechanics go, I am also a fan of the word-edit. While Nier will level up from gaining experience in battle, what the player has the most control over is individual effects for equipped magic and weapon abilities. Once obtained as random drops, these “words” allow you to boost attack and magic power, along with other stats, ailment affliction, or resistances, and tailor everything to support your play style. Along with weapon upgrades, these quickly boost your damage output in the second half of the game.
The music is excellent, always adding a beautiful flourish and effective impact. Honestly, that’s not giving it nearly enough credit, as it’s definitely the best part of the game. The voice-acting is also good, particularly for Weiss and Kaine. Emil can get a bit whiny, and Nier is a one-trick pony, but at least neither of them drag things down. The characters themselves, besides Nier, are interesting, and the mid-battle banter helps to lift things up when getting bogged down by constant action. Visually the game is nothing spectacular, although it at least performs well. What it lacks in color and fidelity, it makes up for with interesting location designs.
This game is very much a mixed bag. Interestingly, many pros and cons of this and Drakengard 3 are flipped – Nier has much better gameplay, feeling consistently fun, but Drakengard 3 has a far superior story, especially after considering the variety in the endings and their leadups. They both nailed the music and had lackluster visuals though. I really hope Nier Automata avoids past mistakes of the series and does everything sensibly – if handled right, that will be one hell of a game.
+ Fun gameplay
+ Solid RPG mechanics
+ Fantastic soundtrack
+ Interesting characters and good voice-acting
± Pushover difficulty after the first ending
± Meh visuals
± Interesting backstory, but it’s hardly acknowledged in-game
− Monotonous push for all the marginally different endings
− Tunnel-vision focus for the story
− Text-only sections
Play time – About 25 hours
Rating – 6/10
Recommendation – Play it for the first ending, then maybe the second. Look up the other two online – unless you’re aiming for trophies, the C and D endings hardly provide any satisfying answers or even justification for the time spent to get there.
Once you’re done with the game, read the Grimoire Nier translation for a buttload of info, including a comment about the director’s butt feeling itchy.
Addendum concerning my main complaint – In the words of the director, Yokoo Tarou, “I don’t want to complicate the main point of the story. ‘An older brother saving his sister’ was the main theme we wanted to portray, and I wanted to deliver all the drama involved as a first impression. Details of the worldview or personality quirks of other characters can be left later for people who really want to know.” Source, page 60. Spoilers aplenty.
So the end result was obviously intended, but my complaint about the game itself lacking any sense of a wider focus still stands.
This was originally intended to be part of next week’s “Taking Out The Trash” post, but it felt a bit too long, so I decided to separate it. Even though it’s still shorter than most of my reviews. Oh well.