I know it’s cliche to say, “Never judge a book by its cover,” but in the case of Cavia and Square Enix’s action RPG Nier, that phrase has rarely been so applicable. Originally released in April of 2010, Nier was met with lukewarm review scores in the 60-70% range, and for the most part, flew under the radar of most gamers. After I’d come off a rather bitter first encounter with Square Enix’s own Final Fantasy XIII the month prior (that game has yet to win me over), Nier simply didn’t register any interest from me. One look at the game case and I thought, “Here’s another generic action game with bad-looking art.”
Fast-forward to July of 2012, and by that point, I had been seeing a lot of people online referring to Nier as their favorite game of the PS3 generation, and I had friends at work who suggested I play it. That certainly piqued my interest, as these were a the same folks who had championed titles like Advent Rising, God Hand, and Psychonauts, and although I still wasn’t all that interested in it, I decided to pick it up. It was only about $17 at the time, so the risk was low. However, as is the case with many of my purchases, it sat on my shelf in the shrinkwrap, and it wouldn’t be until two years later in July of 2014 that I would finally crack it open and give it a shot.
Initially, I didn’t really get it. I thought the graphics were dull, with washed-out colors and too much bloom. World geometry seemed simplistic, in-game animation was rough, and the story, at least at first, seemed like every other “father trying to save their daughter” plot. The controls and combat, while serviceable, weren’t anything special either, and certainly weren’t at the refined level I was used to with other action games like God of War, The Legend of Zelda, or Bayonetta.
Quests were of the basic fetch and collect-a-thon varieties, complete with annoying, time-consuming rare drops and a repetitive — but easy to master — fishing minigame. About the only thing I did love right out the gate was Nier‘s soundtrack, which is arguably one of the best ever created. Anyway, I played it for several hours, reached the ocean town of Seafront, and once again shelved it.
After receiving a steady stream of encouragement from one of my friends to keep on playing it, I finally returned to it 4 months later in November. It took me some time to get back into it, and although I found myself enjoying the game’s characters, story, and music, the game itself just wasn’t doing much for me. It’s good, but far from great. Nier is a game that’s difficult to define, but I’d say at its core, it’s a single-player MMO with action RPG gameplay. There are many other genre and series influences throughout, most notably those from bullet hell shoot-’em-ups, which plays a big part of Nier‘s combat and excellent boss encounters. I found myself smiling on many an occasion as I was reminded of games like Resident Evil and the classic text adventure games from Infocom.
The action is pretty stiff, and Nier himself has one of the most bizarrely awkward jumping animation cycles I’ve ever seen. He puts his all into it, that’s for sure! Combat feels simplistic and not all the fluid, but experimentation over time yields a system that is adequately diverse, with a good mix of melee and magical attacks, combos, different weapons that can be upgraded and augmented with a unique stat-boosting word system, cancels, deflections, and evasion techniques. While I was getting destroyed early on by enemy mobs, by the end of the game, I was getting through most encounters without taking a single hit. Taking down larger enemies is also quite satisfying. Nier‘s combat won’t win any awards, but for the most part, it feels good, and you’ll likely seek out combat more often than avoiding it.
The world of Nier is a rather hazy place. Most locations employ a foggy, dream-like overexposure effect that is meant to make areas feel more atmospheric, but this instead comes across as a technique meant to obscure the game’s mediocre graphics. While the world art and detail are decent, Cavia did a particularly nice job on the characters and the menacingly intimidating bosses you fight throughout the game. These designs are unique, beautifully animated, intuitive to engage, and very memorable.
As mentioned earlier, Nier‘s soundtrack is amazing. Although I haven’t played a lot of RPGs over the past decade, I’d say this is easily one of the best I’ve heard since Yasunori Mitsuda’s stirring compositions in Chrono Cross. The tracks are melancholy, haunting, ethereal, easy to listen to outside of the game, and are as close to perfect as can be. Music is truly one of Nier‘s standout features, elevating the overall experience, and should not be missed if you’re a fan of high quality music.
Voice acting in Nier is also surprisingly good. While there are some characters that do a better job than others, I think that for the most part, lines are delivered with the right amount of emotion and realism. Although the story and world tend to be pretty bleak — as most post-apocalyptic environments tend to be — the dialogue is peppered with excellent humor, fantastic banter while exploring and going on quests, and most importantly, lots of heart. Characters treat others like real people, their actions are consistent, and you quickly fall in love with the entire cast, which is a commendable feat in a sea of games where most characters are expendable or boring shells designed to push forward superficial, contrived narratives. As a result of Cavia’s careful writing and scenario planning, the inhabitants of Nier feel completely three-dimensional, giving their actions and fates true weight and consequence.
As a result, Nier‘s overarching story truly separates it from most other games, and in my opinion, is what makes this an absolute must-play. Employing a uniquely abbreviated New Game+ system, multiple playthroughs are not just there to allow the player to complete unfinished quests and collect Trophies, but they expand upon the core story in ways that will change the way you view all of Nier‘s events, both past and present. Giving the player these new, different perspectives blur the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, and even accepted gameplay and genre conventions that we take for granted. The first playthrough is a solid and memorable one, but subsequent playthroughs make Nier lasting and unforgettable.
In closing, Nier is definitely a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. While its visuals and gameplay are rough around the edges, it is all tied together by a story and soundtrack that are without a doubt among the best I have ever encountered in my 35 years of gaming. Highly recommended.
- Visuals: B-
A competently realized world with lots of unique landmarks, nice character art, and smooth cutscene animation. World geometry is pretty simple, and in-game animation is stiff. Framerate frequently drops below its 30fps cap.
- Sound: A+
One of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, with very good voice acting. The audio side of Nier is one of its highlights and isn’t to be missed.
- Story: A+
What starts off as a seemingly straightforward plot turns into one of the most memorable and original stories to grace a video game. Getting all of Nier‘s endings is worth it, no matter what the cost.
- Gameplay: B-
Decent combat and typical MMO-style quests abound. Lots of running back and forth going through the same areas to collect materials, deliver messages, get items, and complete different quests. A good variety of game genres are represented, but if you don’t like oldschool shoot-’em-up style dodging, some areas and encounters could prove frustrating. Lots of distractions for those who seek them, including weapon collecting, forging, crop harvesting, fishing, and time attack challenges.
- Controls: B
The controls are responsive and can be customized, but there are some quirks with hit detection, slow ladder climbing, awkward jumping, and some frustrating camera angles.
- Value: A
It takes about 25-30 hours to complete a first playthrough, with subsequent New Game+ sessions taking a few additional hours a piece. Platinum chasers will have their hands full with some extremely time-consuming requirements, which can boost total playtime to over 70 hours.