There are great games, and then there are games that are great despite actually being rather poor in the “game” department.  For some reason flawed gems like Nier (Mass Effect is another) end up becoming some of my favorites because they managed to overcome their shoddy implementation to tell a phenomenal story, and thus leave a lasting mark on my gamer soul.  I played through Nier twice in order to see the (first) alternate ending, and I almost never play a game more than a single time.  It was just that gripping.

Nier puts you in the shoes of a father trying to cure his daughter of a fatal disease known as the Black Scrawl, and then later rescue her when a being known only as “the Shadowlord” kidnaps her from the lazy country town that they live in.  Along the way, you meet up with a cast of quirky characters: a talking book (Grimoire Weiss), a magical child (Emil), and a foul-mouthed lingerie-clad woman (Kainé).  All have major problems, but as a team they meld together wonderfully and play off of each other in a manner similar to Dragon Age‘s varied personalities.

Before I gush over the game any further, it would be remiss of me not to discuss Nier’s many flaws.  Taken simply as a video game in the mechanical sense, Nier is at best an average action RPG hack and slash adventure.

Combat is relatively basic:  you can choose to equip one of three different weapon types, a light sword, a heavy sword, or a spear, and then chain attacks together by mashing a single button.  Each weapon also has a secondary attack assigned to a different button, however these attacks break the normal flow of combat, and subsequently get used sparingly.  In addition to physical attacks, your character acquires magical abilities as the game progresses, but only two can be equipped at once and really only a handful are useful on a regular basis.  Magic is much more powerful than slashing with a weapon, however it consumes (auto-recharging) mana.  There is not a wide variety of enemies to kill, and most can be dispatched using one of two methods:  get close and hack until you break their guard, or stand extremely far away and fling dark lance magic at them.

The next big flaw is that Nier lacks many unique environments.  The first half of the game opens up five towns and three dungeons connected to your characters’ village, and then the remainder of the game requires you to constantly revisit those locations over and over again as the plot progresses.  Two of the dungeons are used at least four of five times each, with very little change to their layout or encounters each time.  The game world is far too small for the 25 hour plot.

The final major design mishap in the game is the structure of the optional side quests.  Simply put, quests in Nier are uninspiring MMO-style drivel.  The side quests consist primarily of fetch quests, kill quests, and random drop quests with very few unique tasks to spice things up and keep the game interesting.  After grinding out a few of the early quests, I began only completing quests that I fulfilled the requirements for in the natural course of playing through the plot.  If I were a completionist I would have hated every minute of Nier’s quest system.  Thankfully, neither side quests nor grinding kills are required to level up enough to finish the game.

So with all of these seemingly huge flaws, what made Nier such a compelling game that I played it through not just once, but twice?  Simple:  the world, the characters, and the story are utterly enthralling.

Nier starts out in the near future, with your character struggling to keep his daughter Yonah safe in a world that is obviously crumbling around him.  It is the dead of winter, there is little food, and faceless enemies are attacking.  After a huge battle the timeline fast forwards 1,312 years and you find yourself in a fantasy setting controlling a very similar-looking character and looking for a cure for your daughter, again named Yonah.  As you start to explore the world you find hints of the long-forgotten technological society that you left behind – derelict buildings, shattered bridges, and long-forgotten factories – and encounter puzzling enemies, the shades, that resemble bipedal digitized packets of data.  What caused humanity to regress to medieval conditions? What is the Black Scrawl that is infecting Yonah?  What are the shades?  All of these questions are intriguing and not standard video game fare.

Where Nier really shines is the plot, which tackles mature themes head on:  responsibility, sacrifice, parenthood, and empathy to name a few.  Told through a mixture of text dialog, voice acted dialog, and cut scenes, the writing is multifaceted in a way that few games can manage.  The main arc of the plot is dark and brooding, however humor is laced through the character’s back-and-forth conversations as you’re exploring the environment to lighten the mood.  It is not an exaggeration to say that on multiple occasions I was moved nearly to tears by some of the tragic situations that the characters found themselves in; Nier is rarely a happy game, which makes the moments of pure joy all the better when they do occur.  When I finished the game, especially the second time, all I could do was sit back, mouth agape, and contemplate how everything turned out.

And if you play Nier, you really do need to play it twice.  After beating the original twenty-five hour campaign you can start again from the midpoint of the story retaining all of your levels, weapons, and items.  During your second playthrough, which only takes another five or six hours, not only are you exquisitely aware of the answer to all of the big questions that the game presents, but you (the player, not your character) are also able to understand what the shades are saying.  Extra cut scenes are added to give context to some of the game’s main events, and this new angle changes everything and pulls at the heartstrings in entirely different ways.  It is a genius bit of storytelling.

 

The final triumph for Nier is the gorgeous soundtrack, composed by Keiichi Okabe.  Every track – from those that play while you are exploring the world, to the battle tunes, to the cut scene pieces – fits perfectly in the context that it is used, and heightens the emotional impact of the game.  It is no accident either, the music was developed independently of the game, and when the time came to merge the two, if a change needed to be made the game was modified to fit the music, not the other way around.  The vocals – used heavily – are stunning; Emi Evans was given the leeway to create a unique languages for her singing, which were modeled on many different modern dialects.  During the days between playing the game I often found the songs and their nonsense words rolling through my skull, a true testament to the power the music had over me. Upon completing the game I purchased the soundtrack so that I didn’t need to lose those beautiful pieces.

As much as Nier is a broken video game, it is also a work of art; a brilliant novel, a soulful album, and a tragic screen play all wrapped up in an interactive bundle.  Many players will not be able to get past the games many mechanical flaws, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys a good story more than anything then Nier will be a deeply rewarding and enriching experience.  Few games have moved me as deeply as this one did, and it is not without sadness that I removed the disc from my console and placed it back on my shelf.  From the time that it sucked me in at the very beginning, I didn’t want Nier to end, and what better statement of a game’s worth is there than that?

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One Response to “Post mortem: Nier”

  1. WOW! Nier seems to me very interesting and enjoyable game. I didn’t play it so far. But the details of this post really convinced me to give it a try. Cheers :)

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