Nier, Square Enix’s latest action RPG, is a game suffering from an identity crisis. At the outset, it’s a game that attempts to stay true to its genre while experimenting with other gameplay styles. There are times throughout in which entire portions of the gameplay take a shift turn, changing from the standard behind-the-back third person hack ‘n slash that dominate a majority of the game’s playing time to a top-down Smash TV-styled shooter to even a text adventure. I’ll admit that the first time the game transitioned from a 3D to 2D perspective (usually when your character enters an enclosed environment like a house), I was charmed by this unique shift, but when full missions transitioned to these other gameplay styles, I was unnerved. These changes usually lead to an uneven gameplay experience (most critically, a mission shown entirely in Diablo-styled isometric view proves extremely difficult due to a faulty camera) that, quite frankly, took the fun out of playing. Even despite these odd perspective shifts, too much of the game feels familiar, drowning whatever hodgepodge of good ideas the developers started with.
The game opens in the year 2049 in the middle of a snow-covered cityscape. A man and his sick child are attacked by a group of nefarious green monsters known as Shades. After squarely defeating this group of monsters, the game zips forward 1300 years to an agrarian village, the polar opposite to the film’s opening stage. Now a much older man, Nier must protect his daughter Yonah from the monsters that roam the countryside while searching for a cure for Yonah’s life-threatening disease known as the Black Scrawl. Along the way, you’re joined by the profane, lingerie-clad hermaphroditic duel wielder Kaine, blind magic user Emil, and the ever-so-sassy Grimoire Weisse, a talking magic book with the voice that would make Severus Snape from the Harry Potter universe proud. These supporting characters bring a certain element of life to a game in which your main character remains a strict one-note, “father against all” type. The personality of the game’s supporting players remain a source of constant amusement throughout a game that serves up a heavy dose of seriousness.
Nier’s combat system is functional yet uninspired. The game includes standard one-button hack ‘n’ slash with numerous types of different weapons including spears, one-handed and two-handed swords. Blocking and evading are easily handled using the two of the trigger buttons. The game’s magic system is also simplistic in use: as you progress in the game, you acquire a series of magic spells called Sealed Verses that allow you to fire projectiles, institute defensive spells, and attack from multiple different angles. Kaine and Emil assist in combat later in the game, though their assistance is mostly a non-entity, as usually Kaine just serves to stand around while Emil neglects to heal you in combat. Despite your party members’ uselessness in combat, their help is of little use, as the game’s bosses and larger enemies can quickly be taken care of single-handedly. Nier is an RPG that certainly does not pose much of challenge throughout. Customization is, for the most part, superficial in Nier, as levels increases do little but raise stats. One neat little feature in the game are the inclusion of “Words” that strengthen weapon and magic abilities as you go through the game. "Words" support attach small stat boosts to weapons and magic and can be found by either fighting unfamiliar enemies or completing quests.
One of my biggest gripes about Nier are its sidequests. Throughout the game, Nier presents a series of interesting towns for exploration, positing a unique opportunity to further expand the game world and give the player more to do. Yet, most of the time you act as merely an errand boy for the townspeople, running from point A to point B to pick up some items and then back to point A again. Furthermore, side quests offer the only opportunities for your character to make money, which, outside of some weapons upgrades, don't really prove necessary to the gameplay experience. When your game's side missions feel culled from the World of Warcraft, you know there's a problem.
I don't want to rag on Nier completely, though. The game features stellar voice acting for a Japanese game, even better than Square's recent efforts with Final Fantasy XIII, and developer Cavia did a good job creating an epic storyline that feels local through the eyes of the game's protagonists. Sure, the game is about the fallout from the end of the world, but it's also about one man's journey to protect his kin. The game also earns points for Keichii Okabe's acoustic-heavy musical score, a strict contrast to the game's drab colors and dated graphics.
After completing the game, I was left with a nagging feeling. A "New Game+" mode allows me to play the game from the perspective of one of the supporting characters. There were still quests to beat, weapons to collect, Words to unlock, yet I just couldn't bring myself to play the game again. I'll be sure to re-visit the game after the planned DLC is released for the game, but in a genre that continues to redefine itself each year, playing Nier felt like taking a time machine to the past, a game that felt more like a late-age Playstation 2 title than a now-generation game. For RPG enthusiasts and collectivists, this game is certainly worth your while. Gamers looking for more out of an action RPG, however, are advised to look elsewhere.
This review is based of a retail copy of the game.