If Nier loses the player completely in its first ten minutes, the developers only have themselves to blame. It’s nothing more than a hack-n-slash refresher, insisting upon wave after wave of enemies until the idea of mashing an attack button well cemented. Swinging away with a metal pipe, the story of a father and his devotion to protect his daughter takes shape. But as the waves of enemies begin to numb the mind, it becomes hard to care. He’s fighting these creatures called Shades — ethereal messes of shifting black and gold matter – and hitting them roughly amounts to the satisfaction of slapping a pillow with a wet sock. But the game hasn’t been turned off yet, somehow. Maybe its magnificent battle theme thumping in the background that makes it all bearable, buying just enough time for the game to arouse some curiosity.
Fast forwarding 1300 years into the future, and leaving the post-apocalyptic ruins of a modern city, the game restarts in the calm grasslands of a feudal age looking village. Stranger still, is that the father and daughter remain as they were, as if the same characters but in a different book. It’s peaceful here, but the last remnants of civilization are threatened by the same Shades, and a life snatching disease known as the Black Scrawl inflicts the father’s daughter, Yonah. There’s not much opportunity to find work and support Yonah in these end times, but the game manages to break into a series of coarse fetch quests from here. Smacking sheep to death for wool and meat, digging up shimmering objects in the dirt, delivering letters, and a godforsaken fishing mini-game – the mediocrity apparently continues. Yet, there’s that music again — and just as lovely as before.
This song is softer, and the sleepy spell it drapes over the village will become familiar each time Yonah’s father passes through. The vocals – a fictional tongue that seems to borrow the very pretty phonetics of French and Japanese – aren’t translatable but cover a substantial range of emotion in the first hour. The lullaby of the illusory village changes into an uplifting drum of encouragement when stepping onto to the surrounding plains, but it’s almost unfitting. With music so grand and tasks so mundane, environments so barren, and a jumping animation that looks so incredibly stupid, it’s hard not to feel the beautiful voice deserved a different game.
But Nier soon honors the songstress’s talent in the form of a book by the title of Grimoire Weiss. He’s a magical, flying tome with a voice, and naturally has a vocabulary as rich as a talking novel should. A nagging, English flavored sarcasm convinces the hesitant father to join forces with Weiss, and in their alliance the book’s powers are now available for abuse, a la carte. The combat becomes almost silly and oddly amusing as Yonah’s father can now spit red bolts of energy from the pages of Weiss , and at a semi-automatic pace; A run and gun carnival as the Shades fall in swaths. The immediately ensuing boss fight, however, may find more effective use of the Dark Lance spell, slowing time to carefully line up spikes and jettison them into a weak spot.
Everything is a bit more tantalizing now. A bit darker. The large armored Shade goes down in a fight laced with gratifyingly violent movie intermissions, and ends with a brutal take down from the man and his partner’s demonic power. Grimoire Weiss is holds real power, and with his name bearing a connection to an old legend, Yonah’s father is convinced he is the key to curing his daughter’s illness.
Although first at odds with the father’s caveman like features, and equally primitive one track mind and staunch simplicity, Weiss finds refuge in the new found partnership (perhaps mostly enjoying the sound of his own voice). The mocking banter between the two suggest a rivalry, but it’s more obviously a budding friendship, carrying itself strongly as the two set out to harness more spells from bigger, badder Shades.
Equipped with a blade instead of a blunt object, the Shades begin to gush blood upon striking them. It’s a guilty pleasure considering how shallow the combo mashing and spells feel, but trucking through a group of Shades with a giant sword and a summoned whirlwind of spikes proves to create slaughters of delightful proportions. After enough blood spattering and a bit of luck, the Shades may drop Words, or stat enhancements that can be attached to weapons and spells. Opening Weiss cleverly introduces the game’s menu and customization interface where this is handled; although the difficulty never really demands for it. And of the eight spells to harness throughout the game, most are fairly gimmicky or just inefficient ways of achieving the same results.
But right when the dryness becomes noticeable, everything changes shape. Stepping into the next room of a dungeon will throw the camera upwards into a top down perspective, and blasting away at enemies suddenly looks reminiscent to playing Space Invaders. Approach a set of scaffolding and now it’s a two dimensional side-scroller. Step through the gates of a haunted mansion and Nier becomes the fixed point camera experience of the older Resident Evil games. Individually, these segments aren’t much to marvel at, but they throw the mind off guard, stimulating it for more surprises to come.
Those surprises are new perspectives, too, but not just camera angles. At one point, the screen fades to darkness, and white text forms upon it to create a light game of language, riddles, and mild text adventures. Nier essentially shuts itself off for a respectable span of time and tells the player to read a book, and it’s wonderful. The writing, the imagery, the humor – it’s a segment that really solidifies the hilarious relationship between Weiss and the father. Another dungeon sets the repetitive combat aside as well, turning into a fun series of chambers – each with traps, and each with rules. Dodge an entire ocean of moving projectiles like some kind of a shoot’em up game, but no jumping!
Ditching that combat is often important, as other locales — like a junk heap full of almost infinitely respawning security robots – suffer greatly from abusively stale tactics, showcasing a game that lacked resources in its development. But Nier manages to throw that monotony to the side enough to stay unpredictable, and has characters to match these charming irregularities. One, in particular, stealing the spotlight from the main protagonist.
To call her the actual centerpiece may be inaccurate, but everything Nier stands for coalesces within the wild personality of a woman named Kaine. Her face is strikingly innocent, but all that leaves her mouth is an assemblage of profanity. Her slender figure is provocatively dressed in revealing lingerie, yet she’s a masculine fighter fueled by hatred. And though she looks human, a Shade resides inside her. Hardly the main character in a traditional sense, Kaine is curiously more forefront to the game’s story than the father daughter relationship itself, and easily the most exciting element in Nier. She demands strong first impressions from the player, but turns all of those assumptions upside down as she develops.
And no, it’s not through a cheesy hook that reveals the soft side of a hardened character; Kaine is delicately constructed in every facet a game could offer. From the aching theme song that follows her, to the way she injects personality into boss encounters, and to the flavorful volleys of insults she has with the satirical Weiss. Even the haunting mountain village she grew up in is a visually arresting chasm in the game’s otherwise drab collection of locales. She’s an engrossing character with a back story that elegantly addresses topics of sexual identity and isolation, weaving a wonderful personality and in sophisticated fashion. Maybe some will find that her profane language and tough persona sound too forced, but in a tragically beautiful way, it’s because she is forcing it.
In actual terms of overacting, the fourth member to Nier’s freak show is where fingers should be pointed. He’s a young boy named Emil, blindfolded to prevent his cursed eyes from turning people to stone, though perhaps tape over the mouth would have been more appreciated. A darkly themed game, Nier’s narrative certainly makes interesting use of such a character, but his representation of a pure-hearted child is of the usual and incredibly annoying sort. Desperate for friendship, his sappy whining legitimately damages some otherwise great scenes. If he exists to bait dialogue from the other and more refined characters, however, then he is perhaps tolerable, and only then.
Together, the cast almost makes the hours of side quests involving fetching items, grinding, and garden growing seem worthwhile – almost. Nier fortunately enjoys the comfort of these embarrassments being optional, but what’s certainly mandatory is unlocking the game’s multitude of endings. They have much more to say than the first, which while wholesome, is admittedly lacking. Asking players to replay the game’s final 5 hours initially seems rather archaic, but upon accepting the challenge, Nier changes shape once again.
Just as the camera so often shifts, how the very way the game is played so often shifts, Nier now shifts perspective on its characters, its world, and its entire narrative. Its true finale is a darkly poetic angle on humanity, wiping the player’s looking glass clean and addressing the misconceptions, judgments, and ignorance of before. Leaving Nier fully completed means leaving with a more matured outlook on game design, and perhaps on more personal musings as well. While rotating the flawed shell Nier encased itself in won’t make its problems disappear; it can provide many angles that look past them, putting a game worth playing steadily into view.