Nier (X360) review

For me, RPGs are all about the story and the world/characters crafted by the developer.  The best games bring a brand-new world to life, giving me a place to explore for hours on end–learning its history, meeting its residents, and delving into its secrets.  I can enjoy a good RPG combat system (real-time or turn-based) as well, but combat isn’t what keeps me coming back to the genre again and again.  In fact, there are plenty of games with great story I almost wish didn’t have gameplay whatsoever, games where the gameplay manages to drag down the whole experience.  Sadly, Nier is one of those games.  Odds are, you may have heard of this game in hushed whispers or from lurking members of any number of online game forums.  It is one of those games that has built a cult following of people who praise its virtues whenever possible because it wasn’t widely played upon its release.  It’s also a game that had been on my to-play list for a long time.  While I’m extremely glad I finally gave it a chance, mostly due to the story and world crafted by the developer, I didn’t always enjoy my time spent in the world of Nier.

Nier takes place in a world some thirteen hundred years in the future from present-day.  A disease called the Black Scrawl, manifesting as runic symbols on the infected’s skin, has killed off most of the population.  The rest is slowly dying from attacks by mysterious creatures called Shades.  Your main character (who most people term generally as the Father, since you can name him whatever you like) has a daughter named Yonah who is infected with the Black Scrawl.  The Father is undyingly devoted to keeping his daughter safe and healthy and spends all of his time doing odd jobs around time for money and medicine, hoping to eventually find a cure for his daughter’s illness.  That cure may be possible thanks to a talking book named Grimoire Weiss, a text that is part of a legend that promises an end to the Black Scrawl if its wielder can collect Sealed Verses (spells, essentially) from large shades.  Nier and Weiss team up, along with a hermaphroditic, foul-mouthed woman named Kainé and a young boy named Emil with the power to petrify his foes, to collect the Verses and save the world.

This may not sound very exciting at first.  It’s very slow to start, but the really interesting part of this story comes near the end, when the truth behind certain matters is finally revealed.  It’s a fascinating twist, one that forces you to reconsider everything you have seen over the course of your playthrough.  Questions are answered, but even more are asked by the end-game events.  Nier forces you to play it multiple times to get more information.  By continuing from your end-game save, you pick up on a New Game+ playthrough at about the halfway point of the game.  While the events mostly play out the same way as you push forward again, there are some new scenes that bring context to certain characters or events.  Most notably, this second playthrough completely recontextualizes your actions in a way that made me cringe.  It doesn’t stop there: a third playthrough adds a new choice to the end of the game–one is a fairly simple ending, but the other forces you to wipe all your progress from all of your playthroughs in order to see it.  You watch as all the items, weapons, and quests are wiped from the list.  You watch as your saves are systematically deleted.  It really puts a lot of power into that final choice, as you see all the hard work (at least 20-30 hours by this point) just vanish from existence.  It’s something I’ve never seen a game do and is worth seeing at least once.

This layering of new exposition onto the existing story is a novel trick, but it doesn’t quite work out 100% of the time.  For one thing, most of the scenes are exactly the same.  You can skip them easily enough with a press of the Start button, but there is no way of knowing if a scene is going to be different before you skip it, which means you may skip something you haven’t seen.  Most of the scenes are entirely new and avoid this issue, but there are a few old scenes that change subtly enough that it could be easy to miss.  Also, all these endings still don’t manage to answer all the questions I had about the game.  A bit of reading between the lines will give you the majority of it, but if you want to know everything, you will have to consult online information.  I was much more impressed with the world of Nier once I visited an online wiki and filled in the answers to my questions, answers I feel should have been in the game more clearly (it’s possible I somehow missed them entirely, but I don’t think this is the case).  It’s a case where I would have liked to be beat over the head with it a bit more, as it is too easy to miss otherwise, depriving the game of one of its key strengths.

I also have slight issue with the way you unlock the final endings.  You receive Ending A for completing the game once and Ending B for completing the game twice.  Endings C and D, however, require you to collect all 30 of the game’s weapons in order to see it; otherwise, you just get Ending B again upon completing the third playthrough.  Why did this need to be a necessary factor in seeing the final endings?  I would have been fine with this fetch quest if there was a justifiable story reason for it…but there isn’t one.  It’s an unnecessary way to extend the time players must spend with Nier in order to see everything it has to offer (not that much time, but enough to be frustrating and annoying).  Playing the game three times is also a bit tiring by the end, revisiting the same areas and bosses and seeing the same cutscenes again and again.  This is made even worse by the very small size of the world and lack of any real exploration.  Your desire to learn the truth will likely be great enough to push through; if it isn’t, however, you may find yourself looking up the other endings on Youtube instead.

Repetition is really a place where Nier breaks down for me.  Several of the environments look very similar to one another, not to mention there aren’t very many of them in the first place.  The enemy design opts to add armor to existing enemies instead of crafting new ones, meaning you fight mostly the same enemies for the entire game.  The music is really good but becomes tiring by the end of the third playthrough.  As I mentioned above, the cutscenes aren’t quite good enough to want to watch three times over. Combat is extremely simple, stupidly easy, and repetitious to the point of monotony.  You have very few options: pressing X multiple times gives you easy-to-pull off combos, the Y button does a weapon-specific move such as a guard break or a lunging attack, and the bumpers unleash your various magic attacks (giant hand punches, projectiles, area attacks that burst from the ground).  There is also a block button, but you are better off using the dodge mechanic as it is much more consistent.  All of the enemies, save for a few bosses, are very predictable and easy to conquer.  The variety of enemy types is quite low.  There are so many healing items in the game that even sloppy play will get you to the end in no time.  There’s nothing wrong with shallow combat in a game like this, but I just found it boring–a much more serious offense.  In a stronger game, I think the multiple playthrough endings would have worked quite well; in Nier, I sadly found myself wishing it would be over already so I could see everything it had to offer.

That’s not to say that it’s all dull and repetitive; a few segments manage to break from the mold.  There are some very creatively designed areas where the gameplay shifts to be a bit different.  One dungeon pulls the camera back to an isometric perspective, forcing you on your toes as you adapt to fight in the new angle.  Another forces you into a puzzle-like section where you have to ignore basic movements like jumping or rolling as you navigate bullet hell-esque segments of projectiles.  There’s even a text-adventure like segment that is unfortunately over too soon.  These moments are when I found myself most enjoying the gameplay of Nier, a change of pace from the monotony of the combat and world traversal.  Unfortunately, there are just not enough of these to alleviate the boredom entirely.

Nier is one of those games I wished I liked more.  I had a really hard time enjoying the stupid-easy, boring combat, and I almost wanted to die after running through the rather blandly designed world for a third time. However, everything else from the voice acting (well, except for one character in particular) to the music is top-notch (just a bit repetitive) and the story, particularly the way it is told, is unlike anything else I’ve seen from the genre.  Even though I wish certain elements had been better portrayed in game, it’s telling that I wanted to go look up this other information about the story after finishing my final playthrough; few games make me care enough to wring out every last drop of story and character information I can.  Nier has become one of those games I don’t recommend to everyone; for those people who enjoy simpler combat, or don’t mind pushing through it in favor of a fantastic narrative, I have no qualms saying that it is absolutely worth a playthrough.

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My Top 10 Games of 2013

Another year, another batch of games for a top ten list.  While this year had some stellar releases, I had a hard time crafting this list.  There were a lot of good games that I enjoyed a great deal but not a lot of great games that really meant something to me.  Odds are, the shift to a new console generation is to blame.  Still, I can’t deny that some truly amazing games came out this year.  Here’s what I enjoyed the most:

10.  Cook, Serve, Delicious (Android version)

CSD

I played a bit of Cook, Serve, Delicious back on the PC but didn’t enjoy playing it on the keyboard.  It was a game I knew would be better served on a tablet; unfortunately, all I had at the time was a Nexus 7.  Anxiously, I waited for it to be ported.  The day it was released, I downloaded it and finally understood.  I spent hours and hours clearing all the objectives and unlocking the final restaurant.  There’s something so satisfying about filling the orders quickly and keeping everyone happy.  It was a simple experience but one of pure enjoyment.

9.  Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dragon's Dogma

I don’t care what people say: Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen counts as a 2013 release for me.  My brief time with the original was met with disdain and boredom.  On a whim, I picked it up again to give it a second shot.  After some 100 hours sunk into the title, I realized what everyone had loved about it.  While it does have its problems, particularly in the boring world and uninspired characters, the combat is easily some of the best the genre has seen.  There are so many options to choose from, with each of them being fun in their own way.  I can’t wait to see what a sequel to this can pull off—maybe on next-gen hardware?

8.  Super Mario 3D World

Super Mario 3D World

Pure enjoyment in video game form, Super Mario 3D World reminds me why I love these games.  Made by the team who crafted the superb Galaxy titles, this game drips with creativity and unabashed joy in every moment.  The new power-ups are adorable, the levels are interesting and fun, and the music is extraordinarily catchy.  The only issue I have with it is the clear design for multiplayer in the levels; I would love to see a game focused more on a tight, refined single-player experience.  Still, I had a blast with this title.

7.  DmC: Devil May Cry

DmC

I feel bad for Ninja Theory and all the shit they got for DmC.  All those diehard fans of previous games in the series turned their noses up at it just because it was different and not as refined.  While I can understand those frustrated with the simpler combat, this game is still a magnificent action game.  Every environment, cutscene, and even boss battle drips with style and attitude.  This world is creative in a way that few games manage to pull off.  The combat may not be as diverse, but it’s still great fun to execute and looks flashy as hell.  It’s sad to think that a sequel to this game is never going to happen.

6.  Papers, Please

Papers, Please

Papers, Please is a very depressing game, which I actually enjoy.  Too many games focus on upbeat moments and eventual victory; this game choose to show you how fucked its world is and never lets up.  It made me think about what I was doing in ways that I have never thought about my actions in a game before.  Was it morally right to full-body scan these people to check for explosives?  Do I put the needs of my family above the pleas of those just trying to reach family across the border?  What really made this game stick on my list, however, was the gameplay.  It may be monotonous and secretarial, but I find it oddly satisfying.  There’s a rhythm to it that is unlike anything else.

5.  Remember Me

Remember Me

Some people are going to wonder how I put Remember Me on my list.  It’s a rough game filled with terrible voice acting, sketchy combat, and glitch moments.  I can agree on those counts, but I still loved this game.  More than any game this year, the visual style and design grabbed me with its fantastic rendering of a futuristic, computerized Paris.  The world that was presented is fascinating and had me digging for as much information about it that I could.  Its score was intense and electronic, rising and falling with the combat and plot moments.  I even think the combat had some potential, with a bit more work.  As someone who often ignores visual elements in games, I knew this was special when I couldn’t look away.

4.  The Last of Us

The Last of Us

The Last of Us is an intense ride with some of the greatest video game characters I’ve ever seen and heard.  Joel is the most realistic protagonist in a video game to date, able to break from the dissonance usually found between a character’s cutscene presence and in-game presence.  Troy Baker’s performance (which I didn’t even realize was him at first), paired with Ashley’s Johnson’s superb Ellie, crafted a very real relationship, something you don’t see in games that often.  Best of all, the ending feels like it came out of a movie: not final or plain in any way but open to interpretation and meaning.  While I really didn’t enjoy playing it, the experience was still memorable.

3.  The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Legend of Zelda

I was as skeptical as everyone about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.  Why was Nintendo crafting an actual sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time?  It sounded like a terrible idea.  The final product not only exceeded my expectations, but it gave me great hope for future titles and the possibility for vast changes in the Zelda franchise.  This game is just enjoyable to play, hands-down.  I had a blast running around Hyrule and Lorule, chopping away at enemies and discovering the game’s many secrets.  It also features some of the best dungeon designs in the series and some fantastic boss fights.  And that music!  So great.

2.  Saints Row IV

Saints Row IV

I enjoyed Saints Row the Third as much as everyone else, but it didn’t hit me as hard as I thought it would.  It may have been the fact that I knew most of the surprises before I played it, robbing them of their impact.  For this reason, I played Saints Row IV entirely blind; finally, I had the experience I had wanted with the last game.  No game this year made me laugh as hard, or as loud, as this game did.  Surprisingly, Volition also managed to have some interesting character moments that I wasn’t expecting, giving them meaning where they previously had little.  Best of all, I loved flying around the city with my crazy superpowers; it was the most fun I’ve had with traversal since InFamous.  The gunplay and setting are a little stale, but I played through the entire twenty hours with a voracious hunger that rarely afflicts me.

1.  Gone Home

Gone Home

There was no way in hell that anything but Gone Home could have topped my list.  No other game this year hit me as hard as it did, sticking in my mind and forcing me to think about it for days after completing it.  I love games that do something different, and this is a perfect example of how amazing a game can be if it is willing to experiment.  While the gameplay is simple, it just serves to keep you engaged with the simple story that unfolds in a very natural way.  The game also features what is easily the best voice acting performance of the year, a fact made even more impressive by the knowledge that the voice actress was the only one in the entire game.  Games like this are the ones that excite me the most with hopes of forward progress in the stories and characters of video games, finally turning the medium into a mature one after all these years.  I hope that something from 2014 can be even half as defining to me as Gone Home.

Beyond: Two Souls (PS3) review

Jodie Holmes isn’t your average woman.  She has been tethered to a spiritual presence named Aiden since birth, a presence she has partial control over.  That spirit can affect the world in a variety of ways: everything from moving objects to healing wounds and talking with the dead.  For most of her formative years, she grows up in a military facility with very little interaction with people her own age.  Her first job out of this facility is working with the CIA to fully utilize the unique strengths of her spiritual bond with Aiden.  Her life is a truly extraordinary one, more exciting than yours or mine.

None of this is why I found myself enjoying the story of Beyond: Two Souls.  In fact, it was the ordinary parts of Jodie’s life that enthralled me. Several scenes in Beyond focused on this perfectly normal part of Jodie’s life, such as a teenage birthday party that ends in teasing and tears due to fear of her powers.  Or a part where she throws a hissy fit–stomping around, breaking stuff, and rocking out on her guitar–because she can’t leave for one night just to hang out with her friends.  These moments were intriguing to me because they felt real.  I didn’t feel like I was watching some lifeless video game protagonist who seems like he or she couldn’t actually exist in the real world.  Instead, Jodie actually felt like a human person, someone who feels real human emotions and has problems other than saving the world.  Of course, this illusion is often shattered by the more ridiculous events that also occur in Beyond, but I have to give David Cage points for at least trying

I think it was those moments that felt especially female in the experience they were trying to portray that stuck with me the most.  I enjoy playing female characters whenever I can because I am more intrigued with a character who is as different from me as possible.  Being born male, I can never fully understand what life is like for a woman in our society but am fascinated to learn as much as I can about the experience.  While books can do a better job of getting inside a character’s head than any other medium, I think video games have the potential to offer the most immersive experience, filled to the brim with those small details that don’t seem important but actually matter most of all.

Beyond doesn’t have many of these, but the few that appear are what resonated with me the most, keeping the experience in my head for days afterwards.  One such example is when teenaged Jodie sneaks out of her confinement and goes to a nearby bar on her own.  Things soon escalate to the point of her being sexually assaulted by the men in the bar.  While Jodie is never truly in danger thanks to Aiden’s protective presence, this was a horrifying scene for me.  My character had no direct control, no way to escape the situation on her own.  She was completely helpless.  In comparison, a later scene where Jodie prepares for a first date with a guy surprised me with how nervous I was for him to arrive.  I had spent my time trying to ensure that every last piece of clutter was picked up, that the food I had prepared was something delicious and appealing to him, and that my outfit was the right mix of cool and attractive.  I felt myself stumbling over conversation choices, what music to play, how forward I wanted to be to this new guy.  It may not be a perfect analog to how nervous a person is on their first date, but it felt damn close.  I personally would have enjoyed Beyond even more if the somewhat silly supernatural elements had been excised from the game entirely and instead the focus was entirely on this woman’s life, bringing Cage’s focus on the seemingly mundane everyday activities to the forefront.

Sadly, this isn’t the case.  Even though the plot is done in a passable manner, I never really cared much about it, instead hoping that the next scene focused more on a younger Jodie without the supernatural elements.  The true power of Beyond is the fact that Jodie is a character who believably grows and changes over the course of the game’s events.  Even though the events aren’t told in chronological order, it’s plainly obvious where Jodie has come from and why she turns out the way she does.  How many games can attest to that?  How many can also claim that they have a woman as the lead and not a man?  Thanks to the minimalist gameplay and the terrific performances (especially from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe), I often forgot I was playing a game at all.  It all felt much more real than that, as if I had created Jodie as a character myself and was guiding her down a path that was mostly locked in place but had enough choice in place to make me feel like I mattered.  While some may argue that my desired experience isn’t really a game anymore, I’m too enchanted with the idea to care.