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.