Even after writing last week’s spoiler-free Nier review, and despite promising a spoiler-fueled deep dive into the topic today, this article has been scrapped countless times.
That’s because the twists, turns, and entire emotional rollercoaster are impossible to convey in words. Such an experience isn’t even possible outside of a video game, because the player-game interaction is what allows Nier to reach those heights.
I know that sounds pretentious as all hell, but let me try to explain.
!!WARNING!! From this point on there will be spoilers for Nier – if you have any intention of playing it,
please consider getting each of the game’s endings before reading on
Nier takes full advantage of being a game
Nier is an example of how games can truly engage the player in a way that is simply impossible for a book or movie. You’re not just viewing or empathizing with the characters; you are the characters, and their actions are your own.
It’s hard to convey, so let’s try a different tactic.
How many moments in gaming can you say truly and deeply affected you as a player? I don’t mean ones that “surprised” you or “made you a little sad”, but something which genuinely made you stop to think about your actions. Something which left a weight in the pit of your stomach, and stayed with you long after turning off the console.
I’ve played some fantastic games, many of which had emotional moments – FFIV and VII, Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, MGS2 and 3, KOTOR, Enslaved (yes, I’ll defend Enslaved), Shadow of Memories, and more. Some made me a little sad or had a few surprises, and I’d highly recommend each and every one.
But I’m talking moments that leave you physically shaken. Events which are almost hard to process, and even more difficult to work through.
Nier does that precisely that by using a few key tactics.
Switching playstyles takes the focus off of gameplay
It may sound odd, but Nier’s tendency to switch up its playstyles (from 3D bullet hell, to action RPG, to sidescroller, to top-down dungeon crawling, to text adventure) dissociates you as a player from the characters. Each style is done very well, but it nonetheless draws you out of the game slightly when you’re switching between fixed and free cameras, different control schemes for aiming, and so on.
Ordinarily this would be to Nier’s detriment, but instead it allows you to focus on something far greater; your actions as a player.
You’re still doing the exact same things, killing the same enemies, using the same spells, and gathering the same items, but you’re far more aware of how your interaction affects the world.
In Nier, merely playing the game is a choice which the player is viciously aware of making.
One particular segment of the second playthrough had me almost refuse to continue. I knew what was going to happen, and I knew exactly how the boss fight had gone the first time around, but some key extra information had me go full pacifist for at least 15 solid minutes.
A drive to see the remaining endings forced my hand eventually, but as soon as the fight was over I saved and didn’t touch the game again for four days. The entire thing was emotionally draining like nothing I’ve experienced before or since in gaming or movies.
The first half sets a precedent, the second crushes what you knew
Nier gives very limited choices to the player throughout its side quests. As I stated in the main review, these usually have little or no bearing on physical outcomes such as your monetary reward, and are more about what you decide is the right thing to do.
In the main story, you’re given no such luxury.
The first half of Nier has you fighting to find a cure for Yonah. You’re introduced to all locations in the game, along with all of the characters you’ll meet, such as your party members and core NPCs. Then, halfway through the game, Yonah is kidnapped from your village by a powerful Shade known as The Shadowlord, who has his own talking magical book in the form of Grimoire Noir.
Nier is nierly (I’m so sorry) killed, Grimoire Weiss is hypnotised and almost absorbed, and Kaine is petrified by Emil to seal a large Shade in the basement of your village’s library. Everything’s gone to pot.
After a five-year time skip, the second half of the game begins. Emil finds a way to restore Kaine (his body warping to a skeletal monster in the process) and Nier has been constantly training, learning how to use new weapons and killing countless Shades to protect the village. The Shades themselves have become far more widespread, numerous, aggressive, and even organized (they now use armour and physical weapons).
The second half is then a quest to find Yonah and defeat the Shadowlord, which has you revisiting all locations from the first half and seeing the effects of the five years gone by. I’ll give you a hint – nothing’s improved.
All three major towns (your village, Seafront, and the desert city of Facade) have seen many deaths due to both the Black Scrawl and Shade attacks. Harvests have decreased and supplies are dwindling, even leading some to starve.
Here is where Nier truly starts to shine.
The scene is set in the first half of the game. Humans are sometimes struggling, but surviving and at times even thriving. Despite some minor bereavement, all is (on balance) well.
In the second half, the entire world is dying. NPCs are absent. Couples have been reduced to bereaved singles. Children playing are nowhere to be seen, and every line of dialogue contains a heavy and creeping dread for the future.
You’re given a precedent of what the world was, and through the many monotonous side quests have learned precisely where every NPC is, and heard their dialogue a hundred times over. Then, in the second half, all of that is ripped away and replaced with a bleak and depressing outlook on the world.
Emotional pinnacles are paced perfectly
Perhaps one of the greatest ways Nier manages to inspire an emotional reaction is its pacing. There may be plenty of smaller tragedies linked to the locations, but Nier spreads its most impactful moments pretty evenly both between locations and the time you reach them.
You have 9 main areas, each of which contain at least one core emotional sucker punch:
- The Village – 1st half of the game
- Seafront – 1st half of the game
- The Mansion – 2nd half of the game
- Facade – 2nd half of the game
- The Forest of Myth – 2nd half of the game
- The Desert – NG+
- The Aerie – 2nd half of the game and NG+
- The Junkyard – 1st and 2nd half of the game and NG+
- The Lost Shrine – 2nd half of the game and NG+
If you were to plot out the gut punches, you have 3 in the first half of the game, 5 in the second, and 4 in the second playthrough. This gives you just enough time to recover from the last revelation or challenging event, but never enough to completely return to normal.
In other words, as a player you’re being consistently tested and re-tested, with each moment getting a greater emotional payoff due to you not having fully processed the previous one.
The final method Nier employs, however, is by far the most devious (and effective).
The first playthrough provides the plot, the second gives you the context
In Drakengard 1, Yoko Taro took an interesting approach to the idea of multiple endings in a story-driven game.
The whole game was mission-based and portrayed as a book, with chapters and verses that you could replay at any time. This allowed him to branch off from the main story at various points to show the different possible paths (all of which are far more depressing than the canonical ending for Drakengard 2).
It worked well enough, allowing some pretty massive departures while maintaining the same characters and feel. Unfortunately, because these endings all branched off you were never forced into sticking with the consequences of a particular ending – you could just choose to view a different path as the “true” version.
Nier is not so kind.
Despite the game having five endings, you can only actually choose between two different paths, and even this choice is set after the first ending concludes. Instead of diverging the story, the different endings largely just expand a little more on where the previous ones left things.
“What the hell does this have to do with your playthroughs? If the endings are that close, why bother going through the whole thing again?”
Well, the first playthrough tells the story of Nier. The story told is not altered between any of the other endings – it is only after the events of the first playthrough that the other endings occur.
In other words, you can’t change the overall events.
Once you complete the game and reload, you’re sent to just after the halfway point with all of your equipment, levels, and gear in general. You then have to replay the second half of the game to get the next ending.
But there’s a problem – the first playthrough has a massive plot twist, which affects the entire game leading up to that point.
As a player you can’t just un-see or forget about the reveal. Simultaneously, it would make no sense for the characters to act differently because they haven’t experienced what you have. Aside from one or two 4th wall jokes, they play out their parts as per the first time around.
So, instead of having paths diverge and the storyline dilute as a result, you’re given extra cutscenes and subtitles to take full advantage of what you now know about your actions. Then you’re forced to play through everything you did the first time (with one or two new shortcuts to save some time).
And by God does it hurt.
Nier manages to take your natural actions (and only possible actions to progress) as a player, and completely flips them on their head. It makes you feel like a true monster, and all while the characters are none the wiser.
I’ve thought long and hard about whether to reveal the plot twist, and while I want to gush about it, I can’t bring myself to ruin the reveal and (especially) the second playthrough. This is the lightning-in-a-bottle kind of experience which, while still excellent, would be a pale shade of its potential if I told you about it here.
I know it’s a slight cop-out, but I really can’t bring myself to ruin that. If you have absolutely any interest in Nier then please pick up a copy and play it through until at least the second ending. Don’t treat it as a race to the finish – let yourself take the time to explore Nier and what it has to offer.
You don’t have to do all of the side quests (although I would highly recommend doing all which involve the lighthouse in Seafront), but the more you do, the greater the payoff and overall feel of the world will be.
PSA: Nier still isn’t for everyone
I won’t pretend that Nier will resonate with everyone the same way it did with me. I’m not easily turned off by “ugly” graphics, slightly janky controls, backtracking, grinding, or the general weirdness that comes with many Japanese titles. I am, however, convinced that the potential in this lesser-known 2010 title is well worth the asking price of a preowned copy.
Hell, you may not even have to get a PS3 copy – there are rumblings of a Nier remake after Automata sold so well.
Either way, if you have the time and patience, this is one you shouldn’t miss.
Gaming nerd and movie over-analyzer. Has credits on Appcues, Usability Geek, and Process Street, but comes to Secret Cave to unwind and spit the shit.