This game – this damn game – is the reason I didn’t publish an article on Secret Cave for more than two months.
I’d planned out at least four different articles for Nier in my head over that time, but none could do it justice. I had to keep playing until I’d reached 100% completion.
And once I saw everything it had to offer, I was at a total loss for words.
Nier is quite possibly the best gaming experience I’ve ever had. I say “experience” because (as with an increasing number of titles) Nier manages to interact with the player directly, completely separate from the in-game characters. It’s not just something you pick up and blast through – it’s a rollercoaster that provides some serious emotional weight.
So much so that Nier made me cry. Twice.
Hell, even Grave of the Fireflies didn’t manage to make me do that.
There’s no way that I can do it justice in a single article without spoiling key plot details. However, I also strongly advise you to experience Nier for yourself without spoilers – the base details and setup, if you will.
So I’m going to split up this Nier review into two articles – one today, and one next week. This one will give you a basic summary and try to convince you without straying into spoilers.
UPDATE: The follow-up Nier, Spoilers, and Emotion in Video Games article is out!
I repeat, this article won’t contain spoilers for Nier
Then, next Monday, I’ll publish a bit more of a deep dive into why this should feature in the collection of anyone who is interested in gaming as a medium, which will indeed stray into heavy spoiler territory.
Nier review: a basic summary
Before I begin, I want to stress that any “basic summary” of Nier will make it seem a bit crap. It’s not an easy game to get to enjoy, and only rewards those who put the time in to uncover what lies beneath its mediocre surface. So, if you’re turned off by this, don’t worry – I was too.
Many have lambasted the graphics, and although I don’t quite agree that they’re outright “ugly” (on the contrary, I think Nier is a beautiful game at times), I can certainly see low-quality textures being an issue for some. In fact, I believe that most who call the game “ugly” are doing so more in reference to the main character.
The titular Nier is a rather surprising departure from your typical JRPG lead (more on that further down). Rather than an airbrushed (and effeminate) young man or teen who looks like he’d be crushed by his own weapons, we’re presented with a grizzled, muscular, middle-aged man who looks… Well, ugly as sin.
Gameplay-wise you’ll be mostly running between the various towns and locations in Nier’s world, fulfilling quests, fighting Shades (strange, shadowy creatures which have begun to appear), collecting weapons and ability modifiers, and talking to everyone and their mother (quite literally sometimes).
The basic story will take around 20 hours or so to get through, with the completionists among us taking closer to 70 (it is an RPG after all). Again, however, if you’re going to play Nier, you shouldn’t be aiming to just blast through the main story – with the game’s multiple endings and worthwhile quest lines I took a hair over 55 hours to get everything I wanted out of the title.
And I’d encourage you to do the same.
At its core, Nier Gestalt is the story of a father and daughter struggling to survive. A little over 1,300 years after some kind of world-ending event (more on that next week), life has progressed to somewhat of a fantasty / medieval society, in which the titular Nier and his daughter Yonah live.
Nier acts as a kind of Geohound – a body for hire, taking whatever odd job he can get to earn money for himself and his daughter. These quests are usually handed out by villagers in person or by one of the village elders (two young sisters named Devola and Popola), and usually require certain materials to be gathered, enemies to be killed, or a location to be visited.
Nier has to complete these tasks due to Yonah having a terminal illness known as the Black Scrawl – a disease which has been popping up around the world. While there is no known cure, the money from odd jobs scrapes enough to provide Yonah pain relief medication, all while Nier searches for a way to get rid of the disease during his travels.
It’s during his travels that Nier encounters a talking book named Grimoire Weiss. This bitingly sarcastic magical tome both gives the ability to cast various spells and tells Nier of the “Sealed Verses” – missing parts of Weiss which are said to give the wielder immense power. After this, it’s a quest to find the Sealed Verses and use them to cure Yonah.
Nier’s map isn’t fantastic. Not because it’s not varied, or because it’s overly small (you have everything from deserts and factories to seaside cities and dense, mystical forests), but because a huge chunk of the game is spent backtracking between locations. Later in the game you thankfully get access to various shortcuts (be they riding a boar or hitching a ride with a ferryman), but the backtracking is pretty severe.
In other words, if it was down to purely the locations you visit, Nier would be incredibly dull from around the halfway point onwards.
However, much like Beyond Good and Evil, Nier does a fantastic job of creating an immersive world for the player, only this time things aren’t quite so chipper.
Without giving too much away, over the course of the game the tone of the entire world changes from relatively pleasant and optimistic to melancholic, and even depressing. This is achieved through how Nier uses NPCs – they’re not treated as random placeholders to spout a line or two at the player, but instead are given a sense of personality and story in their surroundings.
As the world changes, people react. Situations become worse, and you can see this reflected in both the vocal and physical presence of villagers. When the outlook is bleak you won’t hear the children laughing or the grocer proclaiming his business – you’ll hear worried mothers and shop owners who don’t have anything to stock.
It’s not just the main storyline which affects the world either. Certain quest lines have long-lasting ramifications, which in turn are reflected in occasional lines of dialogue you hear while running past villagers.
This is compounded by the prevalence of enemies as the game progresses. Since you’ve backtracked between locations so often you’ll know everything like the back of your hand. You’ll know where enemies spawn, how many there are, and what you’ll be fighting.
So when that changes, it’s all the more obvious.
You’re not moving to visit “higher level” areas where there are naturally stronger monsters – the landscape is actively becoming more hostile as the dire fate of the world draws in.
Again, I won’t spoil anything major here, but suffice to say that Nier’s world is a beautifully oppressive one which provides an atmosphere I don’t often see in gaming. It’s dark “fantasy” at its finest, permeated with looming dread and aching sadness, punctuated with enough humour to make it all the more painful when you’re dragged back to earth.
Speaking of humour…
The cast of Nier is not exactly what you’d expect from an RPG (although with Taro Yoko, you can never be too sure what to expect). A geriatric (if buff) leading father figure, a dry-witted talking book, a foul-mouthed and provocatively dressed beauty, and a young boy imprisoned first by sight, then by his own body.
Yet, despite these ridiculous descriptions, every character in Nier feels human. Enough time is devoted to each of the main party (and many supporting characters) that they can easily carry you through the slower sections of the game through naught but general chatter and interactions with the rest of the party.
Voice acting is strong all-around, although Nier and Weiss in particular stand out as stellar examples of what the right voice (with a good performance) can achieve. These two play off each other fantastically, with the bleeding heart Nier annoying Weiss to no end, and vice versa.
Nier and Yonah also make a believable father and daughter, with Nier’s driving force being to see her well again, and Yonah constantly berating her dad for working too hard. It would be incredibly easy to have Yonah as a one-dimensional plot-driver, but she never feels that way.
Rather than try to force extra interactions with her (since the vast majority of the game is spent outside and away from her) or overplay their relationship, you’re provided with a wealth of passive background to Yonah, her character, and her relationship with Nier through each and every loading screen. As the game loads you’re shown a diary entry of Yonah’s, and given a little icon of her walking, running, or waving.
These entries are pure genius. Not only are you given something to do during load times (which are fairly short, but show up between every area), but the player is shown some of what Yonah gets up to, along with her joys, fears, and just how much she cares for her father. In turn, this drives them to search for Yonah’s cure not because Nier wants to, but because they themselves want to see no harm come to her.
Time to address the elephant in the room though – Nier himself.
There are two versions of Nier, being Nier Gestalt, and Nier Replicant. Gestalt was released worldwide for the Xbox 360 and PS3, whereas Replicant is a PS3 exclusive, and was only released in Japan.
The vast majority of the game is the same – quest lines, weapon locations, main plot, etc – with one major detail altered. In the worldwide Gestalt version Nier is the bulky, older-than-usual-protagonist looking to save his daughter. In Japan’s Replicant, however, he is a much younger and stereotypical Japanese protagonist.
Rather than the ugly older man, you’re given a Final Fantasy-style teenaged boy who’s out to save his sister Yonah.
As far as I can tell, this change was made due to pressure from Square Enix to cater to a wider western audience, but for once I’d actually agree that it was a good thing to do. While I respect Taro Yoko (Yoko Taro? He’s Japanese, and his family name is Yoko)’s original vision of the game to star a younger protagonist, I can’t imagine the emotional payout of Nier being nearly as great for me if it was so.
Nothing against Nier Replicant or the younger protagonist, but the father/daughter connection of Gestalt (along with the older Nier’s spectacular voice actor) is too strong for me to even consider the other option working better. Maybe that’s good targeting on Square’s part, but either way, it’s a great change.
As far as which you should pick up, go for Gestalt. Supposedly there are few differences between the two versions other than the redesign, and Gestalt (released as plain old “Nier” in the West) is much easier to get a hold of.
Things to do
As I’ve already said, the majority of Nier’s run time comes in completing the game’s many side quests. Most of these are fetch quests of some kind, with the odd request for you to find a particular person, deliver a fragile item, breed a certain kind of flower, catch a particular fish, and so on.
Usually I’d lambast the sheer amount of busy work – with what must amount to more than half the run time being devoted to menial tasks, it’d usually be a death sentence in terms of making the game so boring that you’ll never finish it.
And it is, at first.
Nier is a game which starts slowly and only hints at what it has to offer after you put in the legwork. Most of the quests in your first 5-10 hours are completely inconsequential – a couple asking you to find an item, an old woman in a lighthouse making you run errands to the post office, and so on.
Then the mask of mediocrity starts to slip.
I won’t give away anything here, but there is a particular quest line in Seafront (the seaside city) which provides the game’s first emotional kick in the teeth. What starts as a simple fetch quest develops into an aching display of humanity and tragedy, while also serving as the first instance where the player is influenced outside of the characters. This is done by letting you choose how to end the quest line.
Certain quests provide choices, usually at key junctions or the end. Again, I can’t give away too much, but Nier does a superb job of creating genuinely difficult decisions. These aren’t tough for objective reasons – you won’t necessarily get a greater payout for one option (although this is sometimes the case) – but rather each decision plays on the emotional resolution.
Then, once the choice is made, life goes on. You’re never told whether you made the “right” choice because there was never a “wrong” answer – the world keeps turning, and both you and Nier simply do what they believe to be the right thing. A band aid on the world’s unstoppable downward spiral.
I won’t go into detail here (again, spoiler territory), but this very much plays into Taro Yoko’s inspiration for Nier. All I can say in this article is that he wanted to base a game around the idea that both choices are right and wrong; there’s always another view to consider.
Holy Christ, the soundtrack to Nier. Not only does it manage to effortlessly carry you through every second of the game’s repetitive segments but, despite hearing some tracks on repeat, none get old.
“Let me start by spouting off a list of adjectives that describe what the NieR soundtrack is all about: instrumental, choral, vocal, atmospheric, live, dreamy, otherworldly, beautiful, melancholy, captivating, different” – Jason Napolitano,
Original Sound Version
Every second enhances Nier’s playing experience, to the point where I am truly at a loss for words as to how to describe it. So, instead, have a sample from the 43 track OST.
It is, quite simply, one of the greatest soundtracks I’ve ever heard.
Nier has many problems, but in a strange way I almost think they add to the bigger picture. The vast majority of issues present themselves in the early section of the game, and so I suppose Nier’s worst sin would be (potentially) turning gamers away before getting them to the true payoff Nier provides.
Having said that, the biggest flaws actually work to the overall game’s strength.
The biggest problem I have with Nier, by far, is how tedious many of the side quests can be. While the NPCs are fantastic, you just can’t have the emotional payoff I described earlier with every quest, and so you’re left trudging through a lot of dull content to get to the good stuff.
But isn’t that in keeping with who Nier (the character) is and does?
He’s a devoted father who is taking literally any and every job he can find to pay for Yonah’s medication. This will, more often than not, result in crappy, boring, or even tedious jobs making up the majority of his days. Hell, your party members have plenty of extra lines devoted to particular quests, pointing out just how tedious the whole thing is.
Yes, it’s boring to get through, but personally I think that it helps to cement the family relationship between Nier and Yonah. Nier is predominantly out performing menial tasks, hard labour, and anything between for the sake of his daughter, meanwhile the player is being constantly shown snippets of Yonah’s diary in loading screens, telling them how much she wishes she could just spend some time with him.
There are a couple of flaws which don’t help Nier’s cause, but almost all are small enough to not majorly distract from the stellar cast. For example, Nier’s double jump looks like a duck doing an impression of Peter Pan while being shot, but you get used to it pretty quickly.
The only issue that I do wish was changed is the difficulty. Overall Nier has a fairly nice difficulty curve – larger enemies are truly dangerous at lower levels, encouraging you to flat-out avoid certain confrontations until later. Smaller foes can certainly give you a nasty nick, but aside from grouping up and chaining attacks on you, you’re reasonably safe to have a fair fight.
Unfortunately, in the latter half of the game when you get the chance to upgrade your weapons, that difficulty goes to pot.
As soon as you start making your weapons stronger the game becomes almost unbearably easy. The Phoenix Spear in particular is horrifically overpowered for all but the post-endgame DLC once you’ve leveled it up (I’m talking an average of about 3-5 hits to kill the late game bosses).
Admittedly, you’ll usually want to kill a boss as soon as possible, but when there is literally no challenge the grand encounters become little more than waiting around to listen to your party’s dialogue (which is well worth doing), before giving the big baddy a light tap on the shoulder to knock ’em for six.
In other words, level up your weapons by all means, but consider keeping your weakest weapon where it’s at – that way you can always drag out a fight for longer without having to wander around the arena like Nier’s Alzheimers kicked in mid-battle.
I truly wish I could dive more thoroughly into what makes Nier such a fantastic game (and indeed a fantastic demonstration of the medium as a whole), but to do so I need to start drawing on spoilers. So, if you have any desire at all to play Nier then pick up a copy and game away (and consider missing next week’s Nier article). If not, I’ll catch you in 7 days.
Your one sentence Nier review
If you put in the time, Nier provides one of the most emotional and eye-opening experiences to date in gaming.
Have you tried Nier? What did you think? I’d love to chat in the comments! Remember to read next week’s article for more of an in-depth and spoiler-fuelled dive into Nier’s world