It’s more than a little ironic that Nier, a game with a large focus on the theme of identity, seems to suffer from an identity crisis. Now, I have no interest in claiming to know precisely what development path this game took, but I can imagine it started in a room full of people throwing out ideas, and the project manager saying “yes” every time.
This could certainly explain the game’s desire to do a little bit of everything. What might look like a straightforward action-adventure title on the surface eventually dips its grubby little hands into nearly every cookie jar you can imagine. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with tasting a bit of everything, but when the cookies are made with ingredients of questionable quality and baked for twenty minutes too little, the natural reaction is “Did I want all those cookies in the first place?”
Upon starting up Nier, a black screen immediately begins hurling a wild barrage of curse words at you, letting you know that this isn’t your typical game. Indeed, Nier‘s story is one of its most interesting qualities. The game tells the story of a man on a quest to save his daughter’s life, putting it in a league with a number of other recent games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Heavy Rain and Bioshock 2 that deal with the concept of fatherhood. Yet, in the great tradition of the JRPG, a world is in need of saving, and a small group of companions must be the ones to save it. The way these two elements, among others, interact is occasionally quite compelling.
The storytelling, however, is not. It is deliberately obscure in many places, hoping to reveal its major surprises later. In some cases, it does, though many major plot points are entirely underdeveloped. Furthermore, there are some large portions of the game where very little happens, leading to a conclusion that throws information at you in a torrent. The major sin, however, is that the game doesn’t tell the full story until you’ve watched all four of the game’s endings, which can only be achieved by performing a bunch of ridiculous tasks, such as finishing the game four times and collecting all of the game’s weapons. Or, you know, YouTube.
Really, this points to the game’s major downfall: it is a marvel of poor game design. Choices seem made to infuriate and interfere with the player. The game’s basic action-RPG gameplay remains extremely simple for the vast majority of the game, changing only slightly when the game throws a half-hearted gameplay twist at you. For instance, one of the game’s dungeons zooms out to an isometric top-down perspective, causing flashbacks to Baldur’s Gate and the like. However, the basic “kill the same uninteresting enemies with the same uninteresting attacks” formula remains intact, and the changed perspective only means that your already imprecise attacks will be harder to hit their mark thanks to the zoomed-out, somewhat awkward view. Essentially, every time Nier tries to do something ambitious like this, it fails to implement it in a way that is anything other than generic and distracting.
The rather bland design of the game’s world is also quite troublesome, both from a gameplay standpoint and a graphical one. The vast majority of enemies in the game, including bosses, are “shades” that exhibit remarkably similar behavior, such as sending out massive balls in patterns that may remind you of bullet-hell shmups. It’s sort of novel the first time, but after the sixth boss that does this, you’ll pray that the next massive room you enter doesn’t lead to a boss battle.
As uninteresting as combat often is, your exploration in the largely lifeless world is far, far less exciting. While the game could be considered “open world”, it provides no compelling reason to treat the game in that manner. The game offers side-quests to distract from the main storyline, but they’re even more boring than your typically unoriginal side-quest. Since you’ll want to avoid combat whenever possible, setting out to fight in the world is out of the question. And while you’ll find materials to gather to upgrade your weapons, even this process is painful thanks to the long walk to get to the one person in the world that can perform this service for you.
All of the walking that the game requires might not be so insufferable if it weren’t for the game’s poor graphics, which, while serviceable on the technical side, do little to excite. Environments are the most egregious offenders, with sparse grasslands, empty deserts, and interiors designed seemingly to make you zone out during the long treks. The fact that you’ll traverse each path many, many times only brings this fact out. And while the character designs have personality, they just don’t look good. Nothing in the game does.
It’s a wonder, then, that the game sounds so damn good. The sound effects work well enough, and the voice acting is mostly good, but the game’s music is, simply put, phenomenal. It’s the sort of quality that lulls the player into believing that the game must be good. The music successfully integrates vocal songs in a way that many games fail to. Strong, memorable melodies meld with creative instrumental choices to create a soundtrack that deserves a spot in your library – even if the game itself fails to land a spot on your shelves.
I wish I could recommend this game for its concept and music alone, and in a shorter game, I might have been able to do so. There are elements of Nier that deserve to be experienced, but, unfortunately, as a video game – a cohesive multimedia gameplay experience – this game does not succeed; especially since the full experience will last over thirty hours. It is, in the vast majority of moments, not fun, and at its worst it will compel you to abandon all hope of resolving the story. For those who do set out on this journey, I urge you to finish it, but for those wondering if you should bother to begin at all, well, sometimes ignorance truly is bliss. Nier is not a bad game; it’s the sort of game that makes you angry because it’s merely mediocre.
The graphics assault the eyes with poor textures and generic environments, and though the game's story attempts to be something great, the manner in which it is told dampens its impact.
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Basic action-RPG combat and uninteresting magical attacks do little to hold your attention during boring quests and tedious open-world travel.
It's a wonder how such fantastic music made it into this game. A truly praiseworthy musical approach melds with solid overall sound design to provide a great aural experience overall.
The game attempts to force the player to play through multiple times, though only the most dedicated players will last more than a single fifteen-hour playthrough.
Nier's jack-of-all-trades approach simply doesn't succeed, making for a strikingly uneven experience. You'll want to love this game for its story and music, but you'll struggle to stomach everything else.