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Nothing is as it seems in Square Enix’s latest action adventure game, set in a crumbling world plagued by disease and dark, unrecognizable creatures. Players assume the role of the unyielding protagonist, NIER™, resolute in his quest to discover a cure for his daughter, who is infected with the Black Scrawl virus. With powerful allies and a mysterious book, NIER™ encounters things that will confound even the mightiest of warriors.
System requirements for PlayStation 3
System requirements for Xbox 360
NIER reviews and comments
The meta-story of NIER is maybe as fascinating as the game itself, but for now, let us stick with the basics. Japan got two versions of the same game, the main difference (to my knowledge) was that each version had a different protagonist. For NieR: Replicant was a teen, and for NieR: Gestalt an adult. Aside from other things like the voice-over or the years the game took place, they are the same. For better or worse, we occidentals got the edition with the grown-up, apparently according to square, he appealed more within our cultural preferences.
The premise, if not the lore, is quite simple: we follow the exploits of Nier looking for a way to cure his daughter Yonah of a lethal disease from this medieval future called the Black Scrawl. In his adventure, he encounters several and eccentric companions as well as uncover the secret of why the current state of the world is as it is.
Steel & Endurance
The combat is simple, it has a three attack basic combo, charge attack, and a variety of magic attacks, it is pretty noticeable that the developers took inspiration from action games such as Devil May Cry and God of War, more likely the latter, still, it lacks the depth and impact of those games and it is more of a first stage version of those combat systems. It certainly would benefit a lot with the inclusion of more attack variety and a targeting system; for an action game to feel this tanky, it can take a lot of the experience.
In terms of variety, you can unlock a lot of weapons and upgrade them. They are one-handed swords, lances, and two-handed swords, normal swords are balanced in terms of flexibility, two-handed swords are slower but can hit several enemies at once and lances have a higher attack but their range, although large, is pretty narrow. The catch is that they’re pretty unbalanced: you start with one-handed swords only, but once you get access to lances or two-handed swords, I never equipped a one-handed sword again, because lances and two-handed swords do double damage than the one-handed attacks, and upgrading them raises their stats by a low rate, not only that, a lot of the upgrading materials are scarce and have a low drop rate so at least to me it was an easy choice to upgrade my lances even when I didn’t prefer that much their playstyle.
The combat, aside from being simple it works for the most part, it is not that fun, but it is not terrible either, sure is better than those you find in DMC 2 or Dirge of Cerberus. Although there is one mechanic that didn’t work for me, but before that, we need to talk difficulty a little.
The difficulty is sadly another unbalanced aspect of the game, I started playing in normal and it seemed fine at first; enemies did a fair amount of damage and so do I, but pretty soon, I noticed that my attacks were taking big chunks of health from my enemies. I did some side questing in between but nothing too heavy to overpower myself that much, and by the end of the ‘first act’ I was simply rushing through everything, so I switched to hard difficulty instead (the game lets you change the difficulty back and forth without a penalty).
Hard mode is peculiar, it certainly adds more challenge but in a very frustrating way. Enemies hit harder but their defense or HP is a joke considering their attack patterns and projectiles are telegraphed is not that hard to evade them, and here lies the problem within the combat mechanic that I told you before. This mechanic is basically a DPS check that appears with every boss fight; once you do a certain amount of damage, a timer icon will appear in the staggered enemy, magic-based attacks are more effective, but weapon attacks are OK as well, in normal difficulty this mechanic is practically nonexistent, however, in hard mode each boss fight is more like an endurance test, instead of lasting 2 or 5 minutes they can take you as long as 30 minutes, the catch with the DPS check mechanic is that if it isn’t destroyed it before the time is up, the boss regains a fair amount of HP, since the combat is not that fun this translates to slow and tedious battles.
There is a boss towards the end that I couldn’t take down because I couldn’t destroy its timer, and it kept healing itself over and over. I don’t think that I was under-leveled, after all, that was not a problem with further bosses, and it seemed more a matter of points and not skill. Nevertheless, I switched back to the normal difficulty to beat it and switched back to hard after that. To me, that was the only instance where I couldn’t keep up with hard mode, but only a few of the battles were thrilling, and the majority of them were more endurance tests.
Despite gameplay not being one of the strengths of the game, NIER has a couple of tricks under its sleeves, although they’re not perfect and have some issues within (at least one of them) they are easily the star of the show.
The Silent Hero
Its first strength is easily its characters and story. To me, one of the questions the game presents is “What if the silent hero had a voice or personality? How they will be?.” Let’s take Link from The Legend of Zelda as our main subject, particularly any Link from the 3D games. He is a blank slate for the player to reflect their thoughts and personality, however, given the choices and the things he does, one can assume that he’s a good and noble guy. There is some discrepancy with this though, for the sake of the people he loves or any objective of his benefit (like acquiring new items), he mercilessly kills his enemies, humanoids or not. Of course, The Legend of Zelda isn’t trying to question your morale or anything (yet), but NIER (the game) does, or at least it shows you that side. Nier (the character) starts at first somewhat as a blank slate, he doesn’t seem to be very opinionated in any regard but the more you play the more you get to know that he is a pretty sweet guy that just happens to be big and muscular, he knows what rough life is like and for that reason he likes to help people if it is in his possibilities, one could say that he’s simple-minded.
But with the same ferocity he chooses to help people he annihilates his enemies without a second thought. It may look that narratively these two sides don’t get well (one just need to search so little in regard of this topic for characters of other games like Nathan Drake from Uncharted to pop up), but in the context of the game, it makes all the sense, this is a cruel and cynical world after all. One brilliant aspect in this regard is that Nier is as nice as the player wants to, since this perk is more fleshed out the more side quests you do, so it can be that two players get a different experience with Nier, if only by little.
Nier alone is a good character but just by himself isn’t that interesting. Getting back a little with the Link analogy, Nier also has a companion called Grimoire Weiss. He is this “twisted” world’s version of any Link partner but similar to Nier, it defies the concept of a “fairy” companion. While Link’s partners are there to give information of enemies, lore, hints, etc. on the player’s command (mostly) and take more of a backseat and guiding place, Weiss is pretty useless in regards to lore, since he doesn’t remember anything of the world’s status quo, but thanks to him Nier can use magic and also he’s there to question every decision Nier does.
One of my favorite details of the game is the moral decisions you have to make, not because they will change any of the main story (they’re mostly asked through side quests), but just because for the sake of doing them. I can’t remember many games where I do side quests just to know the development of their protagonists. In NIER, sometimes the reward is minimum or it isn’t a reward at all, but the characters and circumstances make you want to finish them up, and getting to see the interaction between Nier and Weiss can be considered the reward. Choosing between some tough decisions give a lot of depth, you see, in many games when you are asked to decide over things, they offer mundane resolutions but here, every decision felt definitive and heavy, at times I didn’t want to choose at all, but this is a cruel world after all. Overall sidequests are great, but a lot of them require some backtracking and this can affect the experience negatively because the navigation can be clunky you’ll consider doing them more than once.
Weiss is not the only character you met. In your adventure, you’ll encounter a wide variety of eccentric and interesting people and a couple of them even join you in your journey to save your daughter. Although they start somewhat dull at first, the more you advance, the more you’ll get to know them and the interactions get more interesting, and they offer more points of view to the side questing, a lot of time you’ll trigger unique dialogue by side questing and you’ll get a better grasp of who they are and what is happening in the world by these scenes. In the majority of RPGs before NIER was launched, when you navigate through the world or towns, your main character was always alone and the moment you entered a fight every party member suddenly appeared for the battle, just to vanish the moment the battle finished. NIER also addresses this issue and it makes it part of its narrative, I don’t want to spoil or sound repetitive, but I liked a lot how the game questions a lot of conventions from RPGs and adventure games in general.
The world-building is one of the game’s positive points, as I told you it is a cruel world, so NPCs alike will have motives to their backstories that range from depression to revenge in the rawest of ways, at times you’ll question yourself if helping somebody out was the right call. Although there’s sometimes a ray of hope, one can only feel pessimistic about everything even when you’re on the same page as the always positive Nier. The game has an experimental side to it also. In your playthrough, you’ll find a lot of game shifts accordingly to the area you’re playing, I won’t spoil the surprises, but several segments made me smile while I discovered them, one of them has some relation with a mansion from another game or at one time the adventure goes full visual novel, the later was pure brilliance.
Sound of The Ancients
Not everything is happy within the story though. At times some events and twists can feel rushed or out of nowhere. Contrary to the weight of the moral choices the game gives you within the side quests. A few main story events don’t feel as conclusive and lack a lot of punch. Somewhere between the middle of the story a major event happens and it felt pretty heavy, but 20 minutes after you solve it and it seems that it wasn’t that definitive after all, and this happens in other few instances throughout the game.
But, NIER has a greater problem than that, one that makes the other look like nothing in comparison, and that is its voice acting. The first moment you boot the game and the company logotypes start to appear, suddenly an angry female voice breakthrough with a sounding: “Weiss you dumbass!…” and at that very moment I knew that it was going to be a rough auditive journey. Overall the acting is OK at its best, bad on average, and pretty awful on its worse. I don’t know why Japanese RPGs have this kind of cartoony-fantasy acting that sounds terrible and immersion breaking. It is not that the actors are bad, maybe is more of a directing issue. At some point you can adapt to the acting of almost every character, I didn’t dislike that much Nier’s voice, or the creative choices around the voice of Weiss but, everyone seemed to struggle a lot when the story took dramatic turns, and instead of being these thoughtful moments, they’re turned into this cringy and corny fests, the acting simply goes way down. However, the mayor offender might be Kaine’s voice (the one you hear in the game’s opening), it simply lacks emotion and is just a tortuous angry-screaming lecture about everything. She reminded me a lot of Kirsten Stewart angry acting in one of those Twilight movies where she is lecturing the wolf guy something about her daughter called Nessie, that level of bad. Although ironically, she’s the one that sounds best when things are sad and dry (better than the others but not good). What surprises me the most is that Kanié’s actor Laura Bailey is definitely a good one, I liked her interpretation of Helena Harper in Resident Evil 6 or Serah Farron in Final Fantasy XIII, she did great in those games, so maybe the voice directing was the issue here. Sadly though, the acting, in general, takes a lot from the mood of the game to the point of being immersion-breaking. After beating the game I look for the Japanese audio for some events and it was heartbreaking to see how everything was almost different in a good way, as always with this kind of issue, I felt robbed from my experience.
Although not everything related to sound in this game is bad, the music for a change is incredibly good. NIER’s world is depressing but it has a wide variety in regards to levels, and the music accompanies them beautifully, it has no right being this good but here we have it. Some tunes are quite heavy on the atmosphere and others fill you with a nostalgic almost optimistic feeling. There’s this one character that plays a string instrument and when you approach her the world’s music merges with hers making a pretty composition, sometimes I just went to her spot to hear her sing and just stay there. One of my favorite musical moments were when you play the visual novel portions of the game, the writing is merged with the music almost magically, the twists in the writing are in synergy with the music and it made me feel that I was there.
Ashes of Dreams
NIER can be rough around the edges; its combat might not be that polished and the voice acting takes away too much from the experience, but after everything is said and done, I’m glad that I did play after all. Its themes and characters give me a lot to think about, and while maybe you need to do some meta-research to get the full grasp of everything (some important story points are overlooked or aren’t that well explained in the main story, and although I don’t think that a story needs to be fully explained or explained at all, in this particular case it would be benefited to be a little more explicative in some regards), you can have quite the journey even with the bad aspects and all. In a few months Square Enix will be releasing a remastered edition of the Japanese version of NieR: Replicant, and while I do recommend to play this game, maybe that remaster would be the best way to play it, at least in the occidental land, but if you’ve already got your mind on experiencing it like this, I think this Yoko Taro rawly cut diamond can offer you a lot, maybe he and his team didn’t achieve the heights they achieve with NieR: Automata, not by a long shot, but there is certainly a brilliant aspect to NIER if only by glimpses.