Nier and his pals – a talking book, a foul-mouthed warrior and Jack Skellington Jr.
I think I’m supposed to like Nier. Back when it was released, all the reviews seemed favourable, and in the intervening years, people still spoke positively about it. And when a sequel was announced, I thought I’d better finally take my copy off the shelf and give it a whirl.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
Before I started playing it myself, all the signs looked good. I liked the idea of a game where the main character wasn’t a destined teen, but was rather a 40-ish single-parent. I liked the idea of exploring yet another post-apocalyptic world with a smart-aleck magic book and unlocking four separate endings. In short, I didn’t reach my current opinion of the game because I approached it with a closed mind. I was ready to like whatever Nier had to offer.
And at first, I did quite enjoy myself. There was always “just one more quest” I wanted to do before putting down my controller. But along the way, my attitude started to shift. The world, which seemed so open and free at first, revealed itself to be a limited set of areas that my character had to run back and forth between. A limited form of fast travel via boat appears later in the game, but by then my character had surely worn through several pairs of his trademark sandals trekking between towns to fetch items for the villagers.
Nier is a game of two parts, the second of which occurs five years after the first. For completionists, this means that pretty much all of the sidequests from part one cannot be done in part two. Worse than this, however, is the fact that pretty much the entirety of part two simply involves backtracking through dungeons you already visited in part one. Remember that tedious area you didn’t enjoy before? Well, here it is again!
As for gameplay, well, here Nier doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. On the surface, it’s the typical action RPG with three weapon types: one-handed swords, which are fast but weak; two-handed swords, which do powerful, wide, yet extremely slow swings; and spears, which are reasonably strong but only jab straight ahead. On top of this, throughout the first part of the game you learn different magic spells, and of course you always have the option to evade and defend – or do you? You can actually remap the trigger buttons so that magic spells replace evasion and defence, and, given the number of spells you earn, the temptation is high. Except, of course, both evading and defending are useful in battle, so you’ll miss them if you don’t have them.
Whatever button setup you go for, combat can feel like a chore. If Nier’s combat system was a person, it would be the kind of bully that knocks you to the ground, and repeatedly kicks you in the stomach every time you try to catch your breath. If an enemy hits you, you’ll go flying – spurting lots of blood along the way – and then its companions will likely pile on and just keep hitting you. Think you get invincibility frames whilst your character gets up? Think again.
Maybe Nier’s combat system would have been a bit more polished if the developers hadn’t spent their time implementing whatever else took their fancy. There are bosses stolen straight from Legend of Zelda, whilst numerous foes spew magic orbs in bullet hell style attacks that wouldn’t be out of place in a Touhou game. In one location, there isn’t even a dungeon – instead, the game suddenly becomes a text adventure!
It may well be that the story is the thing that people are remembering Nier for, and that’s why they speak of it so favourably. Without spoiling it, the main plot does have some pretty intricate twists which would surely intrigue any player. The revelations do come at a cost, though – the need to play through the second part of the game multiple times to see them all. Given that part two is just revisiting old areas and fighting tedious bosses, the prospect of doing it more than once hardly appeals. The final ending, canonically known as ending D, even wipes all your save data – but maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Take my save data! Take all my memories of ever having played Nier! I’m better off without them!
Alongside the main story, there are also a number of sub-plots involving characters you meet along the way. No matter how minor or insignificant a character seems, you can bet that some tragedy will befall them during the course of the game. The world of Nier is not a forgiving one.
Nier is not a game that looks good. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the PS4 (I don’t think so), but this is a game that looks so basic I could believe that it had originally come out on the PS2. The characters range from ugly to hideous, whilst environments are bland and repetitive.
The background music is actually one of the areas where I’m not completely down on Nier. I enjoyed the music of the home village and the plains, despite their tendency to get stuck in my head for a while after playing. On the other hand, the soulless, miserable dirges of places like The Aerie and the Haunted Manor were nigh-on unbearable. If I lived in those places, I would have long since killed myself to escape the accursed music.
Other annoying things
- The town of Facade: why make a town with so many steps, twists and turns? Yes, there’s a sand-skiff (think desert gondola) to get around, but waiting for it to ferry you from one place another is so tedious.
- Fishing. Every RPG these days has to have a fishing mini-game, and Nier is no exception. Actually, once I found out that I was failing because I was in a place that was too high-level for me, I wasn’t too bad at it, but when I saw the amount of fishing required for sidequests, a crushing tedium took hold. It doesn’t help that the rod casting animation is so painfully slow, or that it can be difficult to find a camera angle which offers good contrast between rod and water.
- Boars in the final castle. If I’ve died in a boss battle, when I respawn I don’t want the boar to immediately charge at me. Give me a moment to catch my breath!
- Fragile Delivery quests. Whose idea was it to make a quest where you have to carry an item from A to B without breaking it?
- Riding the boar. Why are its only speeds painstakingly slow (i.e. likely to get attacked) or uncontrollably fast (i.e. likely to run into something and get thrown off)?
I wanted to like Nier, I really did – but at every turn, the game seemed determined to put me through pain and suffering. I’m still looking forward to the sequel, but now with cautious optimism rather than outright welcome.