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Review: NIER (X360)

I was sold NIER on the promise of a war-torn father striding across a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland on a relentless quest to save his only daughter from the terminal arcane illness that had befallen here, striking down any enemies in my path. Three hours after first popping in the disc, I’ve found a missing dog for a man, I’ve gone shopping for a villager, I’ve been taught how to be a farmer and I’m currently engaged in a compulsory fishing mini-game. The experience is rather less visceral than the blurb on the back of the box suggests.

After a very intriguing opening sequence set in the ruins of a 21st century metropolis, the game switches to the quasi-medieval society that our civilisation will become over a thousand years from now. The world- we are told by the game’s narrative- is on “the brink of collapse”, but the settlement that our protagonist lives in certainly seems quite nice. The streets are tidy and orderly, industry and agriculture still exist, bards sing on street corners and taverns dispense booze like nothing is wrong. But no, the narrative insists that things are bad, pointing towards the monstrous Shades that roam the countryside, and a lethal illness called the Black Scrawl that is sweeping the world and infecting everyone… well, two people that we ever see. One of those unfortunate souls is the daughter of our protagonist, Nier, and his daily life consists of doing odd-jobs for money so that he can pay for Yonah’s painkillers. The leisurely pace that the game takes at the beginning is jarring: even after Nier encounters Grimoire Weiss- a sentient tome who may hold the key to a cure for Yonah’s condition- there is no urgency or immediacy added to his quest. It’s certainly something that Nier wants to pursue, but without a sense of pressure to succeed- Yonah is definitely ill, but there’s no indication of how long she has to live or if her condition is getting worse- his quest lacks the energy it desperately needs.

Instead, Nier is quite happy to pursue whatever odd-jobs the villagers give him, which amount to little more than MMORPG-style fetch quests. Now I’m normally a completionist when it comes to these things, but even I couldn’t be bothered with the sheer volume of superfluous quests. Especially since the game already has several mandatory fetch-quests built into its design. One early (mandatory) quest tasked me with acquiring three Titanium Ores, a rare drop from a monster that only spawned at the very end of a nearby dungeon. This requires a minimum of two runs of this dungeon, fighting the same enemies and traversing the same corridors over and over. Had I the patience to attempt some of the optional quests, I would have had to re-do the same dungeon many more times, desperately clinging to the small chance that the monster I need would give me the item I wanted. Considering there are only four dungeons in the game (two of which you are required to revisit at least twice, each), the tedium soon sets in.

Perhaps some of that tedium would be relieved if the combat system was interesting, but it’s an average button-masher at best. Eventually the enemies start guarding, and knowing when to press the “guard break” button is about as technical as the game gets. Sometimes the game decides that it wants to be a Touhou-style shoot-em-up instead, sending pattern after pattern of magical spheres at you and expecting you to retaliate with one of the numerous ranged magical attacks you have. It’s bizarre and not quite as seamless as they wanted it to be; sadly the shooting mechanics are superior to the swordplay, to the point where it’s often safest to evade-roll out of reach of the enemy until your magic bar recharges. Eventually you get access to two-handed swords- which are painfully slow to swing- and spears, which are a nice tradeoff between the power of the 2H swords and 1H swords. It all feels a bit familiar: while hacking down yet another wave of identical enemies, all I could think of was how much better Bayonetta did this kind of action-combat. And there’s certainly a suspicious resemblance to Bayonetta‘s Climax attacks in the way Nier summons and weaves together massive tentacles of eldrich power to deliver the finishing blow to boss enemies.

There really isn’t much story to go on. First, Nier is travelling the world searching for one set of items. Then he’s travelling the world for a second set. Along the way he meets Kainé, a foul-mouthed warrior woman possessed by a Shade; she is by far the most interesting character and rightfully gets some major exposition later on. There’s also Emil, a young boy upon whom the game is intent on heaping as much misery as possible. At the end there’s some crazy plot twists and a whole heap of existentialism. The game occasionally touches the level of human drama that it aspires to, and the banter between the hot-aired Weiss, simple Nier and profane Kainé is well-written and endearing. NIER expects you to play through the game more than once, offering additional exposition and endings on a second and third playthrough. But overall the story fails to really deliver what was promised or expected: the big reveal is both unoriginal and incredibly confusing at the same time, the character development is either predictable or needlessly cruel, and Nier never conveys the urgency required for his story to be effective.

The really frustrating thing is that NIER occasionally shows brief flashes of brilliance. Every so often there’s a wink and a smile towards the player, ridiculing the formulaic fetch quests of RPGs while putting you through their ordeal, perhaps as a misguided attempt at irony. Pop culture references to other games- such as The Legend of Zelda– come out of nowhere and disappear with a sly grin, satisfied enough by the look of surprise on your face. One area of the game sticks out in my mind for its sheer audacity, that the game would actually turn around and do such a thing, especially a game whose marketing is soaked in bloody, full-throttle combat. Some of the setpieces- mostly revolving around boss battles- are also particularly well-done, the most impressive of which require you to navigate and scale massive battlefields to take down gargantuan foes. And there are a few moments between Nier and Yonah that are masterfully written, underscoring the bond between father and daughter through subtle musical narration and a few well-chosen words. Sadly, these moments only serve to throw the mediocrity of the rest of the game into sharp focus; a game that is utterly average and completely convinced that it isn’t.

My grade for NIER is Not Recommended. NIER is a game that can’t seem to decide what it is: as an RPG, the levelling and customisation system is mostly empty numbers and contains some of the worst aspects from RPGs, such as fetch quests and mini-games that are little more than a distraction. As an action game, it’s average at best: a button masher that feels old and sluggish alongside its sleeker rivals. As a story or experience, it’s occasionally compelling but often boring, often contradicting what it presents and what the narration tells you and stabbing wildly at a semblance of depth and meaning. NIER‘s problem is not that it’s a bad game- it’s an average game, it’s certainly not bad– but that it lacks heart. This is a game that is trying so hard to be serious, dramatic and meaningful that it forgets to have a good time along the way.

(With thanks to Destructoid for some of the screenshot images.)

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  1. July 6, 2010 at 1:55 am

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