Nier Xbox 360, PS3
In the current climate of million dollar franchises, in which adhering to the requirements of shareholders appears to be more important than creative output, you’d be forgiven for approaching Nier with more than a hint of jaded suspicion. After all, this is from Square Enix – a company that’s pretty much built upon a foundation that consists of just two games they reproduce year after year with the same formulaic approach. Booting up Nier, it’s difficult to shake the preconceptions tied to a game that looks as though it’s out to tick all the same boxes as before.
But Nier is different. It has all the hallmarks of your typical JRPG, but every time you think you have it sussed, it surprises you in ways you wouldn’t believe. The opening alone manages to break convention. Set in a post-apocalyptic modern-day cityscape, a father defends his daughter from a legion of spawning shadow-like creatures, levelling up numerous times and unlocking each new power before you’ve managed to use the last. Becoming accustomed to the hack-and-slash mechanics you settle down to the rhythm of the battle, preparing yourself for a God of War like action platformer.
But before it lets you get too familiar with your new found abilities, the game whisks you one thousand years into the future, and back to JRPG formalities. It’s a dynamic that resonates throughout Nier, introducing key ideas and game elements then completely turning them on their heads, forcing you to re-evaluate exactly what it actually is. There’s no better example of this than Nier’s fishing mini-game. Despite being one thousand years after the initial sequence, you’re still the aforementioned father (Nier) and you still have to find a cure for your daughter Yonah, who’s managed to get herself infected with a life threatening disease known as the Black Scrawl.
Through a series of conversations you learn that there’s a special fish that can relieve Yonah’s pain temporarily, so off you set to find a rod and catch this so-called ‘Shaman fish’. The thing is, Nier’s fishing mechanics are so bizarrely complicated, fiddly and frustrating that even after having found a rod and a guy to talk you through the fishing tutorial, it’s nigh-on impossible to catch a single thing. As mentioned beforehand however, Nier is a game that will often challenge your understanding of its inner workings. Casting the line on a different beach signified by an objective marker, and the game openly mocks itself, with a dialogue box reading “278 tries later, you caught the Shaman fish”. It would appear that like many things in Nier, the fishing mini-game isn’t exactly meant to be taken seriously.
Nier is packed full of these moments, a video game so self-aware that it rarely ceases to entertain. A lot of this is provided via the game’s colourful supporting cast, most notably Grimoire Weiss; a magical talking book that seems to be half David Bowie and half Alan Rickman. Weiss has an opinion on everything and is quite vocal. At one point he complains that Nier is wasting time fetching goat meat for unimportant villagers when he should be helping his daughter, followed by an amusing argument regarding the difference between goats and sheep, and why mutton isn’t goat meat.
It’s difficult to judge just how much of this was written to excuse the number of fetch-and-bring side-quests, and how much of it was simply a fun little dig at the predictable structures of most modern JRPGs. It succeeds in breaking up the often long-winded sub-missions, as well as producing a truly natural conversational style between characters. Even foul-mouthed hermaphrodite (don’t ask) Kainé with all of her in-your-face Americanisms avoids being the annoying cliché she could well have been, by playing off Weiss’s dry wit, in what becomes a highly amusing back-and-forth of insults.
The trend of defying genre-specific conventions continues throughout, and while the JRPG is probably the one continuous game-type Nier will often fall back on – with its upgradeable weapons, potions and elixirs, and customisable magic powers – you’d be hard-pushed to truly identify it as such. There are times when Nier seamlessly transitions from a Monster Hunter style boss fight into a 2D platformer; there are levels in which it goes from a Zelda-esque dungeon puzzler into an on-rails twin stick shooter; and in other areas it has you power-sliding around a field on the back of a giant boar à la Burnout.
Clearly it offers a great deal of variety, but it comes at a cost. Though Nier manages to span pretty much every genre of video game going, there’s always an annoying element of flawed design that stops each one living up to its full potential. With the platforming it’s the inaccuracy of jumping; with the combo-based fighting it’s the occasionally unresponsive blocking mechanic; and too often the game will lack save points where they’re most needed, resulting in some awfully bitter treks across well-trodden ground. Also, although there are some interesting locales, in general the game looks a bit rough around the edges. Though this can be forgiven as the developer has made up for it with the fantastic score – a combination of sweeping orchestral themes and delicate little melodies that compliment the genuinely touching narrative.
Square Enix has said Nier is an attempt to create a JRPG that caters to the western market, which isn’t quite the case. Instead developer Cavia has created a JRPG that isn’t scared to question the genre’s ageing stereotypes. It’s a game that refuses to be labelled, and one that is brimming with surprise after surprise for anyone willing to give it a chance.
To say that Nier is a bit of an odd one would be the understatement of the century. It’s seemingly come from nowhere and will no doubt struggle to find an audience in the shadow of the previous month’s release of Final Fantasy XIII, despite being the far more interesting game. If you’re one of the many who’ve grown tired of spikey blonde protagonists and thirty hour corridors, then maybe it’s time you let Nier convince you that there is room for change.