Adventure! Action! RPG! – Nier Review

Holy damn that’s a long video. Text version below:

Here’s a review I’m pretty pumped about writing, because I’ve read a ton of reviews for Nier, and none of them reflects my feelings about the game. One of the coolest things about reviews is that everyone’s experience with a game is different, even if a lot of them are similar; and with Nier, I think the spectrum of player experiences is poorly represented. Most of the “professional” reviews reflect two or three mindsets about the game, while most of the other reviews either match those ones, or are written by fans who see nothing wrong with it, and gush absently about how good it is. I have my problems with Nier, but they aren’t the same problems that most of the reviews I’ve read have had. Because of this, I think it’s important that I really get into the bones of this game.

Two of the most common complaints about Nier are that it’s got a ton of boring fetch quests, and that it’s too easy. Let’s look at these elements.

Walking around the main towns in Nier, there are a bunch of pedestrians with little words over their heads, signifying that they have a quest for you. Most of them are indeed collection quests or transport quests that involve a little running around, and a few of them send you to go kill the occasional monster. These are all very easy quests, and it’s easy to take as many as you can and finish them all together.

I agree with most reviewers that these little quests are tedious and boring—which is why I didn’t do them. After making a run through a bunch of them towards the beginning of the game, which actually did some good for getting me into the world at that point, I decided not to bother, since the game was always sending me between mainline missions anyway.

Maybe someone actually enjoys these quests. When you’re out in the field doing them, your characters will share unique little bits of dialog that you might enjoy if you really like the game’s writing (as seems to be the case for most of its fans). They don’t even take long to finish. One of my favorite things about this game is that Nier runs like a fucking gazelle, very satisfyingly traversing wide-open plains in a matter of minutes. And not only that, but one of the early quests gives you a giant boar mount, which waits for you outside of whichever town you’re in, and can charge across the plains in seconds. I feel like all the reviews which accuse the game of sending you all over the place on quests are missing the forest for the trees by neglecting to mention how easy it is to get around.

My point is that there’s reason to think that someone might enjoy these quests, so their presence in the game doesn’t seem unwarranted to me, and since you don’t have to do them in the first place, I can’t see any need to complain about them.

Moreover, my decision to skip all of the quests killed two birds with one stone. Since I never did quests, I was always broke, and couldn’t afford to stock myself up with items and weapon upgrades and shit. I also didn’t get the levelling boost that would’ve come from fighting enemies out in the fields along the way. Therefore I played the game underleveled, relying only on the regenerative items which I found in the fields and dungeons, and this made the game challenging.

Albeit, there were still a number of parts when the game was crazy easy. The first two dungeons gave me no trouble, especially because they kept giving me a ton of Medicinal Herbs along the way. The game thoughtfully makes it so you can only carry ten of these at a time, which meant I couldn’t stockade them, so once the game started providing them less regularly, it became much more challenging.

There were parts throughout the game where I soared through, but there were also more than enough tough parts where I died continually, almost to the point where I thought I was going to need to reload my save. I never did though, and always overcame the challenge just by mastering it, which is how to have fun playing video games in the first place.

The other big complaint about this game is that it looks pretty dated and ugly. That word, dated, is one I don’t like to use, because I think it’s a mistake to have it imply that something looks bad. Do you mean it looks dated like Phantasy Star Online, which I now find hard to play because it’s so ugly, or do you mean it looks dated like Valkyrie Profile, which came out in 1999 and still looks great today?

Yes, Nier looks “dated,” though I’d say it looks more like an early Xbox 360 title than a PS2 title, as some reviews accuse it of. And yes, there are also parts of Nier that are ugly, and it’s worth pulling apart there.

Nier, himself, is an ugly dude, but he was also designed that way. He’s forty years old and battle-hardened—he ain’t meant to be pretty. His design is altogether less than attractive or sensible, but I think it works for him. What doesn’t work, though, is how when he climbs a ladder, one rung at a time, his fingers don’t bend, which looks incredibly fucking awkward. Nier’s attacks and magic animations look fine, if not noticeable. What doesn’t look fine is when, in a cutscene, Nier is using the sword that I’ve given him, but one of his hands is holding onto thin air, because he’s supposed to be holding a sword with a much longer hilt.

My point here is that the game straddles a line between looking good and bad, and saying that it’s just one or the other doesn’t get into the heart of the matter. Yes, Nier’s environments aren’t high in detail, but I think they look awesome because of the game’s strong sense of visual design. Sure, that town built onto the cliffsides may be gray, but look how cool it is! It’s like that part in Resident Evil 4, only huge!

Okay, there’s not much in the field, but it’s a huge field, full of adventure! I actually prefer that the fields are barren if the detail wouldn’t have looked good. In Xenoblade Chronicles, seeing all that tall grass only pushed in my face how all of it had a rough pixel outline, which took me out of the excitement that should come from seeing a huge, awesome world. I also think it’s backwards to condemn this for looking dated, when it’s essentially the same design sense as Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, which is still regarded as one of the most engrossing worlds in video games. Nier is definitely a graphical step above the N64, and if the reasoning is that Ocarina was only impressive “for its time,” then it shouldn’t be at the top of every best-of list today.

Sadly, Nier’s world isn’t nearly as engrossing as that of Ocarina of Time, because in actuality, it isn’t very big. When you start out in the central town, you find out how there’s three exits, each of which leads into a big-ass field, and it’s like wow, this could lead anywhere! And the first few places you go to are all across just the first field, so it’s like man, there must be a lot of places in this game! But then it becomes apparent as you go on that those are THE three fields. Each of them connects the main city to a handful of other areas, but those areas don’t lead to other big fields. Figuring this out was a bit of a letdown, especially because by the halfway point in the game, you’ve already been everywhere, and it’s super easy to travel between story missions if you aren’t doing quests. After the halfway point, you unlock the ability to go most places by quick boat rides, and if you do take the fields, your aforementioned boar will get you everywhere in a jiffy.

It’s not that Nier isn’t a relatively big game, nor is it that being engrossed in the world is besides the point of the game. Nier offers a lot of agency to the player to make the game about whatever they want it to be about. You can treat it like an open-world game and spend a bunch of time doing quests, hanging out in the fields, looking for items, etc., but you don’t have to. You can go to the mines and grind your heart out for raw materials to craft your weapons, but you don’t have to. There’s a really terrible fishing minigame and a farming minigame that I guess you can try if Nier is like, your alltime favorite game, and you’re obsessively trying to get 100% on it or something. I can’t say it’s any worse than figure collecting in The Minish Cap.

If you think an RPG should push you to level, buy items, and be prepared before stepping into a dungeon, then play the game on hard mode. If you’re like me, and you get a thrill out of going in totally unprepared and trying to fight the odds, then you probably should still play on hard, unless you’re like me and don’t know how to use the guard button.

At this point, it probably sounds as though I really like Nier, but the truth is that I’m lukewarm about it. Lots of the reviews that give this game scores in the six to eight range claim that it’s got a lot of great ideas and a lot of bad ideas, but I’m not really sure what they mean, and I don’t think that they’re sure, either. There are no ideas in Nier that I thought were “great.” Nothing in this game made me think, “wow, there’s a lot of lost potential here,” because the foundation of the game is only okay at best.

To understand what kind of ideas Nier actually has, we must try to figure out what the developers of this game were thinking when they made it. Did they go into it trying to make a strong action game, and fail? Probably not. Nier’s combat isn’t deep or thoughtful, but it works and, to me anyway, it’s fun. Not satisfying, the way combat in Devil May Cry or God of War is, but mindless fun, the way combat in most action-RPGs is. This is how I know that Nier wasn’t really intended to be an action game. I’ve seen reviews that actually compared this game to the likes of God of War, but I think doing so is rather missing the point.

Only one core element of Nier stands out enough to speak as the game’s mission statement: variety. The most noteworthy, most original, most this-is-why-the-game-exists element of Nier is its constant insistence on variety. My problem with this game, more than anything else, is that I think it fails to shine in the one way that mattered, which was in making variety fun.

Now, if you think there’s a good probability that you’ll play this game, then I recommend that you pause the video, go into the description, and click on the “skip forward” link. I say this because Nier is a game that’s full of surprises, and I think that there’s probably a lot more impact to these surprises if you don’t know about them already. I had already heard about a lot of the weird parts of the game from reviews and recommendations that got me to play it, and I wished that I hadn’t. So again, if you think it’s likely that you’ll play this game, then skip to the point linked in the description to continue the review.

The first few hours of Nier give the impression of a very straightforward action-RPG. Between the quests, which send you around the fields killing monsters and collecting items, and the first dungeon, which is all just combat with the occasional block-pushing, I would’ve expected the game to consist of gradually harder monsters and puzzles, like any other action-RPG.

The first quirks that appear are all based around camera positioning. In the first dungeon, there are rooms where the camera will go to a top-down perspective while you fight or push blocks around. In the second dungeon-slash-town, there’s a long part where you move around on a two-dimensional plane, and it acts like a 2D platformer. These were fun little bits that helped to break up the monotony of combat, and I thought they worked really well.

The third dungeon is probably the most standard RPG fare, consisting of mostly narrow passageways. In this dungeon, you start to see a lot more of the game’s danmaku enemies. Nier is rife with enemies and bosses that shoot patterned projectiles at you, to the point that it’s a defining feature of the game, and I think it’s handled pretty well. The bullets are almost always easy as hell to dodge or block, so again, the point isn’t to have a strong bullet hell mechanic, but just to have more variety in the standard combat.

It’s beyond this point that things get weird, and where the game starts to waver between parts that I enjoyed and parts that I hated. This is where the reviewers get their “genius ideas and terrible ideas” spiel, and it’s probably also where a lot of fans got hooked for love of the game’s eccentricities.

Dungeon number four is easily the one I hated the most in this game, and to really do this experience justice, I’m gonna tell the whole story, unscripted.

—Description of the entire desert area—

After the desert is the most frequently noted “dungeon” in the game, the Forest of Myth, in which the game suddenly becomes a text adventure, written in the style of a visual or light novel. This is the part that I think you might find neat if you didn’t know it was coming, but I’d already heard about it, so the novelty wasn’t really there, and it all just felt rather pointless. The text adventure is pretty short, and the only interactive part is answering a couple of very easy riddles, each of which only has two options for answers. It wasn’t exactly a spectacular scene unfolding in the text, and it was over in no time.

There are two people in the Forest of Myth who give non-mandatory little text adventures, and if you complete them, you get a weapon from the first guy. Only the second one has real fail potential, and when I did indeed get a game over on it, I didn’t bother trying again and left.

The next dungeon is a mansion that’s in black-and-white, and which you explore through fixed camera angles. This has been called a parody of Resident Evil, which is probably is (earlier there was a very direct parody of The Legend of Zelda, so parody is in this game’s blood), but it reminded me more of Capcom’s other hit, Devil May Cry, which also featured fixed camera angles and much more similar combat. Like the text adventure dungeon, this one ended up being very unobtrusive and easy, in there just to be in there.

Next there’s a huge series of epic boss battles, which I won’t spoil in this review, and the game reaches its halfway point, which includes a time skip and suddenly giving you two new classes of weaponry. When you play Nier on New Game+, it starts you off at this point, which makes sense for a number of reasons that will soon be clear.

After the timeskip, you go back to the haunted mansion and enter its basement, which is my favorite of the unique dungeons. This one features an isometric perspective and feels like a Gauntlet-style game. I usually hate isometric perspective, but Nier lets you move the camera freely, and the controls seem to work naturally with the perspective, so all was well. This ended up being the most challenging dungeon for me, with tons of fighting and sparse items, and for whatever reason, I passively enjoyed it.

Then things get kind of weird. You may recall me saying that by the halfway point, you’ll already have seen the entire world of Nier. So where does the rest of the game play out? In the same places you’ve already been to.

In all fairness, some of these dungeons have new paths to explore, which you might remember having been closed off when you came before. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sending you on new paths through the old dungeons, but I do need to mention that the first dungeon is the exact same fucking thing the second time through. Maybe the block-pushing parts were different, I’m not sure, but otherwise, you follow the same path, and the only difference is that the enemies are stronger this time. Even the boss is the same. Of all the dungeons they could’ve sent me to twice, why did they pick the most boring one?

After that dungeon, you can do the others in seemingly any order. The Forest of Myth tells a better story the second time around, although it’s another one that’s so tangentially related to the plot that it seems pointless. The second dungeon-slash-town is the same as before, but this time you have to fight this crazy-ass gauntlet of like one hundred enemies, and if you die, you start over, which became infuriating when I actually died twice and ragequit for the night.

It was at this point when I finally sold the metric fuckton of items that I’d collected throughout the game, became insanely rich, and could afford to always have tons of healing potions, so I skated through the rest of the game.

Oddly enough, the post-timeskip part of the game is much shorter than the opening part, with a lot more focus on fighting. You never return to the annoying desert temple thankfully, and there are a lot more giant enemy hordes.

If I’ve made Nier sound boring and repetitive up to this point, you might be wondering what drove me to play it through to the end, considering my whole “extreme non-completionist rant” from episode two. Thing is, there’s one area where Nier does truly shine, and that’s in the boss fights. There are a ton of bosses in Nier, each of which is unique, challenging, and fun. These bosses are giant and take a really long time to kill, and are every bit as fun as the famous bosses from God of War, plus there’s way more of them than in that game. Sadly, the final gauntlet of bosses isn’t as epic as many of the ones that came before it, but I was satisfied with what I got.

Okay, we’ve come a long way now, so take a breather. We’ve still got a ways to go.

(long drink)

…alright, I’m ready.

Remember earlier in the video when I was taking apart the criticisms levied at this game by other reviewers and disagreeing with them? Well, there are also a number of things that most reviewers liked about this game which I thought sucked.

The big huge one is the voice acting, which I’ve seen praised enough that I started wondering if I had crazy-high standards for voice acting, or if everyone else has crazy low ones. Nier is a JRPG dubbed in English with no Japanese voice option, and like every other dubbed JRPG that isn’t called Xenoblade Chronicles, the dub is… be generous, poor. It’s not a shitpile the way dubs like Ys Ark of Napishtim and Musashi Samurai Legend are, but it’s on the level of bad where Persona, Tales games, and the best anime dubs reside. These are a tier below the average native dub, two tiers below the average Japanese dub, and nowhere even close to what I would refer to as “great voice acting,” which is reserved for the likes of Dark Souls and Psychonauts.

Every time you start up Nier, before the main menu appears, you’re greeted by a disembodied voice-over from Kaine, which I will now perform for you.

“Weiss you dumb***, you better start making sense you rotten book, or you’re gonna be sorry. Maybe I’ll rip your pages out one by one, or maybe I’ll put you in the g*ddamn furnance. How can someone with such a big, smart brain be hypnotized like a little *****, huh? Oh, Shadowlord, I love you Shadowlord. Come over here and give Weiss a big sloppy kiss, Shadowlord. Now pull you’re head out of your g*ddamn *** and start ****ing helping us!”

You always manage to hear:

(Weiss, you dumbass)

before you can skip it, and every time, it just reminded me how much I dislike Kaine’s voice. She sounds like she’s trying way too hard to be rough and swear a lot, but she’s not good at swearing, and it sounds all wooden and awkward. She actually sounds fine when she’s being aloof, which she is half of the time, and the swearing seems to flow more naturally into her speech, but when she’s angry and yelling, it just sounds silly.

Kaine and Nier are actually the main characters whose voices bothered me the least. Nier is totally unremarkable, and has a number of weird moments where his inflection or tone doesn’t really match with what he’s saying, or with what he said just beforehand.

Grimoire Weiss (who is a book, by the way) has this droll English accent that is horrid, and he spends most of the game bitching about anything and everything in a long, slow grumble. Weiss has a ton of banter with Nier, which actually does a lot in helping to endear you to the characters. However, there were a number of parts wherein Weiss and Nier would complain about how contrived and annoying parts of the game were, which only served to drill into my head just how contrived and annoying those parts were. You’re supposed to convince me that I’m doing all this boring shit for a reason, not remind me how stupid it is!

Rounding out the main cast is the kid, Emil, who sounds like he’s crying at all times. His whiny voice is by far the most detracting, and it’s a real shame, because he gets a lot of big moments in the story, and I spent each of them distracted by how terrible his voice was.

These are all of the main characters, and I tolerated their voices just enough to watch the cutscenes. When the dialog was reliant on my pressing A to continue, I would read each line and then cut them off mid-dialog so that I wouldn’t have to listen to them the whole time.

The small supporting cast isn’t any better or worse, but the minor NPC voices are fucking atrocious. I wouldn’t expect anything better from a JRPG dub, but there are times when it really detracts from the experience. Remember that 100-enemy gauntlet I mentioned before? The whole time you’re fighting, there are all these NPCs yelling shit from their houses, and they say the same ten or so shitty phrases over and over again, constantly. My initial ragequit when I died at that part was more due to having to hear all the fucking NPCs than it was due to dying.

Remaining on the audio front, Nier has been praised a lot for its music, and the music is honestly pretty good. I liked the songs that were used in the big open fields, and a few of the big dramatic songs were striking, if not memorable. As I’ve said before, I don’t tend to get into video game soundtracks, but for those who do, Nier has a lot to offer.

But I can’t let it completely off the hook. The first two dungeons in Nier had songs that were flat-out atrocious as dungeon-exploring tunes. The first dungeon’s song is a forty-second loop of just operatic vocals, which was so heavy-handedly dramatic that I couldn’t stand it, and in no way got me pumped about all the fighting I was doing. It was like having the Stelio Kontos song from American Dad playing nonstop for forty minutes, ten of which you spend pushing blocks.

At first I thought this was going to end up being a big criticism, since both of the first two dungeons music bothered me so much, but it evened out after that. Even when I went back to those dungeons, they stood out as the most annoying music in the game.

So, here we are, nearing the end of this review, and I still haven’t mentioned the one thing that everyone really loves about this game—the thing that drew in enough players that it’s become something of a cult favorite in the past two years: the story.

Going into Nier, I was aware of the fact that the game has multiple endings, and I had no intention of seeing them all. I’ve never liked the idea of multiple endings and branching story paths, because there has never been a game that made me care enough to actually replay it again and again to see them all. It’s rare enough for me to even touch a game after I’ve beaten it, because by that point I’m usually ready to move on to the next game. If I do care about a game enough to play a lot of it, I’d rather that I could do everything before the end of the game instead of having to replay my way through it.

But as it turns out, Nier is kind of like that. Your first time through the game, there is only one possible ending to get. To get the second, third, and fourth endings, you have to play New Game Plus, and after the fourth ending, the game will actually complete your save, meaning you’re done.

I have not started playing on New Game Plus, nor do I intend to do so immediately. However, this is a system that I’ve really got no problem with, especially because New Game Plus starts you off at the game’s halfway point. Considering that I finished Nier in under fifteen hours, and considering that the plot is supposedly significantly different between each play-through, it seems like New Game Plus would actually be quite interesting in this game.

The reason I’m talking about all of this is because a number of people have told me that the story only really picks up and becomes interesting in New Game Plus.

It’s hard for me to imagine this being the case, though, because I cared so little about the story and characters to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re bad at all, and I did find myself getting attached to the band of misfits by the end of the game, but I was ready to just finish the story and be done with it, and the idea of replaying the same seven hours that I just played through only for more of these characters and this story didn’t appeal to me.

Most of the dialog in Nier falls into one of these three setups:

Number one:
“I have to protect you!”
“No, it’s too dangerous! You don’t have to!”

Number two:
“It doesn’t matter. I have to kill them all, to save Yonah!”

And Number three:
“You can count on us. We’re your friends.”

I don’t dislike messages about friendship and self-sacrifice, but this is how eighty percent of the dialog in Nier goes. All these characters ever talk about it how much they need to protect others, and how much others “don’t need to worry about me, I’ll be fine.” The other twenty percent of dialog is snarky quips about how obtuse the design of the desert place is, etc.

And while Nier has a definite sense of humor about it, the game is so completely and thoroughly soaked in pathos that it gets ridiculous early on and goes beyond the impossible by the end. Every single fucking character has a sob story, everyone’s a woeful victim, and everyone’s moody as hell. There are staggering numbers of cutscenes about people dying and their loved ones crying about it. Most of these are impossible to care about, because I barely even know these people and they have no real impact on the plot, and even when they do, I still just don’t care about the plot in the first place, because it is itself the incredibly moody tale of a guy who’s an engine of self-sacrifice doing everything to cure and/or save his sick daughter.

Yeah, there’s a lot of little world-building bits, with mysteries surrounding who the character really are, the truth about the old world, etc., but all of them are very cliche and predictable, and I just. Didn’t. Care.

So yes, a part of me is curious about the other endings because if it’s really true that there’s a lot more to the story, and it gets a lot better, then I might actually find something to care about. On the other hand, the game’s done such a poor job of making me care about it up to this point that I don’t feel the drive to continue.

So here’s the thing. I won’t play the alternate endings immediately, because there’s other games that I want to play. But since I own the game anyway, I’ll come back to it at some point, and I’ll rewrite this review with a new ending, which I’ll call Nier+.

For the time being, that’s all I have to say about Nier. All in all, I did enjoy this game, and I do think that I can recommend it to others, especially those who aren’t as nitpicky as I am. Nier is hard to come by new, but you can find it used for very cheap, and it’s probably available from Gamefly, so go ahead and give it a shot.

If there’s another action-RPG that you’d like me to talk about on this show, then give your recommendations in the comments. If you enjoyed the video, or have something to say, I love reading comments and I love seeing likes and subscribes. See you next time!

Additional notes:

I didn’t say much about the developer and publisher this time around, because they’ve been talked about enough in other reviews, but some might find it interesting. The game was developed by Cavia, not really famous for anything but notably having done the Drakengard games in the past, and published by Square-Enix. Cavia has since ceased to be. In Japan, Nier was two different games, Nier Gestalt and Nier Replicant, which feature different stories and protagonists despite being the same game. Only Nier Replicant came to the US, supposedly because Replicant featured a big diesel dude as a protagonist as opposed to Gestalt’s skinny teenage boy.

Another noteworthy thing I neglected to mention was Kaine’s oft-noted outfit, which is lingerie and high heels. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of lingerie, but I think Kaine wears it really well. That’s all I have to say about it.


3 thoughts on “Adventure! Action! RPG! – Nier Review

  1. Note: you haven’t actually “played” NIER until you’ve gotten all the endings. I’m not going to spoil anything else, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when you get to that point. (Hint: right now, your interpretation of what’s going on is really, really off)

    Otherwise, sounds like you and I have totally different opinions on this thing! I haven’t actually played the game–read through the Let’s Play, since I don’t have a PS3 or an XBox 360–but I thought the music was fantastic, the cast of characters probably one of the most likable I’ve seen in an RPG and the story one of the most daring I’ve seen in the past decade or so. By the time I finished that last ending I was literally despondent for an entire week, such was the emotional impact. It’s not perfect: the gameplay is pretty unbalanced from what I can see, and there are some holes in the plot that are never really filled in. But the things that NIER tries to do are so far ahead of any other JRPG to come out this console generation that….ahh, I’m not going to say any more.

    At any rate, I’d easily say that it was probably the second best JRPG of this console generation, after Xenoblade. And that’s only because Xenoblade is a lot more fun. NIER is imperfect, but made with so much heart and ambition that it’s really a pity that just about every major reviewer chose to dump on the game when it came out.

    • Here’s the thing: to date, I have not seen a video game plot which has had any significant effect on me. There are those that I found entertaining, but none that blew me away the way works in other mediums have done. The closest a game has come to really impressing me with its plot is Killer7, but that’s more because it’s so out there than because it’s deep or interesting.

      The games which inspire emotions in me are ones that do it through the way I play the game. I get emotionally involved in Dark Souls through its world and the way in which it’s played. I get involved in The Minish Cap and Soul Blazer because of the way my actions shape the game world. I even get involved in Super Meat Boy because the game is so challenging and inspires me to get great at it.

      I still do intend to finish Nier, but I’d be shocked if the story really did manage to shake me. I guess I’m pretty much jaded towards dramatic stories in general. Lately, the shows that I get into, for instance, are usually comedy shows that are more reliant on great dialog, character moments, and other things like animation, than by the actual way the story plays out.

      I truly am looking forward to the video game story that will actually grab me early on and keep me all the way through to the end. Nier could possibly get better later, but it didn’t grab me yet.

  2. Pingback: Digibro’s Games Journal (End of July 2012) | My Sword Is Unbelievably Dull

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