What is it trying to be?
Roleplaying games, they're a funny old thing. J-RPG's are usually built on the premise that you can often get to areas of the game where there's a whole lot of danger and you haven't a hope in hell of fighting the monsters, so you have to go back to the other areas and repeat monotonous side-quests and fetch items for various NPC's. Nier is unfortunately no different; it has a very interesting way of presenting things on screen but lacks the true polish to make it shine. It mixes several things up and reminds us in a way of Vandal Hearts.
The story revolves around the protagonist Nier and his quest to save his daughter Yonah, from the Black Scrawl which is killing her. You'll find that it twists and turns quite a lot but never really delivers anything satisfying or truly interesting to draw you in. Neither Nier or any of the characters in the game were likeable enough to truly engage us beyond press button here to kill something.
It's an odd little mix of things with some nods to MMO's and definitely feels like a J-RPG. Though the combat is often reminiscent of Devil May Cry in that its real time and not turn based and has combos, the monsters are there and you can attempt to outrun them or if you have a particular animal mount you can outride them. You have magical powers bestowed by a strange book, you level up and you have weapons that you can upgrade. There are a plethora of side quests and interestingly enough there are animals that you can skin and trade for currency. This is where it feels like an MMO, especially after you get past the first little combat part that makes the game feel more like DMC.
There are towns and there are wide open plains, it reminded us of Final Fantasy 12 in a way and offers a lot more freedom than 13. With the skills, the upgradeable weapons, special powers and hub-like towns/villages that make the game more engaging Nier has certainly gone a way to pleasing the RP-Veteran crowd in that respect, especially those who adore the grind of a J-RPG. It might be a little hard to swallow for Western audiences but the 3rd person combat, exploration and discovery is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game. Slightly odd to the Western mind are some of Bullet Hell style boss attacks which unleash a bazillion projectiles in various patterns across the screen, you must either shoot or avoid them or you're going to be in some serious pain.
The camera is an odd little thing because it shifts around as you enter some locations, changing from a pure 3d view to an isometric locked, top down, side on depending on the location. It is a little jarring at first but again adds a nice little level of interest to the normal proceedings and helps you solve some of the game's puzzles.
The enemies of Nier are the Shades who look rather odd, they manifest in the physical plane as disjointed vague shapes made up of bright yellow triangles. This detracts from the otherwise decent graphics outside and in, making the game break your suspension of disbelief and pull you out of the experience. You feel like you wandered into a fantasy version of TRON, not as though that's truly a bad thing.
Enemies and animals respawn when you leave a zone and come back, so you can easily grind to get to the next experience level and thankfully the combat gets easier as you unlock more and more power. You'll be asked to follow a main side quest which is fairly easy to get through as long as you remember to check your book, follow the clues. Or you can fetch things for people, hunt animals and monsters and generally do all the things you might expect from a list of side-quests that basically boil down to generic tasks. They get you currency and they get you xp, so they're worth grinding through.
You can save at any mailbox and it's wise that you save regularly.
Nier (to begin with) does not wow you graphically, it looks prettier later on but at the start you might be literally underwhelmed. The empty white of the snowy city looks badly textured and flat, the characters seem rough and there is basically little to impress you. As the game unfolds and you enter a more fantasy environment, it looks a little better but the game doesn't really get any better than this. The Black Scrawl is a graphically ugly thing and most of the Shades are as well, garish and at odds with the local environment. It's all quite unsettling and if that's the direction the developers were going for, they succeeded but in the cost of making the graphics very lack lustre. The special effects aren't really all that special and the use of lighting/shadow is basic at best. It reminded us a bit of something you might see on the Wii, only graphically it is improved over that.
Some of the animations are a bit stilted but on the whole they're not too bad, the riding Boar is an amusing thing and it is fairly well animated for the most part. Combat feels decidedly flat again due to the animations and the pay off for magic and battle is very minimal. This is a throwback in many ways to the old school games.
If there is a physics engine there, it's low key and doesn't really play much of a part in the overall scheme of things.
Basic AI powers the monsters and they don't seem to have much in the way of intelligence, even the gigantic bosses have attack patterns that can be predicted. It does what it needs to do on the tin.
Nier has some nice atmospheric sound effects and whilst some of the battle effects are generic, it's all put together with clean and crisp audio.
Nier has a nice musical score, one that we really can't fault. It does a good job of highlighting the on-screen action and provides a decent backdrop to exploration.
The voice work in Nier is decent enough, the star of the show being the Grimoire Weiss. The rest of the performances are solid and there are no real hum-dingers in the game. Much of the dialogue is in text though, typical of a J-RPG. The script is also typical of a J-RPG and often leaves you with a curious taste in your mouth as you try and decipher what's going on and work out the character motivations.
There's none whatsoever.
More than the sum of its parts
Nier is one of those games that blends a few genres together, does odd things with the camera that grow on you as you play. It never quite gels though and feels unpolished in terms of combat and graphics. There's a lot to like in Nier and it takes considerably less time to get to the open areas of the adventure compared to Final Fantasy 13. If you like odd J-RPG's and something that's a bit different, even though it has a few problems in terms of gameplay, Nier is still worth a look.