Since we’re in the middle of the usual late summer lull of new game releases, I thought it would be a good idea to go work down my substantial backlog of games that I bought but never played; my inability to resist a good bargain and my penchant for impulse buys has left me with an anorexic checking account and a stack of dozens of games that I’ve barely had the time to play, with a few of them still wasting away in their shrink-wrap. Nier was one of these games. Initial critical response to Nier was mixed; professional critics lambasted the game for it’s archaic look and bizarre style, but despite being dismissed by the press and mostly ignored at retail at the time of it’s release, the game has quickly garnered a small but dedicated cult following, who praise Nier as the best J-RPG of this generation. Intrigued, I decided to check Nier out for myself.
When I started playing, I could immediately understand why so many critics dismissed Nier right off the bat. The game doesn’t make a good first impression: the graphics are, by modern standards, primitive, at times more closely resembling an upscaled PS2 or Wii game rather than one that was developed exclusively for the HD consoles, and while the characters are uniquely designed, a lot of the environments in the game are rather barren and devoid of detail. Visually, the game is easily as unattractive as it’s battle-scarred, leathery-skinned protagonist.
The first few hours of the game didn’t particularly captivate my attention either; after a seemingly unrelated (but ultimately important) prologue, the game tosses you into the well-worn boots of Nier, a middle-aged mercenary who has settled down in a quiet village to raise his sickly daughter. Like most Japanese RPGs, the game takes it’s time (almost too much time,) to set up the story, and for the first few hours, Nier doesn’t seem like anything special: it’s your bog-standard, Japanese action RPG, with dungeon crawling reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda and combat that doesn’t feel that much different from Square Enix’s own Kingdom Hearts series. Everything about Nier seems alright but not spectacular; the combat is satisfying but the camera occasionally has trouble keeping up with the pace of the battles, the sidequests are plentiful but are little more than fetch quests, the game has large, open areas akin to Zelda’s Hyrule field, but gives you little incentive to explore them… But once you get passed the first few (tedious) fetch quests and the game’s first, very Zelda like dungeon, Nier suddenly turns into something very different.
While the introductory areas of the game seem content to follow the standard J-RPG cliches that have existed ever since the SNES era, the rest of Nier is anything but cliched: suddenly, the game’s dungeons stop rehashing Zelda and Kingdom Hearts, and start experimenting with different genres: one area has a section that turns to the game into a top-down arcade style shooter, while another area of the game, set in a haunted mansion, is presented via fixed camera angles in a slick homage to Resident Evil. The game even turns into a pure, old-school text adventure at some points, and a very well-written one at that. Each new play style is executed surprisingly well, and I found myself wanting to keep playing if only to see what crazy genre change the game was going to attempt next.
Tying all of these disparate game play styles together is Nier’s story, which manages to rise from it’s rather plain beginnings to become one of the most unique and memorable stories to ever be told in a game. Nier’s genuinely heartfelt and emotional journey to save his daughter is thankfully completely free from the teen-angst and self pity that have become a J-RPG stereotype since Final Fantasy 7. Likewise, Nier’s companions, a cast of misfits who include a demonically possessed transvestite and a talking book, are pretty much the antithesis to the mass-marketable, self absorbed pretty boys that have unfortunately become the poster-boys for the genre. These are truly developed characters with genuine problems and well-developed character arcs; just as Nier as a game grew on me the longer I played it, I found myself growing equally attached to Nier’s bizarre cast as well. Anyone who’s grown tired of Japanese role-playing cliches are archetypes would do well to give Nier a chance, as it brings back a sense of originality and surprise to a genre that has long been lacking anything of the sort.
Then there’s the music. As ugly as this game can be at times, its beautiful, melodic soundtrack more than compensates for the game’s ancient graphics. I play a lot of video games, and I’ve heard a lot of game music, almost to the point where I forget most songs as soon as they’re done playing, but the melancholic, whistful vocal themes (sung in a made up language,) that punctuate Nier’s soundtrack stayed stuck in my head long after I had finished playing, and for the first time since Chrono Trigger, I’m actually considering importing the soundtrack from Japan.
After playing Nier, I can sort of understand where the critics were coming from: the game does make a terrible first impression, with its general lack of polish and its utilitarian visuals, and the first few hours of the game are pretty boring. Nier is admittedly an easy game to dismiss, but overall, I think I have to side with game’s fans over the critics, because if you approach Nier with an open mind, and are willing to stick with the game past it’s bland opening segments, you’ll be treated to one of the most unique, clever, and most of all, memorable games to come out of Japan in years. I can almost guarantee that Nier is the type of game that, like Earthbound or Valkyrie Profile before it, was ignored at the time of it’s release but will later be regarded as a classic. It’s not perfect, it has its flaws, but it is definitely not a game you should miss out on.
Final Score: 8/10