Latchkey Games is a weekly column that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on its initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week I’ll reminisce about Square-Enix and Cavia’s tragically overlooked and underrated experimental action-RPG Nier.
J-RPGs are dead!… Well, that’s the internet wants you to believe, anyway. Critics and fanboys alike have been proclaiming the death of the genre for the last few years, saying that new J-RPG’s are creatively bankrupt, out of touch with modern trends in the games industry, and only pander to an ever shrinking audience of hardcore, body-pillow-hugging otaku.
Of course, that’s not an entirely accurate assessment: while it’s true that Japanese RPG’s may no longer be the mainstream blockbusters that they once were during the PS1 and PS2 eras, there’s still a sizable audience of well adjusted, non-neckbearded gamers who still enjoy the more focused and tightly designed style of Japanese RPG’s. While it is also true that certain companies (*cough* Idea Factory *cough*) put out products that focus more on moe anime wank bait rather than gameplay, there have been a lot of great, innovative J-RPG’s over the last few years that truly evolve the genre, such as the excellent Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii or Sega’s addictive strategy/RPG hybrid Valkyria Chronicles. The latest entries in long running series’ like Falcom’s Ys 7 and Namco Bandai’s Tales of Graces F showed that it’s possible for classic Japanese franchises to adapt to the modern era and create simple, fun games without having to pander to some misguided idea of what Western audiences want or deliver “movie quality” visuals. If you still think that J-RPG’s are dead, that’s simply because you don’t know what you’re talking about.
There have been plenty of great J-RPG’s this generation, but sadly, possibly the best out of all them is also the most underrated and forgotten: Square-Enix and Cavia’s Nier.
Nier was released for the Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2010 to little fanfare and mediocre reviews. The game sold poorly, and its developer, Cavia (also known for creating the Drakengard series,) was shuttered and absorbed back into its parent company, AQ Interactive.
It’s sort of understandable why Nier didn’t immediately field an audience: the game doesn’t make a good first impression. The game doesn’t really look like something that was designed specifically for this generation; while the game has some inspired art direction and character designs, technically speaking, it sort of looks like an upscaled PS2 or Wii game, since the game features some relatively low-poly models and has a lot of simplistic texture work.
The gameplay doesn’t immediately astound either. At first, Nier seems like another generic Japanese action RPG: when you first start out, your abilities are limited to the basic three-hit combo and dodge-rolls that every game since Zelda: Ocarina of Time has had, and the enemies you fight at the start of the game don’t do much besides stand around and wait for you to hit them. The gameplay, at least at first, sort of resembles a water-downed version of Square’s own Kingdom Hearts. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing particularly unique or exciting about it either.
You’ll probably have to force yourself to play through the first hour or two, but once Nier gets going, it turns into one of the most unique and memorable games I’ve ever played.
I rarely play games “for the story,” even RPG’s, but Nier’s narrative is one of the best stories ever committed to a game disc. The game tells the story of Nier, as he travels across a dying world in order to find a cure for the disease that’s slowly killing his daughter. Nier is eventually joined by Grimoire Weiss, a living, sentient book, Kaine, an outcasted female warrior, and Emil, a boy who is cursed with eyes that petrify anyone he sees. The characters don’t really fall into any of the standard tropes or archetypes you’d expect to see in a Japanese RPG, and the game features some genuinely surprising twists and heart-rending moments. I’m hesitant to say more because I don’t want to spoil any parts of Nier’s amazing story, but let me just say this: I’ve cried exactly 3 times during my adult life: once when my dog died, once when I first watched Pixar’s “Up” (seriously, anyone who says they didn’t cry during that intro is a goddamn liar,) and once when I first saw the “real” ending to Nier. Lots of developers aspire to create games that emotionally move their players, and Nier was the first one to actually succeed, at least as far as I’m concerned.
While Nier’s narrative drove me to keep playing even during the game’s boring introductory bits, eventually the gameplay grew to be as interesting as the story. As you progress, Nier gains a number of abilities and new weapons that help to spice up the otherwise bog-standard combat, and the enemies become tougher and smarter and require some genuine skill to defeat.
But what makes Nier’s gameplay truly unique is how the game completely shifts gameplay styles during each of the its “dungeons”: one area of the game plays like a Diablo clone, where Nier and his companions battle through crowds of enemies while the game’s perspective shifts from the traditional behind-the-back 3D camera into a 2D overhead view. One area, set inside a haunted mansion, features fixed perspectives and sudden camera changes a-la old school Resident Evil. Another section of the game forgoes graphics entirely and plays out like an old PC text adventure. Nier is constantly tossing new gameplay styles at you, and surprisingly, all of them are well designed and enjoyable to play through. Nier is a game of constant surprises, and it was fun to keep playing simply to see what the developers would spring on me next.
While Nier definitely doesn’t push the PS3 or Xbox 360 hardware to their limits, it does manage to compensate for its visual plain-ness with one of gaming’s best soundtracks. While the soundtrack was composed by a number of artists whose names you wouldn’t recognize, their work is easily on par with any of the tracks you’d hear in a Final Fantasy game. Featuring vocals in a language created specifically for the game, the game’s haunting music perfectly matches the downtrodden-but-still-hopeful tone of the entire game.
Nier has some rough edges, but as far as I’m concerned, the game is still a must-play and is one of the best games of the current generation. It’s frankly tragic that so few people have tried Nier, because I think that anyone who gives the game a fair chance will find one of the most unique, memorable, and emotionally resonant games they’ve ever played. At the very least, it’s a great example of how modern J-RPG’s aren’t the stagnant, boring, and predictable games that critics often stereotype them as.
Nier is available for the PS3 and Xbox 360. You can still find new copies of it online for around twenty dollars or less.