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Blending subtle melancholy with some understated storytelling, Nier is an action-RPG that surprised me with its meaningful and emotional experience. With a cast of interesting and unusual characters, Nier's rugged exterior masked a dark storyline that stumbled once or twice but ultimately gave me a ride worth savouring.
Set over a thousand years in the future, the world consists of a small communities struggling to survive against the harsh environmental conditions and the threat of Shades. These ethereal dark entities provide the only means of combat within the game but Nier isn't about getting your combo meter as high as possible, it's about saving your daughter.
This simple concept is the driving force behind the game's narrative but it gives the main character a humanity that his muscle-bound figure belies. Though you're never left in doubt as to your motives within the game, Nier never reveals what exactly befell humanity and only through multiple playthroughs or exploration do you uncover enough to grasp all the plot threads.
This form of subtlety can tread a fine line between compelling and boring in most games, but Nier has this nebulous quality that kept me coming back night after night to reveal its secrets. Those secrets were never quite as revelatory as the journey hinted they might be, but the experience was full of emotional peaks and troughs that I've seen so little of in recent RPGs.
The moment you achieve a victory something horrific or heartbreaking happens. There are good people in this world that receive nothing but tragedy and grief.
It's this quality that I admired the most with Nier. That and the depressing depths the story was willing to explore that added a level of drama and peril most games can't attain. This is not a world of fairy-tales where the princess always gets rescued or endings are always happy. On the contrary, the moment you achieve a victory something horrific or heartbreaking happens. There are good people in this world that receive nothing but tragedy and grief. It may sound odd but this amount of negativity is a breath of fresh air and is one of the reasons why I adore Nier so much.
That adoration is tempered slightly by some shaky dialogue and voice acting that left Nier's knockout blow a threat rather than actuality. All of the characters have enough meat on their bones to offer interesting and emotional journeys, but the delivery of this development with unconvincing voice acting and spotty dialogue almost undermined the entire game.
The saving grace comes in the form of the relationship between the main character and that of Weiss - the talking book sporting a camp Alan Rickman-esque tone. Their interaction, full of bitching, dry wit and awkward moments of affection really made me believe that these two characters were fully drawn entities. I was sold on their relationship and this unusual but convincing pairing helped to paper over the cracks left by Emil and Kaine.
Her hard-nosed bitchy attitude is a great change from the usual holier-than-thou female characters.
Both of those characters have many awesome and effective moments and I'd go so far to say that they eclipse Nier and Weiss with their depth and potential. Emil goes through so many horrible and terrible events that you feel nothing but sympathy for his plight. Yet it would have been even more dramatic had he not gone to the school for irritating voice actors along with so many young characters in RPGs.
Kaine too suffers from this erratic structure. Her hard-nosed bitchy attitude is a great change from the usual holier-than-thou female characters, but the character model is completely unnecessary and detracting. Yes, she's a hermaphrodite but it doesn't need to be thrust quite so plainly into our faces. I love the fact she's the aggressive force in an otherwise subtle experience but being a few pixels away from complete exposure doesn't fit this story.
It's a shame as Kaine is by far the most interesting of the cast and her history, only hinted at in the first playthrough, deserved more attention and development. At least the game offers a few swipes at itself with Grimoire Weiss commenting on Kaine's dress-sense every few levels.
To say any more would spoil the experience but both quests in the Forest of Myth are unforgettable.
Objectification of women aside Nier offers a few gameplay changes throughout its 15-hour experience that deserve a mention. Typically action-RPGs stick to a 3rd person viewpoint but Nier mixes this up with aplomb. Sometimes the camera will seamlessly switch to a top-down view turning Nier into a twin-stick style shooter for a while. There's even an isometric-style dungeon crawler level that turns a dull slog through a multi-floored facility into something much more interesting.
Yet this technical achievement pales in comparison to the Forest of Myth. Here the gameplay switches genre's completely and offers such a dramatically different experience that I couldn't help but be impressed with Caviar's bravery. To say any more would spoil the experience but both quests in the Forest of Myth are unforgettable and give Nier a depth and variety that completely surprised me.
Throughout all these innovations, flaws, bad dialogue and risque lingerie shots the core of the game is about Nier's desire to save his daughter. This heart-felt motive and the dramatic story full of tragic moments and unashamed melancholy gives the game a soul many others lack. It isn't a perfect example of a mature title but look beyond the flaws and you’ll find a game worth every effort.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: