The offbeat RPG that kept players keen by treating them mean
A look back at Nier, the offbeat RPG that kept its players keen by treating them mean
Nier saves its cruellest trick for the very end. We’re not talking about the first time the credits roll, either. No, you’ll have to wait until the conclusion of your third playthrough, where you’re presented with the bleakest of dilemmas. The titular warrior has to choose whether to end the agony of his ailing ally Kainé by killing her, or to save her life by sacrificing himself. Pick the second option, and your save file will be deleted – and as if to further underline the finality of your choice, you’ll be treated to a cutscene that shows Nier has been permanently erased from the memories of his friends. Should you subsequently decide to start a new game, meanwhile, you won’t be able to use the same character name. Yes, Nier’s response to the players who’ve dedicated the time and effort to reach this point is to entirely deny their involvement. As endgame rewards go, we’ve had better.
That alone says much about the wilfully perverse ideas that underpin this fascinating, unforgettably strange actionRPG. Nier is a game that invites you to take a long journey where you’ll spend your time with a group of abrasive, bickering misfits. Its dark and sometimes overwhelmingly melancholic story is delivered with absolute straight-faced sincerity, yet the script is shot through with flashes of self-aware humour. It asks you to overlook its lapses into tired convention, even as the dialogue delights in drawing your attention toward them. Other contradictions are less obviously by design: despite some strong art direction, technically it’s a bit of a mess, and sometimes it’s downright ugly, with sparse outdoor settings and boxy interiors. And yet, by contrast, the soundtrack is lavish and expansive, shifting from gentle pastoral airs to clattering industrial beats, overlaid with vocalised melodies whose words don’t belong to any language but which are powerfully affecting all the same.
It’s a game that plays hard to get in every sense. That’s true from the off, as you’re thrust into a wintry post-apocalyptic future world, where a grizzled father attempts to protect his daughter by clumsily fending off seemingly interminable waves of identical creatures. With little ceremony or explanation, you suddenly find yourself in the kind of homely village you’ve seen in a dozen JRPGs, with time having inexplicably moved on by more than a thousand years. This, it turns out, is merely the first mystery of many in this oblique world, where the answers to the questions it raises have to be earned – assuming they’re given away at all. There will be no reams of written lore to pore over, no lengthy, enlightening exchanges with townsfolk. To work it all out, Nier demands that you pay attention and be patient, rather than thorough – and to understand that even that might not be enough.
At times, it feels like Nier is daring you to fall for it, purposely flummoxing you with bizarre, patience-testing set-pieces and repetitive tasks, putting frustrating obstacles between you and the good stuff. But such inscrutability is the hallmark of director Taro Yoko. This is a man who chose to conclude the final story branch of his 2014 action-RPG Drakengard 3 with an extended, masochistically difficult rhythmaction sequence where missing a single beat means starting again; the final cue appears during a dialogue exchange, with the music and visuals having faded out several seconds before. Nothing in Nier ever goes quite this far, though an early fishing minigame left plenty stumped – including, famously, one critic, who decided life was too short to put up with such impenetrable design, and instead of reviewing the game, made a video documenting his failure. (The trick is to stand in a different place to the beachside spot to which you’re initially drawn.)
It’s not entirely clear whether this is deliberate button-pushing on Yoko’s part or simply bad design. Such is the game’s contrary streak that you begin to wonder if the clumsy platforming interludes or dreary block-pushing sections are knowing metacommentary – or perhaps even deliberate sabotage. Similarly, it’s hard to properly gauge the target of Yoko’s mockery. One character, for example, berates Nier for taking on mundane side missions, rightly suggesting they’re a needless distraction, while tutting at quest-givers for their laziness. But is this self-deprecation, or a
sly jab at our expectations? Could it even be an acknowledgement of the developer’s obvious lack of resources and a need to stall the player with filler? Poking fun at archaic design while indulging in it has been done many times before, frequently to tiresome effect, but there’s something playful and mischievous about Nier’s approach that makes it easier to accept. That’s partly down to a localisation that’s well up to its publisher’s usual high standard. It’s hard not to wonder what Square Enix made of some of Yoko’s more outlandish ideas, but it deserves no little credit for keeping the reins relatively loose – if perhaps not loose enough for the director’s liking.
At times, it plays like outsider art threaded through a more orthodox ARPG framework, and whether you attribute that to a publisher trying to impose its will on a rebellious creator, or a designer intentionally juxtaposing the ordinary and the extraordinary, Nier ends up feeling truly subversive. It never stops throwing out new ideas to see what sticks, and plenty does. Even its detractors have to admit it’s not short on variety. A seemingly routine boss fires out projectiles as if auditioning for a role in the next DoDonPachi. Climb into a minecart and soon you’re playing an on-rails shooter. One dungeon appears to pay homage to both 2D and 3D Zelda, shifting from a thirdperson viewpoint to a top-down perspective. Later, the camera stays fixed as you explore a mansion that could easily be owned by Umbrella Corporation. And did we mention the part where it turns into a text adventure?
It could so easily be rambling and disjointed, but if Nier’s mismatched parts don’t always cohere – again, we sense that’s deliberate – it finds a consistent focal point in the central party. These aren’t your usual ragtag band of likeable oddballs, with personalities assembled from a grab bag of idiosyncrasies. Rather, they’re convincingly flawed characters laid low by the caprices of fate. Grimoire Weiss, a talking book who delivers pithy putdowns with a Rickmanesque sneer (voice actor Liam O’Brien has since acknowledged the debt to the late actor) might be arrogant and uncooperative, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy when you consider his startling loss of power and the unfamiliarity of the world in which he’s awoken. The same goes for Emil: at first, his snivelling, self-pitying shtick is grating, but his story is desperately sad, having been exiled as a young child and then forced to assume a monstrous new form. Half-human Kainé may be foul-mouthed and quicktempered, but having been ostracised, abused and discriminated against, her defensiveness is understandable. Along with the grim-faced Nier, this unlikely foursome find a sense of comfort in their shared sorrow, and their journey together acts as a collective restorative. Even the regular clashes between Weiss and Kainé come to feel like a kind of therapeutic catharsis. By
A SEEMINGLY ROUTINE BOSS FIRES OUT PROJECTILES AS IF AUDITIONING FOR A ROLE IN THE NEXT DODONPACHI
the midway point, you’ll be rooting for them all to overcome their own personal tragedies, while already sensing Yoko’s plans don’t involve a happy-ever-after.
That Nier should make you care about its cast before putting them through the wringer is in keeping with a game that seems determined to steadily weed out players until it’s left with a small but committed audience of devotees willing to meet it on its own terms. Even beyond the credits, it’s determinedly feelbad: a second playthrough reveals a horrible truth about Nier’s mission that casts his activities – and the role of his opponents – in a new light. Much as the humour and the soundtrack do their best to lift you, even its supporters would concede Nier can be heavy going.
As such, you could argue that Yoko’s game was an unlikely candidate for cultdom. But it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the similarly admired Deadly Premonition. The two are cut from the same kind of cloth, compensating for their lacklustre looks with strong personality and boasting enough good ideas to outweigh the bad. Nier mightn’t have dazzled the critics, but word of mouth was positive; play it again now, and it’s easy to understand where both sides were coming from. In places, Nier isn’t much fun at all: it’s ill-disciplined, scrappy and beset by technical issues. But it’s also boundlessly inventive, well acted, and beautifully written and scored. It’s the kind of game that has improved with age because its highlights have percolated while its weaknesses – fishing minigames excepted – have all but faded from memory.
Despite its surprising longevity, the announcement of a sequel still came as a surprise to most, though Nier: Automata could end up being Square Enix’s shrewdest move for some time. The thought of marrying Yoko’s unvarnished invention with the taut, fast-paced action for which Platinum is renowned is mouthwatering. And yet we hope the original’s rough edges aren’t too aggressively sanded down; without those peculiarities, it might not feel like Nier. We’ll be most upset if there are no dating-game interludes, nor illadvised half-hour RTS sections. If Automata is to capture the spirit of its predecessor, Platinum needs to ensure Yoko’s maverick ideas aren’t ignored. Though we’d like to keep our save file this time, thanks.
Boss fights are dramatically staged and often intense without being overly taxing
Combat is perfectly serviceable, allowing you to supplement your melee attacks with a range of magical abilities
Enter a building and the musical theme of the area will adjust, whether it’s a change in instrumentation or the addition of vocals
Two versions of Nier were released in Japan: Nier Gestalt for 360 and Nier Replicant for PS3. The latter features Nier as a teenager searching for his sister