Time Ex­tend

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


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

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