With two separate flavours and a convoluted exclusivity matrix in its homeland of Japan, Square Enix’s latest RPG romp NIER could easily be accused of suffering from a chronic case of schizophrenia. Strap on some curiously designed armour, tuck a talking book under one arm and venture forth into the titular hero’s realm, however, and in terms of the variation of gameplay on offer, it becomes apparent that NIER’s multiple personality disorder affliction outside of the game is highly contagious within.
Like most multifaceted people, however, NIER does sport a certain intrinsic charm. And while the mashing of so many styles together may not always result in a harmonious confluence, the sum of its parts is enough to rise the title above what is sometimes a mediocre gaming experience.
Its backbone is quite strong, the game’s story one of its most admirable virtues. It’s a heartrending and nuanced tale of a father prepared to go to the ends of the world to save his disease-stricken daughter. In a medium overrun with bad narrative, NIER spins an engaging yarn. Surprisingly for a fantasy game, the aforementioned world in question is our own. Beginning decades into our future, the eponymous Nier and his poorly daughter, seemingly the last survivors in a frozen, desolate city, struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Searching for food, Nier is soon set upon and must fend off glimmering creatures in what is one of the longest openings/tutorials in the history of gaming. Incongruously, we’re whisked 1,300 years into the future, the time-warp transforming what was once a landscape of cities and industry into a more agrarian, almost medieval setting. Nier and daughter are strangely still present, however, and Yonah, no better in this new age, is revealed to be suffering from a mystical curse referred to as the Black Scrawl. Nier, dutiful father that he is, soon embarks on a perilous journey to find a cure for his daughter’s sickness, joined on his quest by an acerbic and haughty talking tome, Grimoire Weiss, and the usual rag-tag band of poorly (and sometimes barely) dressed misfits.
Though NIER’s plot is well constructed, its gameplay dynamics can not profess the same claim. Its biggest issues stem from the producers’ kitchen-sink approach to design; a defiant and ultimately foolhardy decision to infuse as many – and sometimes conflicting – genres into one game as humanly possible. It’s a text-book case of biting off far too much than one can chew and ignoring the less is more rule. In an attempt to include every known gaming type ever invented into one over-stretched title, the result is a game that, though often adequate in many areas, never actually excels at any one in particular.
At the forefront is NIER’s obvious RPG allegiances; the staple fare of questing, item gathering and weapon customisation, all intertwined with a driving story and the need to talk to every single person on the planet. The questing mechanics are sometimes bizarre, however. The side-quests and sub-tasks are often a hodge-podge of random and oddly passive chores that can usually be completed by simply playing the game, ambivalent to any instructions or route as long as you at some point talk to someone. On numerous occasions you’ll find yourself accepting a quest only to instantly accomplish it by just talking to the requestor immediately after accepting. “I need some berries and some wheat to make a stew,” a townsperson might say. As long as you have already managed to pick up these items outside of the numerous towns in the game, quests frequently go from open to shut in a matter of seconds.
However, such a gripe is minor. It’s NIER’s attempt to cover every game genre possible that is far more problematic. The game supports a shocking medley of game types. In among the conspicuous hack’n’slash and RPG elements, varied and sometimes surprising genres such as side-scrolling platforming, survival horror and even a railed shooting cart-ride homage to Indiana Jones feature. At one point things even turn super-retro and a text-based adventure is presented. It’s not the only throwback to gaming’s past, however, as, and usually without warning, the camera will sometimes flip up and transform the game into a Gauntlet-esque top-down battler. Planting crops and fishing also feature; the latter a particularly poorly designed mini-game likely to infuriate people of limited patience.
Though developed by Cavia, with Square Enix only performing publishing duties, Nier is a prime example of the publisher’s recent obsession with re-invention. Refocusing on adult content and a curious trend of kowtowing to presumed Western gaming tastes, the opening dialogue in the game – coming from NIER’s hard-hitting and harder talking comrade Kainé swearing aggressively like a testosterone-jacked sailor – highlights this new direction. The action is also gratuitously gory at times, a trait that is quite inexplicable considering you’re often fighting creatures that don’t appear to possess much of a corporeal form for the most part.
It’s all quite un-Square like; this tendency of turning away from tradition and focusing on gamers outside of Japan. If this is what the company believes us Westerners want (blood, boobs and sarcasm), expect a torrent of similar ballsy games such as NIER to follow. Ironically, this deviation away from the company’s tried and trusted pedigree and desire to please has resulted in games such as Final Fantasy XIII and now NIER, games that are peculiar bastardisations of what was once a pure form. It’s the gaming equivalent of the saccharine teenage flick where the love-struck nerd attempts to win the heart of the object of his desire by transforming into something that he is not. Only for the attractive leading lady to reveal that she always liked the geek the way he was. Those who like Japanese games in the West do so for their underlying Japanese nature. These titles posses a particular structure; a style and quality that appeals to certain gaming cliques in and outside of Japan. Aping known Western themes and attitudes and then haphazardly compounding them into a Japanese title ultimately results in an uncanny hybrid that dampens that appeal, creating something that tries to satisfy two camps but ends up displeasing both.