I have a love-hate relationship with NieR, an action JRPG published by Square-Enix and developed by the now-dissolved Cavia, and spin-off of the Drakengard series. Actually playing the game—fighting, questing, exploring—frustrates me to no end; experiencing the game—its story, music, and themes—softens my exasperation, replacing it with acceptance and tolerance until the next trite gameplay element annoys me again.
In the moments when I appreciate the majesty of how NieR plays with expectations and turns tropes on their heads, I see why this is a cult classic.
[…] I see why this is a cult classic.
At the time when NieR initially released for the PS3 and Xbox 360, I had heard it was mediocre and decided to pass it over for the latest Shin Megami Tensei and Final Fantasy installments. Taking sales into consideration, NieR would have never gotten a sequel, and yet a combined passion from fans and developers alike brought that dream to life. So, when NieR: Automata was announced for PC and PS4 as a project between director Yoko Taro and PlatinumGames, I figured I had to check out the original, just to see what the big deal was.
I’m glad I did.
As an objective label for a game, yes, please take the score into consideration. As a subjective experience, please ignore the number and hear me out instead.
The game starts off right into a tutorial sequence mixed in with character-building between the main character, Nier—a headstrong but caring middle-aged man—and his sickly daughter, Yonah—a sweet, normal young girl—who are stranded in what appears to be an abandoned city. Attacking the enemies, shadow-like forms known as Shades, feels meaningless. There’s hardly any response between Nier’s weapon hitting the Shades and the controller reacting to each blow. Moving the main character—running, jumping, walking—feels equally disconnected without much feedback. The tutorial explains the magic controls well enough, but again, the spells themselves have no kick to them.
The time jump to Nier and Yonah living in a generic medieval RPG village sets the stage for what appears to be an equally generic storyline: the father sets off to find a cure for his daughter’s illness. Villagers in this unremarkable area mostly have mundane fetch and/or delivery quests for Nier to fulfill. The leader of the village, Popola, resides in the library and conveniently seems to know exactly where to send Nier on his next story quests. The surrounding area of ordinary plains are filled with enemies wandering around in the standard RPG fashion, branching off to only a handful of new maps. This boring structure of gameplay creates room for the deception that the rest of the tale has in store.
Boss fights in NieR are impressive: larger-than-life with a narrative impact and impressive accompanying music, sometimes making use of an entire map as the stage of destruction. Getting to those boss fights is the issue, as exploration is a chore. Nier often has to run back and forth between the same washed-out, bland areas over and over and over again. But at least the player can eventually ride a ferry, or even animals such as boars (why, I don’t know, but it’s amusing) to get around faster.
Here is where NieR mostly succeeds. Early on, Nier is a mere layman in his village, taking care of his sick daughter and doing odd jobs for his neighbors. A convenient plot twist happens when Yonah predictably gets lost somewhere and Nier must go save her. From this point on, the story re-enters the supernatural with its epic Bayonetta-like magic spells and a talking book from the prologue. The Sealed Verses provide Nier with his magic and a possible cure to Yonah’s developing illness. And so the devoted father sets off with his new companion, Grimoire Weiss—a charmingly arrogant tome of yore—determined to find more of the Verses for the sake of his daughter’s health. No matter the cost.
From here on out, the characters carry the story. The actual plot-related reveals happen in between boss fights and fun banter among the party. While the player always controls Nier, his companions serve their own unique purposes. Grimoire Weiss is both the catalyst for Nier’s magic as well as the in-game menu for weapons, spells, items and other information. They soon meet up with Kainé, a woman designed as the stereotypical JRPG fan service character, but who has a dirty mouth and rough disposition to the point of seeming try-hard (for backstory-related reasons). Together with Emil—a young, demure boy with a surprisingly long history—the group strengthens their bond, killing scores of Shades in the process while only rarely considering if what they’re doing is wrong.
Each character has a backstory that would restrict them to certain roles (Kainé as the unlikable one, for example), and yet they grow throughout the story in ways that defy those conventions. The story itself evolves similarly: what appears to be a quest to save the damsel-in-distress, slaughtering what seem to be mindless Shades on the way, and defeating what looks like the evil villain in the end. But, without spoiling anything, the narrative is much deeper than this. Taking it at face value does NieR a disservice.
[…] the characters carry the story.
Director Yoko Taro is a unique storyteller who dislikes typical tropes. He also disparages about how video games often don’t do enough to take creative risks. As one of many responses to this, after completing NieR once, the story still has more to offer through multiple playthroughs. These give new context and perspectives from other characters as well as vastly different endings that expand upon the universe and lore.
While I applaud Yoko Taro for thinking outside the box with this concept, as well as how the game plays with expectations in the latter part of the story, there are still a few issues. NieR doesn’t do enough to subvert standard JRPGs—for the majority of the story, there’s still the dull structure of “go here, talk to this person, do this thing for them, get a reward and go back to the main hub for the next quest,” without many disguises. By innovating, Yoko Taro purposely puts himself into the very tropes he dislikes, watering down the experience for players who don’t have the patience to tough out the initial slog.
After completing NieR once, the story still has more to offer through multiple playthroughs.
The idea of multiple playthroughs to expand the player’s understanding of each character is interesting, but some of the things new playthroughs add feel like too little, too late. I don’t see why these particular revelations couldn’t have been put in the original playthrough for standard context and character-building. Luckily, there’s plenty of room to expand upon this in the sequel, as this is a great selling-point for the series as a whole.
The graphics are nothing special. The textures are awful and the lighting goes to distracting extremes on both ends of the spectrum. Almost every area has the same color palette of dull gray and green. This wouldn’t matter so much if the maps had at least some detail to make them look more impressive. I don’t mind the washed-out environment in one map in particular (The Aerie) just because it gives the town an ethereal quality that happens to work in the game’s favor.
Nier himself is not pleasant to look at during most cutscenes until he changes his appearance later on. Though prospective players should appreciate that he looks somewhat evil at times. Conversely, with Kainé, a few details on her body show her history in subtle ways, and her eyes do a wonderful job of conveying the wide range of her volatile emotions. Yonah is also well-animated, with her eyes instead often glowing as an optimistic young girl’s would. Whatever the game gets wrong with its environments, it makes an effort to make up for this with how the characters show who they are.
Here is where NieR elevates itself beyond other titles. Keiichi Okabe composed the soundtrack with other members of his studio, creating an otherworldly, majestic sound that’s both elegant and memorable. Compared to the shortcomings of the rest of the game, the music is such a contrast to the rough graphics and unremarkable moment-to-moment controls. As I write this, I have a song on repeat, “Cold Steel Coffin,” that plays in The Aerie. Like I mentioned before, this in-game location is a town that feels ethereal. But it doesn’t look like much. This track, with its sweeping, layered choruses, determined drums and piano in the background, elevate the town to a place that I want to visit for myself—boring textures and all. It elevates me and inspires me, as does the rest of the soundtrack.
Compared to the shortcomings of the rest of the game, the music is such a contrast to the rough graphics and unremarkable moment-to-moment controls.
The music heightens the story; it makes the game what it is. Without it, I wouldn’t have given NieR the time of day. I fell in love during an early sequence after meeting Kainé: we fight a boss battle with her in The Aerie, where the music seamlessly transitions to a softer piece, “Grandma,” that flips my expectations of what could have been a bombastic battle track. Soft-spoken and graceful, vocalist Emi Evans sings a haunting tale in a made-up language over a piano, snare drums and violin that’s unlike most video game music. Listening to this track and fighting alongside such an unusual character, my frustrations with the actual combat drift away.
It takes a certain spark for something like that to happen. NieR has plenty of heart, unexpectedly, underneath the rough surface. Even as I watched the ending credits and listened to the track that plays, I was fully immersed in the splendor and positives instead of the negatives.
The voice acting does a good enough job of holding the player’s emotional investment during cutscenes on top of the soundtrack. Banter between party members is entertaining, adding life to the otherwise dismal exploration. I was put off during a few cutscenes because of the Japanese melodrama with the dialogue, but I’m used to this after having played so many JRPGs. Even if it had annoyed me, the music would have more than made up for it.
NieR is the strangest game I’ve ever played. And yet I love it because of its strangeness.
I’m tired of seeing what’s been done before, as some may have noticed in my reviews of other titles. I can’t give this game a pass with its many glaring issues. But I can appreciate the way it makes me stick around both despite and because of its imperfections. I enjoy running around a maze-like map farming the same enemies again and again because I love the song that loops in the background. I can deal with the standard JRPG formula during my playthroughs because I like seeing all the ways the game plays around with what I think will happen next. The oddball lore that accompanies all of this feels, oddly enough, right at home to me.
I know what it’s like to live on the fringes; to look at everything else from the outside. I can relate to how NieR exists on the peripheries of the industry as something that is generally mocked and not well-received due to appearances. I’m grateful that plenty of people found the beauty in this game; enough to make way for the sequel, NieR: Automata. This sets a new standard for industries to not write off projects as failures if they don’t meet sales projections or if they’re not designed around a safe norm. I’d like to see more labors of love like this