Oh, Cavia. What are we going to do with you?
I mean, first you make Drakengard, a game so bizarre that even a detailed (and humorous) Let’s Play has difficulty deciphering what the heck is going on. Then you decide to make an even weirder game based on the most mind-bending ending of Drakengard? Do you just hate making sense?
Alright, I guess I’ll just take this from the top. It’ll be easier that way.
Nier, in a nutshell, is a third-person action RPG with bullet-hell elements. Yes, you read that right. Bullet-hell elements. Early on in the game, Nier (our hero) picks up a talking book named Grimoire Weiss, who gives him the ability to use magic. The two spells you start out with—Dark Lance and Dark Blast—let you summon lances to shoot at enemies and fire a steady stream of magic “bullets” that looks suspiciously like the ones used in Touhou games. Oh, and the bosses, mini-bosses and some normal enemies fire bullet patterns that you have to dodge, block or negate with magic attacks.
So yes, the combat is a strange mix, but it’s also the best part of the game.
The bosses are especially fun. They all have interesting and diverse designs; and even though most are defeated using the same basic strategy (dodge attacks, charge up lances, throw them at boss), the specifics often require you to switch your tactics. One boss, for example, is made entirely of cubes, and the only way to damage it is to shoot the cubes that are glowing pink with your Dark Blast or Dark Lance. It starts out simple, but later stages of the boss have the cubes alternating between blue and pink, requiring you to have good aim and good timing…while you’re dodging all the enemy bullets, of course. It’s a nice change of pace from most combat systems, and I’m impressed that Cavia pulled of the blending of genres so well. Granted only three or four of the ten-or-so spells you get are actually useful, but that was only a minor annoyance to me; and it was balanced out by the fact that all three weapon-classes (light sword, heavy sword and spear) are all useful.
Unfortunately, not everything is as well-designed as the combat system.
The story, for instance, is certainly ambitious but has too many pitfalls. The tutorial starts with Nier and his daughter, Yonah, in what looks like a modern-day city. Nier beats up a bunch of bad guys (that look like humanoids made out of yellowish computer code), Yonah succumbs to some sort of disease that causes black veins to spread over her body, and then the game skips forward in time by over 1000 years.
Where do we find ourselves now? In a medieval countryside where Nier and his daughter, Yonah, live. Uh…okay. That’s pretty confusing, but on it’s own it’s not so bad. In fact, it would be a great hook if the game didn’t proceed to pile on even more mysteries before explaining the ones it already established.
To be fair, almost every mystery is eventually explained, but the game has a bad tendency of doing so in the most obtuse and round-a-bout ways possible. For example, there’s clearly something strange about Kaine, the foul-mouthed girl who’s possessed by a Shade (the official name of the creatures Nier fought in the tutorial). However, the game never tells you anything important about her until you’ve started a New Game +. And even then, you wouldn’t know she’s a hermaphrodite unless you paid attention to the marketing hype or noticed the one sentence that merely alludes to it. Like Lost at its worst, Nier spends far too much time being mysterious and withholds the most important answers for so long that I ceased to care by the time I learned them.
And the characters suffer for it. Going back to Kaine, if I had learned about her past during the first playthrough, she would have been a much more unique and interesting character to me. Without that information, she just seems to be an angry girl with a grudge and…well…I’ve seen that plenty of times before.
Which brings me to my next point: I hate the way New Game + is implemented. As with most NG+ options, you get to start a new playthrough with all of your levels, weapons, items and gold intact from the previous playthrough. However, Nier adds another perk: the ability to understand what Shades are saying. This turns out to be vitally important to understanding the nuances of the plot, and it’s a really cool thing to do. But here’s the problem: only the player gets to understand their speech. The characters remain oblivious. So while you’re having your perceptions completely changed by what you’re hearing, the character you’re controlling continues to behave as if nothing is amiss. You are forced to take actions that you know are misguided, if not flat-out wrong.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not opposed to stories with protagonists who do questionable things. I thought the ending of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot was brilliant. I loved every minute of Shadow of the Colossus. Nier is fundamentally different. The information that the Prince and Wander are using to make their decisions is the same information you’re privy to. The information Nier is using, however, is not the same information the player has; otherwise, his actions would be drastically different. So why even give the player that information on a NG+? What’s the point of knowing this extra, really important stuff if you can’t take advantage of it to change the outcome?
Because Nier wants to be a tragedy to end all tragedies. It would like nothing more than to make you bawl your eyes out. It uses every trope in the book: prejudices, tragic pasts, doomed lovers, betrayals and plenty of noble sacrifices. The revelations in the NG+ are just the icing on the cake of sorrow. But you know what? I didn’t care. I never even frowned and said, “Gee, that’s too bad.” I just laughed. The emotional manipulation is so blatant and unsubtle that I can’t take it seriously. Everything I hate about RPG melodrama is crammed into this game.
And that’s such a shame, because there’s a really smart, sci-fi plot behind all the hamfisted cutscenes. If Cavia had learned from their blunders with Drakengard’s story, this could have been one of the most exciting games of the year. It could have been a game I could point to and say, “This is how you breathe life back into a stale genre.” Instead, I played a game that I think is an important and interesting experiment but can’t recommend people pay full price for without trying it first.
Definitely rent it, though. The combined brilliance and insanity was worth the two days I spent with it, even if the story infuriated me.