The new season is here, but is it really all that new?
When you think about games as a medium, different people are looking for different things. For some the only necessity is a good story; gameplay be damned. For others, enjoyment of the minute-to-minute play is all that matters; the story doesn’t have to be deep if the game feels fun. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Nier doesn’t fall into the first camp, but I am going to say that sometimes there are those rare instances where we can start to really see what games can, or could be.
Before I sat down this week and really dug into it, I only had vague notions of the complexities of Nier. I had heard it was flawed, I had heard it had a bad fishing mini game, I had heard that it did interesting things with its endings, that helped give its fans justification for the less than stellar gameplay. Aside from these snippets, a couple hours of watching my friend play it half-a-decade ago was my only experience with Nier. Having now completed every sidequest, caught nearly every fish, and seen each of the games four endings, I’m left asking one thing: why do people say this game is bad?
Whenever I start up a game, there’s usually a question I’m looking for an answer to. It could be something as simple as “will this gameplay be fun?,” or something more complex like “how will this live up to the legacy of this series?” For most of Nier, my main question was of the game’s quality, but as I progressed, I found myself asking more and more questions of my experiences, and of the game’s world and design. While I kept steeling myself for mediocrity, I never quite found it.
For those who don’t know anything about Nier, the easiest way I can describe it is as an action-focused JRPG set in a post-apocalyptic world. From that description alone, you’re probably given a mess of ideas about what the game is going to be, but I can assure you that almost all of them will be incorrect. The world of Nier is not the urban sprawl of a Fallout of Walking Dead; this is a world where the apocalypse happened over a thousand years ago, and people are living their day to day lives the best they can. There’s danger in the frontiers, but for people in the various settlements, that danger is comparable to a natural disaster, so why let a potential inevitability dictate your entire life?
As the titular player character Nier, you take on the role of an old (and less than handsome) father, whose main focus in life is on his sickly daughter, Yonah. While working on some odd jobs to help buy food and medicine for his daughter, he stumbles across a talking book named Grimoire Weiss, who is quickly discovered to be part of some big prophecy that involves the curing of Yonah’s disease. For her sake, Nier quickly teams up with Weiss, and journeys across the world to try and figure out just how to make it happen.
On the surface, this is a by-the-numbers JRPG plotline: you could cut out a couple of those words and replace them to create descriptions of pretty much any game, but it’s how Nier takes these ideas, subverts them, and then manipulates them even further that gives it its reputation. While my first playthrough ended with a pretty expected revelation, it was right when I started my second playthrough that I realized just how far this game was going to go. Not only was I dropped in at a specific point in the story, I was also given a sprawling backstory and recontextualization of one of the main characters of the game. There was a moment in the first playthrough that I remember specifically, where a character talks about not having thought about the issues that another had gone through, and how stupid they felt. When that moment plays again, after having seen what I, as a player, had now seen, it hit even harder.
It’s hard to sell someone on playing through a game twice, but the way Nier handles this format is by presenting you with an entirely different story and experience. With a new added gameplay feature, that I won’t describe at risk of spoiling, all the boss fights, each character, and every environment feels different and new. There were moments that were dry and forgettable on my first playthrough that left me in tears on my second. There is so much to the world and how it all changes that makes it feel less like you’re playing Nier again, and more like you’re playing some sort of sequel story from a new perspective.
Nier doesn’t broach too many out-of-the-ordinary topics, but when it does, it handles them far better than I could have expected. The fact that intersexuality is discussed through the character of Kainé in such a way that it feels like a natural part of her backstory, rather than some sort of drawn out reveal or cheap offensive gag was one of the biggest surprises I’ve experienced in gaming for a long time. Hell, Kainé’s entire backstory and how it’s presented in general is fascinating, and just what her character ends up being from Ending A to Ending D is enough to make its own game.
The father-daughter relationship of Nier never goes incredibly deep, but it’s still novel and charming to play as a father. Being able to choose whether or not to make that joke about your daughter hanging out with a boy, and pretending to enjoy eating her abysmal food to please her are things that most games deem too boring to present. Thankfully, Nier knows the importance of these types of moments, and how they drive the narrative later down the line, even if in the moment it all seems simple and silly.
Having seen a GDC talk Nier director Yoko Taro gave about how he designs games, all of this anachronism makes sense. From his perspective, the most interesting things that games can do are things that they are told they shouldn’t or can’t. He strives to develop more and more things in the grey area between should and shouldn’t, to try and find out why it is they shouldn’t. The moment where games work best as a medium, to me, is when they are able to fully take advantage of the medium’s potential. Think about how most Platinum games play. As you play a game like Bayonetta, or The Wonderful 101, there are those moments where, all of a sudden, the game transforms from its usual character action into something like Space Harrier or Punch-Out!!. These instances of change, that manifestation of a different experience is instantly memorable.
There are constant moments of this in Nier, from the Forest of Myth’s text adventure presentation, to the various perspective changes to top-down and 2D side-scrolling. Each time they happened, I was left marveling at the ingenuity of these design shifts. The idea that this game could be more than it seemed is something that inspired nothing but whimsy in me, and kept me chomping at the bit until my next play session.
Something that I’ve found really ends up holding a lot of developers back is this idea that they have to follow this set of pre-determined set of rules, and if they stride outside of the lines their game will suffer for it. That type of ideology has always frustrated me about game design, and I’m always refreshed when I run into games like this or Deadly Premonition: games that know that anything could be possible, but you won’t know until you try. The fact that one can have two playthroughs of Nier, with each feeling like a completely different experience, is such a wild concept that I can hardly think of an analogue to it anywhere else in gaming.
While I personally never found mediocrity within Nier, I can understand how some people might have. The combat system is very, very simple, consisting of two main attack buttons and four rebindable secondary actions (magic, dodge rolls, etc). While I, as a devoted Kingdom Hearts fan, had no problem with it, I could easily see how it might be grating. The game’s simplistic combat lends itself well to the constant shifts in perspective, however, so I can’t deny the effectiveness of how it’s utilized, even if it ultimately boils down to using a spear and rolling at most times.
The game’s side quests, while rich in humorous dialogue, are also pretty bare-bones and at times downright frustrating. Several require multiple trips to the same location to grind for rare materials over and over, and one particularly annoying quest required me to grow a specific plant that needed to be crossbred and waited on to the point that I advanced my Xbox 360 system clock to sometime in May. Luckily, the side quests were, as their name implies, off to the side. Barring a few outliers, one could play through the entirety of the game’s four endings doing the bare minimum of side quests, and though I’d suggest at least doing a few good chains, I would not fault anyone for doing so.
All that said I’d feel remiss if I didn’t talk about the notorious fishing mini-game and my experiences with it. For those in the dark, Nier apparently holds a fishing mini-game so bad it became a hot topic in any discussion about the game. One reviewer even cancelled their review outright after running into hours of problems where they were unable to catch a fish.I was steeled, I was prepared, I was absolutely ready to face down this mini-game and put up with it for the sake of the game.
Weird thing though, uh, that mini-game is fine? Out of all the side quests in Nier, the fishing quests are some of the simplest you’ll do, even if they’re less than exciting. Even the one fish you’re required to catch for the main story is marked on your mini-map, meaning you know exactly where to go to get it. Though the act of fishing itself is tedious, with the act itself being nothing more than tilting your control stick in the opposite direction the fish is swimming, the mini-game is nothing more than half-baked at its worst.
As I’ve said though, the average and middling gameplay elements cannot detract from what Nier tries and does so well. Musically, it has one of the most fascinating and emotional soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Hearing Emi Evans wax symphonic in a language of her own creation is incredibly fascinating and engrossing, and the effectiveness of these words that realistically mean nothing is something I’ve been left thinking about since the credits rolled on Ending D. Though nearly all of the songs featured are perfect, a few standouts are Grandma, Emil Karma, and Kainé Salvation. The moment each of these songs play within Nier is a moment that becomes all the better because of the arrangements used, and listening to these songs again immediately and vividly brought each sequence back to mind.
I really did not expect what I ultimately got of Nier. I expected something to fascinate me for a bit, something that would leave me saying a couple “that’s cool!”s or “hey alright!”s. Instead, I’ve been left with a game I can’t stop thinking about, a game that’s quickly climbed higher and higher into my list of the all time greats. Though Automata is right around the corner, and will undoubtedly be a fantastic successor in its own right, you would be remiss to not experience the original Nier in some way or another.