Ever since its reveal around this time last year, Nier has been a game that's flown under the radar. Quite surprising considering the game is produced and published by Square Enix, but Cavia, the developer, do have a very mixed track record. However, its release has now arrived in the West and Nier is at last able to spread its wings and show the world that it's a title that should demand a share of the spotlight - even if the game doesn't shine the brightest in every aspect.
The story begins in the not too distant future as a dishevelled father, Nier, is desperately trying to protect his frail daughter, Yonah. She's been unwell for a while and they're struggling to even scrape together enough food to survive. To make things worse, Nier is in a constant battle against evil hordes that are trying to take his daughter from him. Fortunately, he has a book that can help him, but he also carries around a second book which Yonah is instructed never to touch. However, realising that her father is fighting a losing battle, she feels she has to do something and ignores his instruction. Nier is devastated; he knows exactly what this means. But his little girl means everything to him and he'll do anything to make things ok again.
Players then depart from this morbid setting and are transported to a much different world - a world that's brighter, more optimistic, but is 1,312 years in the future. There is one thing that remains the same though, Yonah is still sick and Nier has the same drive to find a cure. This leads to him becoming the town's handyman just so he can scrape together enough money for Yonah's medicine. But as things take a turn for the worse for Yonah, his role becomes much more important - he must hunt down the Sealed Verses in order to save her.
It's a quest that takes him to many different locations around the world, each with their own personality and charm. He'll also meet new friends on his travels, some of which will become close companions, but all of which complete a cast that has substance, solidarity and above all, development. None of the game's characters feel superficial and this is one of the reasons why the story is so strong. It's crafted in such a specific way and it's very difficult not to get swept away by its sheer brilliance. It's been a long time since a game had a story that had this much power.
It hasn't been a long time since a game displayed the same gameplay traits though, as this aspect of Nier is fairly common. Players have a very limited selection of moves, which consist of a quick attack for combos, a heavy attack, jump, dodge, block and magical attacks. It does the job though, and with each Sealed Verse that players capture, they will learn a new magical spell. While the melee combat might not be the deepest, the spells do add some originality to the gameplay in both function and the fact they are performed by a floating book. The basic spell, simply titled Dark Blast, fires a constant stream of magical bullets, but things get a lot less generic from there. Dark Lance fires quick projectiles, while Dark Gluttony absorbs enemy magic and turns it against them - something which feels so satisfying.
As the game progresses, players will also be able to use more than just the basic one-handed sword for melee attacks. Two-handed swords and lances are also added to the equation, which at least gives players some choice about how they wish to fight as their styles differ greatly. These weapons can be upgraded to enhance their power, but they can also have words added to them. It's essentially a levelling system for weapons, which compliments Nier's own levelling. Monsters, on occassion, drop words which have attributes associated to them. Two words can then be assigned to a weapon, but words can also be assigned to magical spells and Nier's defensive moves. They all help to make Nier stronger and players can customise them depending on the situation they find themselves in.
It's quite unfortunate, but Nier does also explore some other avenues of gameplay - some of which are quite a departure from the basic gameplay model. At one point, players are greeted with a camera which wouldn't feel out of place in an old survival horror game and this can make things very frustrating. The ability to dodge is taken away and attempting to attack enemies that are in a different camera isn't fun. There is also a section of the game which takes place using an almost isometric camera and this again detracts from the experience. To further this, the developers took a somewhat bolder move and implemented a section of the game which involved absolutely no fighting - at least not in the physical sense. Players are transported to a world of words and they must solve riddles. What's interesting about this is that all of the game's graphics are taken away. Players are greeted with a black screen, with white writing - nothing more. It seems puzzling why the first two mechanics were implemented and why others, like the very unresponsive Boar riding controls, were included in the game. They bring down the overall quality of the title, which is a real shame.
The presentation of the title is also a mixed bag. The graphics, while not terrible, are not going to be winning any awards for their quality. The main character's model doesn't look very convincing and that's just the start of the problems. Graphics shouldn't be everything in the world of gaming, but they do help to allow players to immerse themselves in the game and they can be very powerful at enhancing a game's other aspects. It really begs the question about why Square Enix, strong advocates of pristine visuals, allowed a game with such a strong story to slip in this department. However, these deficiencies do allow other areas of the game's presentation to garner the spotlight.
The soundtrack is nothing short of sublime. It's one of the best soundtracks of the last decade and the composition team of Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi and Takafumi Nishimura deserve some serious credit. Almost every track commands the centre stage and it makes both the locations and cutscenes have much more impact. As with much of the game, the words in the soundtrack are also of a non-existent language. They contain remnants of various existing languages, but no actual words from any. It helps to emphasise the use of vocals as an instrument, not a device for simply delivering lyrics.
How the music works contextually with the game's environments is also something which shouldn't be overlooked. Many games will have a standard theme for each location or situation, but Nier goes beyond this. For example, if while in the village Nier walks close to Devola, a woman who sings and plays the guitar, the music will dynamically change from the basic town theme to the same theme with vocals and a guitar. If the player walks away, it will revert back to its original form. The voice acting is also of the highest order. Each and every actor does a remarkable job - they all convey exactly the right emotion and tone for every scene and instance. Even Kainé's swearing feels perfectly natural and just highlights the gravity of the situation. It's elements like these that put Nier right at the top of the tree with regards to audio production.
Nier is also has a more than decent length. The campaign can be completed in around 13-15 hours, but that's when the game just begins. There are multiple endings for players to witness and when playing through the game again, they will learn more about the story, the world and what's really going on. They will see things from a perspective that isn't just Nier's and it makes the story even deeper. Quests are also available for players to undertake, which allows them to earn some cash, but also to perhaps see other aspects of the story. These only provide subtle glimpses of a bigger picture though.
Nier is a game that experiences some definite highs and some unfortunate lows. It features an exceptional story, with a standout cast and one of the best soundtracks from the last decade. However, the impact of this is somewhat hindered by graphics which just feel sub-par and some bizarre gameplay choices which are scattered throughout the game. They really hold Nier back from being a very special game, but even with those faults, Nier is a game that's easy to recommend - it's really a hidden gem and one that fans of this type of game should embrace without a second thought.