Can one hideously ugly man facing impossible odds to save his daughter from a mysterious disease make for a beautiful action role-playing game? Find out in our review of Square Enix's Nier.
Dog-faced Nier's young daughter Yonah has been infected with the strange Black Scrawl virus, and he'll do whatever it takes to free her from pain and weakness, even if it means teaming up with a young boy with a deadly secret, a sword-wielding hermaphrodite with a penchant for fighting in lingerie, and an odd talking book that grants him access to powerful magics.
I mean, what father wouldn't?
A Dark New Story: I've played a lot of role-playing games over the past twenty-five years, so for one to come along with a storyline that actually surprises me is rare, and Nier does that. At heart it's the tale of a father trying to find a cure for his daughter's strange illness, and the lengths he'll go to protect her. As the story progresses the magnitude of the threat grows larger and the characters' plight more dire, but the game never loses sight of that heart, coming about full circle for the dramatic climax.
What also struck me about Nier's story is the fact that it's quite a downer. Every time you experience a moment of triumph, something horrible happens. This is especially evident in the storyline for the character of Emil, who spends the game going from one terrible situation to the next. I truly felt bad for the characters and their situations, which I suppose made those few triumphs that much sweeter, and the fact that they've managed to do all of this while still maintaining a wry sense of humour throughout the game is borderline genius.
Kainé: I was going to single out each of the three characters accompanying you on your journey to cure Nier's daughter of her strange affliction, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought about Kainé and how she completely made the game for me. This foul-mouthed hermaphrodite swordsperson pulls you into the game from the moment you first hear her voice, cursing like a sailor before the title even shows up on your screen. While everyone else struggles to fit into the fantasy mould, Kainé is the only one with balls enough to call the giant rampaging monster a shit hog. As Grimoire Weiss points out, "That's not even a real word", but I don't care. You have to love Kainé.
Give That Man A Giant Magic Hand: When I first saw Nier in action, I thought it was a 3rd-person action game, in the same vein as God of War, but Square Enix kept calling it an action role-playing game, so I started going with that. Having played the game, I'm still torn. Basic combat plays out like it does in your average hack and slash game, with three different weapon sets unlocked during the course of the game - the quick and versatile one-handed sword; the slow but area-devastating two-handers; and the deadly spear, which is immensely powerful but requires the most precision to wield. While Nier never gets quite as over the top as Kratos does, he does have his moments.
Then you add in magic, and things get even weirder. Suddenly Nier is summoning giant fists to punch the living hell out of his opponents, making spikes shoot up out of the ground, impaling his foes, or even firing off a shadow version of himself to attack his enemies. One of the powers (Dark Bolt) turns the game into a shooter, with one dungeon featuring a mine cart ride that effectively turns the game into an on-rails shooter. It's a little crazy at times, but I love it.
Damn Impressive Boss Fights: Nier features some of the most entertaining and innovative boss fights I've ever experienced in an action RPG, period. You take on these gigantic creatures, dodging beams of magic, throwing bombs, disabling appendages and whittling down your massive opponents in multi-stage battles that rage across entire playfields, in some instances at least. One fight even has you playing a bizarre 3D version of Breakout. Sadly the fights get a lot more mundane as you wrap up your first play through, but that's what multiple play throughs are for, right?
Games On The Side: While you can easily speed through the main storyline in under 15 hours (there's a trophy for it!), Nier is packed with enough extra content to keep you going for days. There's the requisite fishing mini-game, growing and cultivating fruits and vegetables in your garden, collecting items to upgrade your arsenal of weapons, as well as your standard side quests. Side quests range from simple fetch quests, to complicated deliver quests requiring you make it across a dangerous playfield without getting hit, lest your valuable delivery be damaged. Figure in multiple game endings and an extensive narrative history of Kainé - accessed by loading your end game save after the credits roll - it can easily take more than 70 hours to see all Nier has to offer.
Siren Songs: Nier may feature the most beautiful soundtrack in any game released this year, and I don't say that lightly. The game made some of the most wonderful music come out of my surround sounds speakers, often accompanied by the mournful, haunting voice of a woman singing in some long-forgotten tongue. At one point in the game you even come across a woman singing the background music, and the vocal track fades while you interact, kicking in again once you move on. It's just a small little fade-in and fade out, but it speaks volumes on the sort of attention music was given in Nier.
The Forest Of Myth: I do not want to ruin the Forest of Myth for anyone, which makes it hard to sing the location's praises. Let's just say that there's a game play mechanic in place here that I never expected from an action role-playing game, and I was completely charmed by its addition. It's one of those things that no other game has really done before, and none other can do again for fear of being labelled derivative.
Doubling Back: For all its expansive beauty, I found myself doubling back and revisiting old locations in Nier much more than I normally prefer to. Going back once isn't so bad, but when I have to fight my way through the same dungeon three times during the course of one game, it begins to wear on you.
Who Jumps Like That?: Nier's jumping animations are very, very strange. There's an overall quirkiness to the animations that I found unappealing, but the jumping takes the cake. He kicks off the ground, chest jutting forward as if her were seeking out a protruding spear to impale himself upon. Like I said, very, very strange.
Why Am I So Ugly?: Nier is one ugly bastard. I'm not generally one to care about the physical appearance of the character I am portraying, but Nier is ugly to the point of distraction. I mean, there's rugged ugly, the sort of ugly you get after spending your entire life struggling against impossible odds, and then there's Nier's particular brand of ugly, with his dog-like face and hair that looks like someone piled white straw on his head. Later on in the game he wears a mask. I have never been so thankful for a mask.
Nier is not at all what I expected. At first glance, I was ready to dismiss the game as a generic action adventure title with a bland, muscle-bound hero on a quest to do something that would eventually blossom into full-blown world saving. As I played, I was pleasantly surprised to find a complex action role-playing game with some big ideas, a daring storyline, flashy combat, and enough extra content to satisfy even the most obsessive compulsive role-playing fan. Like its main character, Nier's thuggish exterior hides a very complex story for those willing to take the time to get to know it.
If that's not compelling enough, it has a scantily-clad hermaphrodite who says "Shit Hog". Everybody wins!
Nier was developed by Cavia and published by Square Enix on April 22 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Retails for $US59.99/$AU109.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played the PlayStation 3 version on standard difficulty through to completion. Total play time: 22 hours.
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