I've got a bit of a bone to pick with Cavia, developer of Square Enix's latest title, Nier. They provide a compelling story, and an amazing soundtrack but they also let some PS2 era graphics, a slipshod battle system, and a frustrating pacing in to their title as well. And yet, I couldn't put the game down. I wanted to see this story through to the end despite the game trying its damnedest to prevent me from getting there. The gameplay is mediocre and I feel like I'm being too nice in saying that. Now I have to say that this title had some great ideas in it but it was more of a one step forward, two steps back scenario and it makes Nier one of the best frustrating titles I have ever played.
Nier is not a pretty title, let's get that out of the way now. The character models are a step up from previous Cavia titles like Bullet Witch for example, but even then that's not saying too much. Games like Valkyrie Profile 2 from the PS2 had better looking characters. But from a design standpoint the characters, enemies, and even the setting of the title shine. The post-apocalyptic world of Nier shows a lot of rot and decay in the setting, and it contrasts well with the medieval and European design of the towns but also manage to feel flat and bland. Color variety is something of a rarity in Nier, for example the sea front town feels very plain with the white Mediterranean loo. Meanwhile the other areas all have a distinct color to them, and they don't stray far from this design at all until the end of the game. The characters have a great look about them from a design standpoint as well except for the titular Nier character. I get why his design is that of an older fellow, but he's just aesthetically displeasing. I'm not asking for the typical Square Enix androgynous hero, but a little bit less in the rugged department would have done wonders for the character appeal.
Audio fares a lot better than the graphics do with a stellar voice cast and music that is consistently good throughout the game. Whoever decided on this audio team, I would like to shake their hand, then I'd like to buy dinner and drinks for the composers because they did an absolutely fantastic job. The vocals are haunting and appropriate for a dying world, and the compositions themselves complement the rest of the game perfectly. It's kind of surprising to hear a soundtrack of this caliber coming from a few people who previously worked on Namco franchises like Tekken and Katamari Damacy. The voice acting is also really solid, with quality work coming from Jamieson Pierce who plays the titular Nier. I've also really got to hand it to Liam O'Brien who plays Grimoire Weiss, he delivers so well in this game playing the role of a rather deadpan and narcissistic floating tome and his voice fit the character perfectly. I'm also really impressed with Laura Bailey who has some of the most vulgar dialog I've heard in a game as she plays the role of Kaine. I'm surprised she was able to deliver lines without breaking in to laughter at their absurdity.
So it doesn't look too good, but it sounds nice; how does it play? Honestly, this game is a chore to play. The controls don't feel all that precise when it comes to player movement. Combat is a hack and slash affair with an RPG styled growth system, but there is nothing that makes it stand out. I almost wish they had gone the God of War route where I am able to actually put my red orbs (but in this game it's experience obviously) to use to power up the skills I want to use. It would actually make more sense since when you defeat enemies their essence flies toward Nier. Instead it's a pointless numbers game that requires no input from the user. I can't even tell you what level I was when I completed the game, that's how little I cared about my growth. Cavia tried to spice it up a little by having 'Words' drop from enemies that you can use to augment your spells and weapons and that system isn't too shabby, though it really felt like the drop rates for these 'Words' is totally random and dependent on where you are in the game. So don't expect to get anything good until the end of the game.
Getting back to the combat, Cavia obviously put some thought in trying to make fighting an interesting affair. You can tell their previous work on Bullet Witch had some influence on Nier since you'll be spending a lot of time dodging projectile patterns that had me thinking I took a right at the Bullet Hell Shooter hall of games. With Grimoire Weiss you are able to counter these bullet spamming enemies, but the game is sorely lacking a 'lock-on' feature, and targeting by hand isn't totally viable when you've got multiple enemies on the screen moving in all different directions, meanwhile the camera puts Nier directly in the line of sight for where you want to shoot. To make things worse the amount of damage output by the ranged attacks isn't anywhere close to that of physical attacks, but they offer different options and a bit of variety to the combat, I was particularly fond of the Phantasm spell that projected a silhouette of Nier for a decent chunk of damage. When it comes to the physical attacks the speed and damage is tied to the weapon being used. Lighter swords have quicker attacks and more combo options, while the heavier spears and two-handed swords deal a hefty amount of damage but take forever to execute. You can also power up the weapons by taking them to a blacksmith who will take enemy drops and a bit of gold and churn out a powerful replacement. The problem here is that there are a lot of rare drops per enemy and the drop rate is extremely low. Most weapons aren't even worth the effort to power up since you can spend hours trying to farm the necessary materials while the game will hand you better weapons as you get closer to the end.To make matters worse a lot of these rare drops are used as well in the quest system that the game employs. There is a lot of time wasted on trying to collect materials for various odd jobs and quests for minimal gains and the game does a piss-poor job of explaining or telling you how or where to get the goods for your quests. To further the frustration, the people who give out quests are only identified by a thought bubble over their head, and after the quest has been accepted the bubble disappears, so hopefully you remembered who gave you the job in the first place. After a while I was quite burnt out on the quests when they became a hunt for items sold by various shops across the entire game world with no proper way to get from town to town quickly. And is it all worth it? The answer is a 'meh, not really' since the reward is typically cash which you can get by selling drops from enemies. Later quests will have some of the rare items that can be used to power up weapons provided you are willing to put up with obscure clues to finish them.
Traveling through the game world is quite the pain in the ass. A trip from any one town to another isn't terribly long provided you don't get ambushed by enemies, but the game likes to think that you actually enjoy the combat so it will constantly throw enemies at you. And sometimes they aren't normal enemies, but rather large ones that have way more hit points than you can possibly deal in a reasonable amount of time. After a while you unlock a boatman who will take you to various points on the world map, but some of them are kind of useless and only take you about halfway to where you want to go. You can also complete a quest that will allow you to ride a boar out in the world, but it's quite slow and handles very poorly leaving me wondering why it was even put in to begin with.
I've hesitated about speaking on this topic, but I'd like to discuss the story of Nier. I've got to say I really enjoyed it despite it being very short on information until close to the end, and even then it got a little unwieldy and lacking in explanation. The basis of the story is that Nier has a daughter and she suffers from what is known as 'The Black Scrawl' which causes illness that will eventually take her life. The odd thing is that this appears to be a repeat of events that took place hundreds of years prior, and since then the world has fallen in to a state of decay and humans are on the verge of extinction while ghostly enemies known as 'shades' roam around killing anyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Along the way you are joined by Kaine, a foulmouthed female who is possessed by a shade that grants her immense power and will someday take over her body. And to round out the cast there is Emil, a young man who's power to petrify people has turned him in to a bit of a shut in. This party, along with Grimoire Weiss, must find the source of the shades and destroy them before they finish off what's left of a lingering human presence. After completing the game you are given the option to go over some back-story for the other characters and you learn a bit more about them, like Kaine's younger years where she suffered the taunts of children in her village and how she came to be possessed by a shade.
After finishing Nier I was happy that I completed it. The father and daughter story was compelling to me, especially after playing something like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I felt invested in the characters and I was willing to put up with the weak gameplay just to see it through to the end, especially when missions for Nier's daughter were to collect food ingredients so she could learn to cook for her father. But I don't know if the ends justify the means in this case. There are better gameplay experiences out there, and the story is something you have to dig quite deep in the mucky gameplay to get a hold of. It felt like Cavia tried to do a lot of different things with this title and nothing really came up as a standout feature. It's a shame too, maybe a few more months of time spent working on the graphics and rounding out the gameplay so that each mechanic was in better shape would have done this game some good. As it stands right now Nier comes off as a typically average title. Perhaps a sequel with some extra development time will give me something more to praise.