Square Enix’s Nier is a game that really shouldn’t work. It’s a little bit mad, and appears to be a crazed amalgamation of about six games all in one. Six games that all had to be abandoned because their respective visions were all too off-kilter. It tries to be so many different things at once that you’ll spend the first couple of hours trying to stop your head from spinning, but once the game settles down and you adapt to its otherworldly rhythms, you’re in for something imperfect, ludicrous, and really rather special.
What exactly is Nier anyway? If you absolutely had to compare it to something, you could do a lot worse than draw a comparison to Darksiders, THQ’s terrific surprise smash from earlier this year. That was a title that struck a perfect balance between RPG and hack-and-slash action, and although Nier’s balance is definitely weighted in the favour of the RPG side of things, the action sequences are similarly simple and rewarding. There are also countless stylistic nods made towards The Legend Of Zelda, but as far as comparisons go, that’s about it.
The first thing you’ll hear when you boot up the game is an expletive-strewn rant by an unseen female (who, it is spoiling nothing to reveal, turns out to be an obnoxious and ever-furious hermaphrodite) and this sets up an anarchic, punky atmosphere that doesn’t ever subside. Although the game’s plot appears to be extremely straightforward (with the titular character on a mission to save his daughter from possession by The Black Scrawl) it’s actually a confounding and labyrinthine mess that straddles several centuries. You’re unlikely to follow everything that happens to the letter, but because of how well written the characters are (and how effortlessly compelling Nier’s family dilemma is) you’ll never care.
The game also has an incredibly arch sense of humour. Nier’s companion on his travels is a floating book called Grimoire Weiss, a sour and sarcastic misanthrope who spends the best part of the entire game sniping at everything that Nier says or does. The character is superbly voiced by Liam O’Brien (who also voiced War in Darksiders, oddly enough) and in addition to the tomfoolery that Weiss brings to the proceedings, he is also responsible one of the game’s most purely enjoyable elements: spell casting.
The inclusion of spell casting is a bit of a masterstroke, and the constant evolution of the spells ensures that the gameplay stays fresh. One of the first spells you’re given is the “Dark Blast” which can turn the entire game (if you so choose) into a deeply unusual kind of shoot ’em up. It’s this kind of odd attitude – whereby something as simple and familiar as a weapon upgrade can change the entire shape of the game – that gives Nier much of its helter-skelter charisma. You can basically tailor the gameplay to suit you, and subtly steer it in any direction that you choose. That was a seriously gutsy move on the part of Nier’s developers Cavia, but it really, really works.
Nier definitely isn’t perfect – only a madman would suggest such a thing – but it has such a ridiculous surfeit of charm and personality that it would be incredibly churlish to throw undue attention at the (very minor) issues that keep it from demented greatness. It’s truly one of a kind and a grade-A risk taker, and if you like seeing interesting things done with the haggard old JRPG formula, or just want to experience something that completely epitomises the term ‘different’, then you really need look no further than this.
Watch the Nier trailer here…