June 5, 2010

Nier, Far, Wherever You Are

I finished playing NIER the other day.

What, you ask? The game. The one no one has really heard about because it’s been marketed by—or actually, it hasn’t really been marketed very much at all. That’s probably because it was the product of some small-time new developer, right?

Wrong. It’s made by Square Enix.

I don’t get it either, but I did get the game and I played it and I finished it, so here are my impressions:

It’s fun. Everything else aside, the vast majority of the game is very entertaining to play. Combat is engaging, not too difficult, and you battle some big enemies. If you’ve played any of the console Zelda games, you’ll feel right at home. NIER basically plays like a kind of Ocarina of Time, only drenched in blood. Now I’m a huge fan of the Zelda series, so for me it was almost nostalgic, but for those who didn’t enjoy the Zelda games, you may find that NIER borrows just a bit too much from them.

For example, remember all those cool incidental things you could do in the Zelda games? Like fishing? Well you can fish in NIER too. You can also farm.

I have to go back to the fishing for a minute though just to express how utterly awful it is. Note to developers: if you’re going to implement a feature that will only add value to the game for perhaps 5-10% of your audience, you damn well better make sure it works so well and is so seamlessly integrated that the rest of your audience doesn’t get bothered by it.

NIERs fishing mechanic operates on one of two levels: WTF and JFCIAPITODSGMBACITTCF (Jesus-Fucking-Christ-I-Am-Pulling-In-The-Opposite-Direction-Stop-Giving-Me-Buckets-And-Cans-I’m-Trying-To-Catch-Fish). Oh and by the way, Square Enix, I don’t know about where you live, but around here cans and buckets don’t swim away when you snag them in a fishing line.

It is the worst virtual fishing experience I have ever been subjected to in my life.

Moving past that (after an hour trying to catch a goddamn shaman fish. What the shit is a shaman fish anyhow?), I have to mention that the game has this thing about twisting perspectives on you. While the majority of the gameplay occurs in the standard third-person action RPG fashion, when you go indoors, or when you climb certain structures, you will find your world suddenly flattened into a Castlevania-esque platform hopping paradigm for no particular reason except because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Then, just as you’re getting comfortable with those two views, certain dungeon rooms will suddenly punt the camera to the ceiling where it will capture the action below as if it was some sort of strange Diablo world. This didn’t bother me though because, although they’re weird and arguably unnecessary, the perspective switches actually helped keep the game interesting and helped shake up the visuals a bit.

Which brings me to the past, which is where NIERs graphics are from. Square Enix, what happened here? Clearly they spent all their Eye Candy budget on FFXIII because NIER looks like it would be right at home on last-gen systems. On the Xbox360 it looks underwhelming. Pity.

Story is an aspect of NIER that is truly excellent. Not only is the story interesting and a fascinating fusion of sci-fi and fantasy, but it actually pulls it off really well, albeit with some pretty confusing moments along the way. The premise is that you’re playing as a father searching for a cure for his daughter’s disease, The Black Scrawl, which turns people into nasty creatures called Shades. All of this is happening on earth, but thousands of years after humanity as we know it has succumbed to an (initially) unspecified cataclysm. Along the way, you meet a host of unique NPCs, and the conclusion is both powerful and satisfying. The last hour of the game is legitimately moving and interesting.

While the father is gruff and one of the ugliest characters in recent memory, he’s interesting because he’s not some young, brass badass…he’s an aging father. Still a badass by the end of the game, but it’s a nice emotional starting point. You have three traveling companions over the course of NIERs quest, though some are not consistently with you: Grimoire Weiss, Kainé, and Emil.

Grimoire Weiss is what you would presumably get if you turned Alan Rickman into a sentient book. Seriously, he sounds just like him in his Snape mode. Weiss lets you cast spells and organize your inventory and do other neat things, and he’s with you for almost the entire game, so get used to him.

Emil is the necessary whiny kid. Square Enix, let’s talk. I understand that you have an inexplicable attachment to young children characters in your games, so by all means continue to include them. But is it really necessary to make them all so consistently aggravating, whiny, and kick-worthy? I mean you even made his head look like a soccer ball, how can you expect me not to want to punt him whenever he opens his mouth?

Kainé is the strange one for sure. She’s a young-ish woman who struts about in undergarments swearing like a sailor. Hmm. So I’ll file away the near-nakedness thing in my list of things I will never understand about Japanese games in the Clothing/Appearances section. But the swearing is interesting: is it an attempt to make the game mature”? Is it comic relief? Does it work? In order…probably, unintentionally, and no.

Tip for Square Enix: you know the opening screen of the game, before the menu, where that quote from Kainé gets played with no visuals and completely out of context? Please remove it. Your game will instantly become 10% better. The thing about this character is that, although sometimes the swearing is refreshing and legitimately fun and appropriate, there are many times where the vulgarity falls flat. The character’s backstory is emotional but pretty basic; still, it’s enough to allow her a more dynamic behavioural range than this. You had a great character idea, and you mistook a gimmick for a fundamental aspect of her personality and thereby destroyed her potential to be a compelling person in the story.

The story itself is a solid 20 hours if you spend a reasonable amount of time on questing. Which I didn’t. Do you know why? Because there are only so many fetch quests I can take before contemplating suicide. I did a bunch, don’t get me wrong, and the funny relationship forged with the Lighthouse Lady was neat, but the actual quests were always just shopping lists. I swear to god the only quest idea that the developers seem to have been able to think up was something involving a grocery list. Every single time.

I stopped with all the side-quest” nonsense when some old geezer asked me to catch him ten sardines. HAH. Fuck you, old man; you spend an hour wrestling with your game’s incapacitated excuse for a fishing mechanic. Let me know when you manage. He never got back to me so I’m assuming he’s still out there snagging cans and crying.

To wrap up, I’ll talk about my home turf: the audio. Voice acting is pretty solid across the board, with the exception of Emil’s whiny voice, but where things really shine is the musical score. I don’t typically like JRPG scores, but NIER is magnificent. Not only is the sound fresh and energetic, but there are strong melodies and some exquisite vocal work by Emi Evans. I honestly cannot stress enough how much you need to listen to this score, it’s one of my favourites of the year so far.

If someone were to ask me whether or not I’d recommend the game, I would almost definitely say yes. Despite my criticism above, I stand firmly by my first statement which was that NIER is fun. It has its quirks, it’s certainly not a conventional kind of game, it could have used some more polish on the production end of things (and a new goddamn fishing system!), but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it and the good does outweigh the bad. Depending on your tolerance for the genre, your mileage may vary, but you owe yourself a rental at least to check it out.

Parting thoughts:

  • The seals that roll around on the beach in the seaside town are adorable
  • Kainé is to NIER what Kenny is to South Park: the one that gets killed all the time and yet mysteriously never dies
  • The Forest of Myth sequences don’t even come close to the text-based storytelling bar set by Lost Odyssey, but good effort
  • Why the hell is the game called NIER? What does that mean? Where in the game is it mentioned? What does it have to do with anything?

My next gaming venture is Dante’s Inferno, which promises to take me to even more interesting places. The box says Go To Hell”, so I’ll let you know how that goes.

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