Two separate versions of the game were released in its native Japan, NieR Gestalt (Xbox 360) and NieR RepliCant (PlayStation 3). Ostensibly these were the same, with the difference being a change of relationship between central characters; the former having a pairing of father and daughter, the latter brother and sister. This was rationalised by Square Enix as down to the appeal within the varying markets to protagonists of certain age groups, nothing more.
NieR follows on loosely from the fifth ending of the aforementioned Drakengard game (confusingly, the original, not the sequel) whereby the characters of Caim and Angellus travelled to an alternate dimension into a version of present day Tokyo. These two are nowhere to be seen though, and a new cast is put in place, namely the titular NieR, a man who is aiming to cure his daughter Yonah from a plague, entitled the “black scrawl”, of mysterious origins as well as battle the “shades”, strange monsters that appear out of the ether.
If you have your display set to “auto”, you’ll note NieR will revert to displaying at a resolution of 720p. This is no bad thing, as in truth the graphics are one of the areas where this game is seriously let down. It has the air of a title that was initially developed for a previous generation of consoles and has made the beleaguered step up halfway through its inception. For every well realised flourish there are two instances of poor presentation.
Weapons blur as they are swung, and although this is shown in a staggered motion, it still portrays movement and transparency quite well. Similarly, when entering scenes of darkness the lighting adjusts, taking the camera a moment to settle in this reduced visibility, and a comparable effect of sandblindness ensues when you re-enter the bright daylight from your previously darkened environment. The problems arise when these effects are added with an alarmingly heavy hand; the implementation of an apparent dusk and dawn which fogs and hazes your view is woeful. Rather than adding atmosphere, it makes proceedings simply harder to discern as if peering through a blindfold of thin muslin.
Aliasing is also a stumbling block, with characters’ hair taking on the dreaded “shredded wheat” jagged appearance. This would be a minor quibble were it not for instances, such as the fishing mini-game whereby it actually hinders your enjoyment of the game. Visualising an incredibly thin rod against a bright blue background of the ocean is beyond hard and borders on becoming a magic eye puzzle.
There are redeeming qualities to the presentation, with the mellifluous score of rising and falling arias (though critics might call it sub-par Enya muzak) helping to set the mood. Likewise, the sound effects, whilst not greatly imaginative, create the right tone for an action based romp. The voice acting knocks the level of aural accomplishments down a peg or two though, as the increasingly hammy acting can begin to grate, particularly once the earnest crying and soul searching enters the fray.
Ultimately, the problems with aliasing, poor implementation of graphical effects and blocky textures mark this out as a title that could easily pass for a Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 release title or perhaps even one designed for a previous generation altogether.
Right from the off, you are thrown headlong into an intense battle that introduces you to the basic manoeuvres as well as the various magic techniques available. Being set very squarely (no pun intended) in the action-RPG mould, NieR relies fairly heavily on the combat experience, and for this to work, the controls were of paramount importance. For the most part, they are intuitive and responsive, but it doesn’t take long before a few bugbears to appear. For starters, during this opening melee, you are tasked with the dispatching of various lesser enemies as well as one of a suitably larger size. Swinging your way in a fairly button-bashing manner through the swathes of underlings proves a passable plan, and in truth can be immensely satisfying. However, when tackling the grander opponents, the notable lack of a lock-on facility may start to irritate. This absence, along with no other manner in which to strafe, makes movement a far more haphazard affair when dealing with such beasts. Rather than moving, locking and striking, you are forced to rely on the evasive roll technique of simply continuing to perform little head-over-heels until you’re behind an enemy and then hack and slash away until its turning circle allows it to lumber to face you.
The magic attacks available to you help to vary the combat, allowing for the option of getting close and using weapons or keeping your distance and relying on ranged attacks. Once again though, the lack of a lock-on ability hampers you, as the magic attacks will only fire in the direction the camera is facing. Thus, if you are caught in an enclosed area, picking your way around a large shade, you not only have to circumnavigate it with the left thumbstick, but also have to correctly position the camera with the right thumbstick. This may not sound greatly unwieldy, and it does become second nature quite quickly, but it essentially stops any neglect of the perspective the action is being viewed from as you are forced to be both player and director. The second flaw with this system lies in the layout of the buttons utilised for your attacks; magic is found on the shoulder buttons, whilst melee moves and guard actions are accessed via the face buttons. By forcing the user to control both thumbsticks whenever they may want to use magic, it also forces them to take their thumb off the face buttons, thereby restricting any gamers’ ability to successfully link magical and melee attacks at an instant’s notice. In short, you cannot simply jump behind a large opponent, hack away whilst throwing a few magical flourishes and then jump out again. You must manoeuvre the camera and direct your attacks from the correct position. The one distinct upside to this being that cowards who prefer to rely solely on ranged magic can run away and despite their character facing a completely different direction, the attacks will still land on their targets – an easy way to defeat many enemies in areas with enough room for a continued retreat.
The mix of weapons and magical attacks that are accrued throughout your journey helps alleviate a certain amount of these niggles. You start out with lightweight single-handed swords, but by the end you’ll be happily swinging bladed behemoths that can take out multiple enemies in one fell swoop. As with most role-play games, there is the option to strengthen your armoury by taking a multitude of materials to a merchant who will forge your weapon, increasing its power and sometimes weight. Once again, this area lacks a certain degree of polish, as a great many of these variations could be considered unnecessary. Progress through the main quests and you will receive enough weapons that are of sufficient power, and there are only a couple in each category (single-handed, two-handed and spears) that warrant any effort to strengthen. The magic is unavoidably attained and most will be able to proceed fairly easily with a few swords/spears and the bare minimum of forging. It is always nice to have the choice of more content to play with, but there are no Final Fantasy moments whereby only a specific all powerful and elusive blade will be sufficient for a particular battle.
Despite all this, the combat remains fairly satisfying, with there being a credible weight to the heavier weapons and the traditional trade off of power versus speed likely to determine many a player’s fighting style. The minion-like enemies are dispatched with relative ease but the true draw of the game’s carnage proves to be in the larger boss battles that are littered throughout the game. They prove to be not only great in scale but also in the amount of added excitement they inject into the experience. After the first one or two it becomes increasingly apparent that NieR is essentially an old-fashioned dungeon crawler. You speak to a few villagers, get your next assignment, tool up and head off. Your destination will be a complex of some sort or another that encompasses a plethora of rooms that will populate with enemies that must be vanquished before the largest of them all, residing at the end of the structure, must be fought. It is incredibly simple, yet offers a hark back to titles the likes of which are rarely seen these days.
In between the tasks of the main plotline, you can take all manner of side missions, which range between mindless action and tedious shopping lists. You are either asked to kill something or they revolve around someone asking you to head to a certain location in order to retrieve a set number of items. Early on these are straightforward enough, but once you start to encounter the prolonged form, whereupon you are sent on errands in order to gain materials as a branch to your task you’d be forgiven for giving up, particularly when you consider that these excursions don’t reward the player with any experience points (only combat does), merely money. You’ll likely never fall on hard times anyway as you are given an allotment in which you can sow seeds and sell the produce for profit, which, along with the items randomly found across the world, should provide you with enough cash to kit yourself out with.
Unlike many action-RPGs, where you remain solitary, you will amass a small party of followers (three in total). This ragtag bunch put the oddness of the central storyline to shame as they include a snivelling boy whose eyes petrify people, a foul-mouthed woman who appears to be fighting whilst kitted out for a Victoria’s Secrets advert and finally a talking book. The former two provide some assistance in battles, though they are not to be solely relied upon, and can be called to hang back or wade in as you dictate. The latter, grandly titled Grimoire Weiss is the means through which you can use magic and also performs the job of being your inventory system. He also carries with him a “word edit” function - during combat you will be rewarded sporadically with words which can be attached to weapons and magical attacks to give particular attributes such as increased power, improved blocking ability etc.
So, with a side-quest structure that requires constant to-ing and fro-ing, that just leaves the central story. The good news is that, despite the painfully emo-tinged script and voice acting, the main plot evolves well, with great pace and finishes with a fantastic twist. Whether this makes up for the lack of polish in other areas will depend on how much thought you require from your action-RPGs and if you can overlook the shortfalls of the combat. To some it’ll be considered mindless fun, to others merely mindless.
The main storyline will likely take the average gamer anywhere between 10-15 hours to burn through, but that figure comes with a caveat. There are four separate endings to be seen, and unlike branching games that determine the endings seen by what decisions were made, NieR requires you to replay it from around the halfway point (though there are a few extra factors which I’ll leave readers to google if they want to specifically attain a particular ending). This isn’t quite the chore it initially sounds, as your character retains all the equipment and level status from when you defeated the final boss. Thus you are able to rip through enemies with great ease and see/hear a few extra elements to the story along the way.
If you are so inclined, completing all the side missions will add a great degree of longevity to your overall playing time, but this remains a distinctly skippable attraction. There is no word as to how much downloadable content will be available, but likewise this will prolong the experience.
The basis for NieR is sound, with a time-shifting storyline that evolves to mind bending levels and contains one standout twist for those who see it through. The problem lies in the everyday tasks that pad out the game and the level of polish that has been afforded combat. It can be hugely entertaining cutting through swathes of shades, but there lacks a degree of tightness to the controls and any level of variety to the side missions.
As such, rather than being able to lose yourself in the world (as all the best RPGs are capable of, drawing players away from the central plot), you will focus more on the main story. This is by no means a bad thing, especially when it has so many bosses to throw at you, but it does significantly lessen the game’s life-span.
- Intriguing storyline
- Fun, if mindless combat
- Catchy score
- Numerous boss battles
.....and yet so far
- Lack of depth to combat
- Boring side-missions
- Perfunctory graphics
NieR PS3 Review
NieR does enough in several areas to be worth a try, and if you can overlook its flaws there’s a title begging to be seen as a cult hit, but ultimately it lacks the polish some of the ideas contained within deserve. A case of what might have been.
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