Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Game Review - Nier (Xbox 360, 2010)

Video games offer a unique opportunity for emotional content among the various types of media.  The mere fact that the player is actively engaged with the game’s world instead of passively absorbing it sets up stronger emotional responses, even if the gameplay has no direct impacts on the narrative.  Considering that game designers are able to develop stories that can rival epic novels in length, video games are overflowing with emotional potential.

Nier is without question one of the most emotionally compelling games I’ve ever played.  It combines an intriguing and relatively understated story with good gameplay to form a great all-around experience.  Here’s why you should check it out:

Before you even hit the title screen, you know that Nier is going to be something different, because it greets you with a woman excitedly screaming “Weiss, you dumbass!”  She continues with a rant sprinkled with just enough profanity to make it seem like a realistic outburst.  You’re given no context for her rage at this point, which adds to the intrigue; it’s a fabulous way to draw the player into the game.

As you begin your journey, you’ll ultimately take control of the grizzled protagonist some 1,300 years in the future.  The world has clearly been shaken by some apocalyptic event, but the player character’s only motivation is to cure his young daughter’s bizarre disease.  A variety of ghostly shades stand in his way, adding to the mystery of the past.  And he becomes friends with a floating, sentient book; it’s a strange future.

Nier’s strongest component is undoubtedly the character interactions.  The main characters are generally standard RPG archetypes, but they have little quirks that make them more interesting than most (for example: the foul-mouthed lass featured on the title screen).  The dialogue is very well written and executed, and the somewhat unexpected use of profanity makes the characters seem more genuine and their conversations more compelling.

These believable characters serve as a catalyst for the game’s most emotional scenes.  Their relatable personalities and realistic reactions to events add weight to scenarios, causing many situations to be a bit more gripping than they might otherwise be.  Combining the characters’ evolution with gradual revelations about this world’s history leads to an interesting story from start to finish.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the end of the game isn’t the end of the story.  Proceeding through a New Game+ opens up new scenes and additional dialogue, all of which shed more light on the game’s events from different perspectives.  You start to see a complex web of information and relationships, enriching the narrative and making the emotional impact that much stronger.  Completing the game again allows you to start over once more, giving you the chance to see yet another set of ending scenes.  I found all this new content to be totally unexpected, as additional endings are fairly common, but additional cutscenes are definitely not.

The only downside is that this new content is sparsely distributed throughout the game, and a third has nothing new until the very end.  It hints at a totally new experience, but only delivers in short bursts, which is a little disappointing.  Still, Nier uses clever techniques to maximize the story’s impact.

Supporting this incredible story is a great audiovisual presentation.  Despite obvious graphical limitations, it looks good and successfully gets the point across.  There’s a nice variety of environments, but there’s nothing particularly outstanding in the graphical side of things.

The audio is undoubtedly amazing.  The voice acting is superb, contributing to the wonderful characters.  The real treat, though, is the soundtrack.  I was initially put off by the music because it prominently features vocal parts when I generally expect purely instrumental pieces.  I soon realized that the human voices add a lot, taking what might ordinarily be reserved for epic boss fights and playing it while exploring the field.  The music does a fabulous job of setting the tone, evoking very different responses for different areas.

Credit to SinnerFalcon on Youtube for posting this tune.

In short: Nier is beautiful.

Sadly, the gameplay isn’t quite up to the same standards.  At its base, Nier is an action RPG, with a relatively robust combat system.  You don’t get the opportunity to use a bunch of skills (most of the game’s magic spells have limited usefulness), but intuitive melee combat and dodging controls keep fighting fun.  There are also limited customization options; you’ll be able to buff your weapons and spells, but there are only a few buffs that are actually useful.

Nier does fail miserably in one common RPG feature: sidequests.  There are a number of sidequests throughout the game, and a few of them are quite interesting, but the vast majority of sidequests are boring fetch quests with no real point.  Limited rewards (many times the items you’re collecting are more valuable than the gold you receive as payment) and mundane requests make the sidequest system seem superfluous. It’s not compelling when it could have been a key feature of the game.

I was also very disappointed with the difficulty.  Early on, I had some trouble fighting some of the bigger bosses, but once I got the hang of what I was doing, it all seemed terribly easy.  I was never challenged in the second half of the game, and even the final boss seemed trivial.  Higher difficulty and a deeper combat system would have done Nier a lot of good.

It’s also relatively short for an RPG.  The world isn’t terribly big, with only a few major areas to explore, but the fact that you’ll return to those places a few times as the story progresses prevents it from feeling terribly small.  One complete playthrough can be easily completed within 20 hours, even if you’re spending time doing sidequests along the way.  Further playthroughs will take fractions of that time due to decreased difficulty, so you’re probably looking at 30 hours to get through all the relevant endings.  Not trivial, but not nearly the 100+ hour epic that some modern RPGs have become.

Still, I had fun with it.  Dodging attacks and dispatching giant bosses is entertaining, and it’s certainly good enough to support the amazing storyline.  It can get a little tedious in later playthroughs as the difficulty doesn’t change at all (so it’s even easier than the first time around), and completionists might hate it because you’ll need to do tons of grinding to upgrade all the weapons, but the gameplay is solid enough not to distract from the beauty of the story.

In the end, although the gameplay could have been more exciting, I can’t help but highly recommend Nier because of its awesome, emotional plot.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.

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