From the Archives: Birds Suddenly Appear Every Time You Are Nier

Nier is possibly one of Square Enix’s most misunderstood games.

Released to a rather lukewarm critical response back in 2010, this Cavia-developed PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 action RPG, directed by Taro Yoko, is actually a fascinating game that is well worth your time and attention — so long as you have a bit of patience to deal with its idiosyncrasies.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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The concept behind Nier is a familiar one — the titular protagonist’s daughter (or, in an alternative version that was only available in Japan, sister) is dying as a result of a mysterious disease called the Black Scrawl, which turns people into the dark, shadowy monsters known as Shades. Partnering up with a sarcastic talking book known as Grimoire Weiss and eventually two other equally unconventional companions, it’s up to the player to guide Nier through his epic quest to save his daughter (or sister).

So far so conventional, right? Sounds like a relatively straightforward RPG, right, perhaps with an unusually old protagonist? Sure. Okay.

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Here’s the thing with Nier — it’s anything but conventional. While you do spend a fair amount of time running around from a third-person perspective battering Shades to an exaggeratedly bloody pulp, gaining experience and equipping yourself with more and more elaborate instruments of brutality, you also spend quite a lot of time jumping across platforms from a side-on perspective.

And avoiding “bullet hell”-style swarms of enemy attacks from a top-down perspective.

And solving Zelda-esque sliding block puzzles.

And working your way through text adventure sequences.

And farming.

And — you get the idea.

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Nier is most certainly not afraid to mix things up regularly, and it very much keeps things interesting. By a section late in the game where it suddenly and inexplicably switched to an isometric perspective and effectively turned into Diablo, I wasn’t even surprised any more.

Nier’s wilful refusal to conform to the norms of the genre extends far beyond just the gameplay. While we’ve had a few “father games” over the years — Silent Hill and Heavy Rain spring immediately to mind — it’s relatively unusual for a JRPG to cast someone who isn’t a spiky-haired teenager in the role of the protagonist. (Indeed, the aforementioned Japanese version did feature a spiky-haired teenager rather than the grizzled middle-aged man we saw in our version.) Nier himself is an interesting character in his own right, initially appearing to be a gruff, sullen sort of individual, but one who shows himself to be a multi-faceted person as the story unfolds. He’s dealing with anger, pain and suffering every day — but he’s also not afraid to crack a joke or make a sarcastic comment at the expense of his companions.

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And speaking of his companions, what a bunch. Between the foul-mouthed, intersex heroine Kainé (who perpetually dresses in lingerie to accentuate her feminine side while being constantly, spectacularly violent and angry for reasons that become abundantly clear), the world-weary Grimoire Weiss and Emil, who [SPOILER REDACTED], this is an ensemble cast unlike any other game you’ve ever played.

It’s the concept of nakama or “true companions” at its finest — there are times when these characters most certainly do not get along with one another and clash horribly, but they work together out of mutual respect and a growing sense of doing what is “right.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nier’s story is that it’s not finished when the game ends for the first time. Beat it once and you’ll see an ending, sure. But then you get to start again from halfway and see a whole bunch of extra stuff that puts a surprisingly different and rather harrowing context on the same things as you did previously. Then you’re expected to do it twice more to get the “full” story, at which point the game deletes your save so hard that you can’t even start a new game with the same filename as the previous one.

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As well as being interesting, Nier is quite abusive, you see, both to its characters and to the player. This is perhaps most readily apparent in the game’s lengthy set of sidequests, which offer relatively little payoff when compared to the amount of effort it takes to complete all of them. What they do do, however, is give the player a wonderful feeling of “context” — life in Nier’s world is a constant struggle against adversity, and as you’re asked to undertake all these rather tedious fetch quests, you get a sense of “mucking in” and helping make life a bit better for these suffering people. You’re “method acting” the role of Nier, in other words — going through his struggles right alongside him. This makes it all the more distressing when quests end, as they frequently do, in some sort of tragedy rather than a satisfying victory. This is a world that isn’t full of happy endings.

The game really isn’t afraid to make its main characters suffer alongside the NPCs, too. The core concept of the story is Nier dealing with the terminal illness of his daughter, after all — but Kainé, Grimoire Weiss and Emil certainly don’t get off without a bit of pain of their own, either.

Kainé, in particular, is far more than the furious, lingerie-clad young woman she initially appears to be, and the game’s second playthrough in particular explores her background in great detail. To say too much more would be to spoil that whole sequence entirely, but suffice to say there’s a lot more going on with these characters than there may seem at first glance. Those who have already played the game and who are looking for further reading should definitely check out the fan translation of Grimoire Nier, a collection of short stories, character profiles and other fascinating information about the game and the troubled creative process behind it.

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The sad thing about Nier is that it’s one of those titles where mediocre review scores have meant many people passed it over. A lot of prospective purchasers will have seen the Metascore of 68 and decided that it’s not a title they’re willing to take a risk on. [Editor’s Note: …though with the recent release of Nier Automata, this will probably change!] And while the game certainly isn’t without its share of flaws, for my money the fascinating and unconventional aspects far outweigh any technical or mechanical shortcomings.

In other words, if the reason you play games is to have a memorable experience and to have a degree of “takeaway” from your time engaging with a particular title, Nier is very much a title you should check out.


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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