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June 1, 2010
Nier - PS3 Review
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Selecting some weapons in Nier.
It's said that movies go in cycles and if, for example, one company produces a disaster movie, a rival company will try to produce a better one at the same time. It's hard to say if games have a similar cycle, but RPGs certainly appear to be in favour at the moment with plenty of titles (Star Ocean, Final Fantasy XIII and Resonance of Fate to name a few of the better ones) hitting the market in the past month or two. Now into the mix comes Nier, a game with a fine pedigree thanks to publisher Square-Enix's (of Final Fantasy fame) involvement. Does Nier hit a home run, or is it a case of Nier-ly but not quite (sorry about that)?

Nier's story begins with Nier himself protecting his sick daughter, Yonah, from an unrelenting tide of ‘Shades' that is monsters comprised mostly of shadows and a surly demeanour. Soon Nier realises he will be unable to protect Yonah from the Shades without help from someone, or something. Luckily, or perhaps not so luckily, Nier has acquired a book with mysterious powers that offers to give him all the power he needs... for the right price. And it's a very steep price at that -- the book wants the father's soul. It is a price the father willingly pays, and this devotion to caring for his sick daughter provides the basis of the storyline in Nier.

The early part of the game focuses on Nier who is looking for a cure to the 'Black Scrawl' illness that is currently afflicting Yonah. He makes ends meet by doing odd jobs for the people of his town who are only too happy to reward his efforts with cash. Not too far into the game Nier comes to the conclusion that he must obtain all of the "sealed verses", forms of magic that his book, Grimoire Weiss, can use to smite his enemies, in order to cure Yonah of the Black Scrawl. Chasing after these sealed verses will take our hero all over the world, a world which is increasingly overrun by Shades and the Black Scrawl.

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Nier is out now on the PS3.
Although Nier (the game, not the father) is described as an action-RPG it is really more of an action game with some RPG-lite elements thrown into the mix. If references to agility, dexterity or stamina make you cringe, worry not as they don't rate a mention in Nier. You pretty much grab a weapon and charge out into the world putting the hurt on any and all Shades you come across. Combat is straightforward; hit the same button repeatedly to pull off the simplest combo attacks, or use the shoulder-buttons to cast any of the magic you have at your disposal. Initially you will have access to only single-handed swords, but as you progress you can acquire two-handed swords and spears as well.

In the early stage of the game Shades and other enemies are little more than fodder for your sword as they have next to no regard for their own safety and will come charging in to meet their doom. As the game progresses Shades gain a few defensive advantages like armour and magic-barriers. Luckily it is around this time that you're given two-handed swords, which can plough through magic barriers, and when used in conjunction with magic can destroy even the most heavily armoured opponent. Bosses provide a bit more of a challenge, often requiring you to target a specific weak spot before hitting a specific body part to finish them off. These body parts have time-limits in which you can attack them and if you are unable to finish them off in time they will recover a bit of health and you have to try again.

When you're not fighting most of your time will be spent visiting neighbouring towns on the world map. Although the world is reasonably large, Nier moves at a rapid, ground-eating pace, which means most trips take no more than a couple of minutes -- depending on how many fights you want to start along the way. On your travels you will come across harvest points, represented by shining white dots on the ground, that contain items like medical herbs and other knick-knacks the people of town might find useful. Despite the size of the map the paths to other towns are quite linear, with little chance of being lost even without a map (though maps for most areas can be purchased from shops).

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Nier on PS3 is a decent enough game.
The people and places you visit are diverse in appearance: there's the desert-people of Facade, who wear clothes and masks that cover their faces and speak a strange language that will take some time to get used to. The Forest of Myth is the opposite of the desert, with the whole town suffused in lush green. The town of Aerie, with their small huts, has been built on both sides of a cliff with rope bridges spanning the gulf to link the two sides together. It is a sight to behold, especially for those who don't suffer from vertigo. Seafront is the most modern-looking town in Nier, with paved roads and houses built in straight lines. Unsurprisingly given the name of the town, Seafront is bordered by the sea and has its own light-house, though it is no longer in use. The other two locations in the game; the Junk Heap and a petrified mansion, are also quite unique in appearance. The Junk Heap is an underground area that is being maintained by robots that the people no longer understand how to operate. The petrified mansion is occupied by a boy who petrifies everything he looks at; meaning the entire mansion and surrounding area are the dull gray of petrified stone.

Nier incorporates many different game elements, some of which you've seen plenty of times before, like block-puzzles. Others are a little less common, like the riddles you have to solve in the Forest of Myth, or the enemies that fire out orbs in crazy shoot ‘em-up patterns. There are also a few occasions when the camera angle changes, turning the game into a side-scrolling platformer temporarily, or an overhead view making the game feel more like an old-school RPG in certain sections. These elements add some diversity to the action, without adding anything of great note.

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One of the many battles in Nier.
The main issue I had with Nier was the linearity of the game. Early on, and for the vast majority of side-quests throughout the game, all you'll be doing is fetch-quests. A town member needs something from Seafront, another wants items from the Junk Heap, someone else wants a knick-knack you can only get from Façade. Although traveling to each town doesn't take more than a few minutes, the endless back and forth quickly becomes tiresome. This is exacerbated by the fact that in almost all quests your reward is money; something you rarely need in Nier. There is nothing in the way of equipment to buy, aside from weapons, and there is no real need to upgrade your weapons at a shop – what you have is more than capable of doing the job.

Another issue is the story itself takes quite a while to develop, and there's not much in the way of an explanation of the world you find yourself in. Who or what are the Shades? What about the Shadowlord who is mentioned before you even start playing the game? What has happened to the world? What's the deal with the Black Scrawl? Answers to these questions do come in time, but not until you're over half-way through the game. Saving plenty of plot-twists for the end of the game is all well and good, but it shouldn't come at the expense of interest in the first half of the game.

The final issue I had with Nier is that the game is a bit too easy. Few fights, even against bosses, will kill you off unless you are careless. And should you die, the game does not make you go back to your last save, but rather to an area or phase of a boss you've recently gotten to. This is definitely a game you should play on Hard from the get go. Some of the puzzles, the block-puzzles in particular, are laughably easy and seem to be in the game simply to stretch out its length.

In terms of graphics, Nier is quite bland. The world map is sparse with only the odd rock or tree in there to break up the open vistas. Compared to a title like Red Dead Redemption the difference in what is packed into the terrain is stark. The no frills approach to visuals spills over to towns too; there is a lot of empty space here and the few things you do come across, be they buildings, boxes, people or other lack depth and character. Character design is mixed: Yonah and Nier are both uninteresting to look at while Kaine a "boorish young woman who fights monsters in her undergarments" and Number 7 have a bit more spark. With that said the Japanese sure do like to put their female characters in skimpy clothes and then provide many a suspect camera angle, something that seems fairly wrong to me… Shades, particularly some boss-Shades are more interesting; with some cool effects going on. Certain cut-scenes provide the visual highlight of the game, but these moments are few and far between unfortunately.

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Nier's visuals are a bit average.
The music and voice-acting are among the strong-points for Nier. Large chunks of the music are provided by a choir, and the haunting nature of the singing provides an interesting counter-point to the on-screen action. There is also plenty of guitar and easy-going tunes as you wander between towns which suit the game well. The voice-acting is done very well, especially given that the script and story are not particularly strong. Kaine entertained me more than she should have, with her foul-mouthed taunts and generally sour demeanor. Grimoire Weiss has a voice that suits his lofty opinion of himself, and the banter between he and the other characters is often enough to put a smile on your face. There is a lot of text in the game though, much more than there is actual voice-work, which is a bit of a shame. Like the threadbare graphics this will often remind you that Nier has a much lower budget than some other titles out there.

Nier is a game that has plenty of problems; the story takes an age to get going, the action and side-quests can be too linear or simply not engaging (i.e. fishing and planting and maintaining your own seeds), it looks plain and is, for the most part, far too easy. And yet despite all of those things it almost manages to become a good game. The combat is simple yet engaging, there are times when the characters (Kaine in particular) will provide a laugh, and once the storyline gets going you will be keen to see how it all ends. Nier is better than the sum of its parts but it never reaches any great heights. It's worth checking out if you enjoy action or action-RPG titles provided you can overlook its more obvious flaws, but I can't see this converting anyone who doesn't already enjoy the genre.

Review By: Mike Allison

GRAPHICSAside from the odd boss or cut-scene the visuals are quite bland. They do the job but certainly won't knock your socks off.
SOUNDThe choral music and easy-going tunes suit the game well, while the voice-acting, particularly Kaine and Grimoire Weiss is above average.
GAMEPLAYThe combat is limited but entertaining, the puzzles are mostly too easy and linearity of the game does hamper enjoyment.
VALUEThe first playthrough will take around 20 hours, and that's without doing many of the side-quests. Playing the new game+ will unlock different endings, but you may not want to go through it again.
OVERALLFor all of its failings Nier still manages to be a decent game, one which I enjoyed more than the sum of its parts. It's flawed but not a lost cause so if you enjoy action-RPGs (which are light on the RPG bit) it's worth checking out.

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