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.
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).
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.
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.
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