Wednesday, May 26, 2010

X360 Look - Nier

Over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of sorts for the work of Cavia. They have proved themselves to be anything but the common game developer. While they tend to work with popular genres like shooters or action-adventure they purposely seek out storylines and design-decisions to put off all but the most hardened (or masochistic) gamers. Drakengard is the perfect example as it weaves a tale of cynicism and hopelessness and expects the player to perform endless absurdist tasks in order to attain the “best” ending. To people who got this far it all seemed like a bad joke, just Cavia getting a good laugh out of those silly completionists who aren’t satisfied until they’ve collected everything. Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance was similar in this regard. If you managed to accomplish every task you were rewarded with bikinis you could dress your main characters in. It’s not exactly a great fit for a game that prides itself on brutal beatings and people getting their skulls crushed. Eventually gamers as a whole came to accept this and eventually Cavia would become ignored, their entirely mediocre Bullet-Witch didn’t help matters any.

At some time or another Cavia developed a sense of humility and decided to focus their energies on creating a great game. To me it’s strange that they took this long as they have the talent and the freedom to do anything and yet for the most part they choose to subside on standard fare that could have been handed off to any C-tier dev. I guess this could all be filed under “paying your dues” so now in Nier we have one of the most unique and wonderful action-RPGs to date. If your soul is still functional and you’re still capable of feeling emotion this game just might prove itself to be a moving experience.

The basic storyline is about a father’s love for his daughter. Unfortunately in the world they live he must be away constantly in order to make money to provide food and medicine for her. This leads to a bit of a conundrum since while the father must be away so that the daughter can survive, the daughter is happiest when he is home. Throughout the early parts of this game the message is driven home through various letters that tell of all of the birthdays that the two of them never spent together. It’s a tale many can relate to even though they usually don’t go off to fight monsters.

Death is not something we look forward to. For some it’s out of fear but for others, at least in this game, it’s because they feel they haven’t accomplished all that they have needed to do. There are many side-quests in this game that unfortunately lead to the demise of somebody. Strangely the best course of action is to actually perform these tasks. It is not as if the player kills any of these people but through the attacks of monsters, illness, or simply old age they pass on, usually content. It’s not exactly a satisfactory response for all parties (though the player pockets a bit of gold for their trouble) but death is as much a part of life as anything else so all that can be done is to make the best of it. Despite all this there is still a feeling of hope, something not seen in the original Drakengard.

The comparisons to Drakengard remain pretty apt though. Their relationship is best described as being yin and yang to each other. Everything from the story to the music exemplifies this and it creates a sort of a harmonic balance that completes them. This is not to say I recommend playing through Drakengard before, after, or during this game because it certainly isn’t for everyone. Still this philosophy is prevalent throughout both games and it’s a very nice touch.

The father in this game is a pretty rough-looking man whose better days have passed him by. Still he’s more than capable of the jumps and double-jumps that platforms tend to require and he can swing swords or spears with little effort. Before long he is joined by a magical book known as Grimoire Weiss. This chap is a fan of proper English so it’s paramount that his foil be a foul-mouthed hussy by the name of Kaine. She’s a fan of cussing and killing with an outfit that is…well unfortunately it’s par for the course as far as female action-game characters are concerned. Rounding out this motley crew is a young boy by the name of Emil. He’s a powerful magic-user and has a really creepy smile. While the party follows the father around and assists him in battle the only ally he directly controls his Weiss.

Weiss is the basis for the magic system in Nier. MP constantly recharges so there’s little reason not to take advantage of Weiss’s ability to summon giant fists, claws, lances, and an endless stream of projectiles. Personally I favor the fists as there are few things more satisfying than pounding the opposition into dust. Up to two spells can be equipped at a time though one of them is most likely to be a constant throughout the game. This particular spell offers three types of attacks. Holding down the button offers a constant rate of fire, releasing after a couple seconds causes a deluge of homing shots, and simply tapping the button leads to more powerful bullets. This spell works in practically any situation and it’s the first one the player acquires so there’s little reason to ignore it.

The monsters of this game are actually called Shades. They are certainly unique creatures in that they are bits and pieces of what was once whole. Most resemble humans in basic structure though they are prone to wearing armor and using magic as well. The bosses tend to resemble animals only giant in size and grotesque on many levels. Combat is exceptionally easy and checkpoints are frequent so it’s rare that the player would get themselves into a situation that they can’t win. Those seeking a challenge may want to switch to the Hard difficulty and abstain from upgrading weapons too much though. Fans of stylish combos won’t find much to like here but as concerns myself I enjoy the punch that each blow carries and killing multiple enemies in one swing is very satisfying.

The world of Nier is actually rather small which is fitting for the genre. There are several dungeons to explore and all of them offer unique twists. For one this game is a constant fan of perspective. The storyline is one such example and during the game the view will shift from a traditional 3D affair to overhead or even side-scrolling areas. In fact one dungeon takes on an isometric view and suddenly Nier feels like it could have turned into a perfectly serviceable Diablo clone. The genre of this game can shift along with the perspective to create a 2D shooter, something akin to Geometry Wars, or even a text adventure. First-time play-throughs are likely going to last between fifteen and twenty hours.

To make up for this short length the game offers up quite a bit of side-content. There are thirty weapons that can be attained and all of them use materials for upgrades. These materials can be harvested or collected off of the corpses of shades as well as animals. That other type of farming is accounted for as well since the player can plant seeds and raise their own little garden. Fishing is also available and it really isn’t that difficult though it can be frustrating and time-consuming.

Make no mistake though the most likely reason a gamer is going to want to play through this game again is to see the additional endings. Thankfully this doesn’t mean playing through the entire game. On future play-throughs the player is dropped off at a particular point just a couple hours away from the end and there are additional cutscenes that add a little extra perspective. I actually prefer how this is handled because if all of this was done on the initial play-through it’d be too much to handle and would just become annoying. This game understands the importance of giving the player just enough to keep them interested.

One of the great aspects of Nier is its approach to story-telling. I’m not particularly fond of game stories and when I talk about them it’s usually something to the effect of “dude’s parents got killed so he has to kill to get revenge and whatever” but with Nier I find it best not to talk about the story at all. What makes this work is that Nier takes advantage of dead air, or the time between people talking. All too often it feels like people in videogames will not shut up about everything and they won’t stop until their life-story speech is over. This game tells the player the basics and allows them the opportunity to think about it during their next side-quest. One of the main reasons I even do the side-quests is because they offer a lot of insight into how the main characters think. Their banter is so much more engaging than forced monologues and paragraph after paragraph of speech. There are those times when nobody is talking that the player is forced to consider what’s going on and where they go from there. There are a handful of decisions to make in the game and since the reward is usually meaningless it is best for the player to choose the option that fits what they think.

The game itself is ultimately limited by its efforts to create an experience. There’s not enough side-content tied to fighting like maybe a boss-rush mode or some kind of survival-based dungeon. The DLC that was recently released is alright but it still isn’t enough to give gamers a reason to attempt to get the most out of fighting well. While the game does a fine job of offering new encounters and battles there’s still quite a bit of revisiting that goes on and some new areas would have done wonders to fix this. While collecting everything isn’t nearly as bad as some of Cavia’s earlier affairs one may have to consider a guide in order to find a number of the materials. Still that’s more along the lines of nitpicking since it’s really only there for completionists.

Still as far as the experience is concerned in my eyes Nier is without peer. It’s a celebration of both life and death that and its astounding usage of words has managed to convey emotions I thought I’d never feel in regards to a videogame. Even the most mundane of side-quest characters prove themselves to be memorable thanks to the impressive writing and the main characters are excellent in terms of development. This is all without even considering the fact that I still have three more endings to pursue.

Game Rating - 4 out of 5 stars

While the game is perfectly competent in all aspects it does suffer a bit from the “jack of all trades” effect. It does quite a bit of everything and yet at times where it could matter most it just doesn’t follow through. Still there isn’t anything truly bad about how the game is designed and it doesn’t offer any design decisions that I disagree with. How the game handles perspective is absolutely genius though, kind of makes me believe Cavia could successfully pull off a development team that does nothing but conventional mainstream titles….not that I’d ever want to see anything like that.

My rating – 5 out of 5 stars

As much as I’ve gushed about this game you really expected me to give it anything less? I may be going completely overboard here but this game just might be one of the best experiences I’ve had since Planescape: Torment. The game itself is as solid as anything I could ever want but its approach to story-telling is just fantastic and really takes Nier to another level. This is definitely looking to be up there among the likes of Deadly Premonition, Protect Me Knight, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 as my favorite games of the year.

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