Project Gestalt

Nier Screenshot

HIGH Seeing a group of friends actually behaving like a honest-to-goodness group of friends for maybe the first time ever in a video game.

LOW The extra cut-scenes in the second playthrough were uncharacteristically melodramatic.

WTF Watching big, manly Nier land on his butt like a clumsy five year old after a big fall.

Recently gamers have been debating whether or not video games are art. While this has been an ongoing discussion, the intensity was recently ratcheted up a few notches by the incendiary comments of a certain well-known film critic. Amidst this cacophony, Square-Enix quietly released the Cavia-developed Nier, and it couldn't have come at a better time. While gamers and critics attempt to build fences to delineate what games are, Nier exemplifies and celebrates everything games can be.

The true nature of Nier isn't obvious from the start. Aside from an interesting tutorial sequence set in the near-future, the game quickly settles into a familiar formula. 1300 years in a disease-stricken future, the titular hero stumbles across a floating, sentient tome named Grimoire Weiss. Weiss informs the hero that if they can locate its sealed verses—each in the grip of a powerful foe, natch—it would be possible to heal Nier's sick daughter and all others who are similarly afflicted. 

For the most part, this is a formula Nier adheres to. Players freely travel the overworld, hacking and slashing sheep and shade alike, in search of the sealed verses. Verses are typically preceded by a dungeon of some kind, and impart Nier with a new magical ability upon acquisition. There are also a significant number of optional quests of the grocery-list variety that can be taken on at (mostly) any time during the game. 

At first blush, Nier is practically indistinguishable from the action/adventure games that have come before. There are few setups more familiar to gaming than plumbing the depths of themed dungeons, sword in hand, for the ancient MacGuffins that will save the world. However, these similarities turn out to be something of a red herring since Nier abruptly departs from this template with confident regularity.

For example, in one early dungeon, the camera rotates into an overhead position, and the game transforms from a hack-and-slash into a top-down twin-stick shooter. In another, Nier explores a creepy mansion filled with mysterious keys and fixed camera angles in a clear nod to the survival-horror genre.

Nier Screenshot

No sooner has Nier donned one hat than removed it for the next, but the game never feels disjointed as a result. On the contrary, its mercurial weaving from genre to genre imparts the game with a paradoxically cohesive identity. This is, at least in part, due to Nier's self-aware nature. One character refers to a giant foe as "the boss," and Nier describes himself as a guy who just kills things. Grimoire Weiss in particular seems to delight in acting out within the confines of the game. At one point he argues specifics with an unseen narrator, and at another he shamelessly spoils one of the game's (admittedly predictable) twists.

Even more important to Nier's identity are the controls. The controls never change, despite the many incarnations the game assumes over the course of its 25-hour length. Cavia seems to have gone to some length to ensure that Nier himself controls consistently no matter where the camera is sitting or what challenges are offered to the player. In most games, departures from primary game mechanics are sectioned off in discrete modes or mini-games. In Nier, the small aspect of universal control legitimizes every genre-bending moment as an integral part of the main game.

The vacillating nature of Nier reaches beyond mechanics and into the actual narrative. Like the gameplay, the story is initially presented as something stock-standard, eventually manifesting into a crusade against the unimaginatively-monikered Shadowlord. Rather than crossing genres, however, the narrative instead traverses a broad emotional spectrum.

The principle characters of a brute, a beauty, a boy, and a snob could easily have spent the entire game confined to those one-dimensional characterizations. Luckily, Nier makes it a point to see these four mature considerably—both as individuals and as friends—over the course of their adventures. An early cut-scene sees Nier awkwardly (though not fruitlessly) attempt to convince a doubtful Kaine of why she should continue living. A much later scene sees an emotionally wiser Nier offer similar counseling to his young friend Emil, though this time a simple embrace accomplishes in moments what took many aimless reassurances in the earlier encounter. Each character experiences growth like this in multiple directions as the game progresses, in scenes that run an emotional gamut from endearing to gut-wrenching.

Nier occasionally makes oblique references to an unexplained Project Gestalt. Gestalt refers to a unified whole that cannot be described simply through listing its components.  Given the game's self-aware nature, Project Gestalt could easily be the game itself. None of the individual elements of Nier surpass the games and genres that originated them, but the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts that to even dwell on it misses the point entirely. With Nier, Cavia has done the seemingly impossible, and created something entirely unique from nothing but borrowed components. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes, violence. No clever commentary here folks, keep the kids away.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All important information is clearly visible onscreen, and subtitles can be turned on for all spoken dialogue. Certain enemies have audio cues for particular attacks, but these are usually accompanied by fairly obvious visual cues as well.

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18 Comments on "Nier Review"

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Anonymous
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Oh, I know this is very, very late — over a year and a half late — but I just have to say that I really appreciate you giving this game a fair shake. I’ve seen too many reviews that settle closer to the middle of the spectrum for reasons that I just can’t understand. Well, perhaps I can understand them. The gameplay is middling; it’s not terrible, but it’s not particularly innovative. It’s easy enough to pick up and play, but perhaps not engaging on its own. Side quests can be tedious, regardless of your ability to ignore them… Read more »
Zolos
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Finished the game for the 2nd time.

I can’t say it was worth it because you replay the same levels (admittedly only 3-4 hrs)to get a 10min text of reading and some extra cut scenes.

Zolos
Guest
First off, you were absolutely right on this one Sakilla 🙂 [quote=Sakilla]You will love Emil. Just you wait. Oh, just you wait. ;)[/quote] Finally finished the game yesterday and planning to replay it to see Kaine’s story. What can is say. It’s was wonderful experience which i fear was missed by most people. An interesting mix of gameplay (always solid) supported by great characters, top notch voice acting and a good story. While not perfect i can definitely see it staying in my Top 5/10 lists of games of 2010. Will recommend it to a few friends of mine who… Read more »
Chris Cziborr
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I also bought this game based on your review and I wasn’t disappointed! Very memorable story and I liked the combat system, except for the targeting system of the Dark Lance (although I got used to even that). I’m surprised at the criticism of the music, as I thought it was pretty strong for the most part. I especially liked the music in The Lost Shrine. I mentioned this on twitter to Brad earlier today, but one thing I really hated was the amount of repeated back-and-forth movement required for many of the side quests. And the fast travel options… Read more »
randomrob
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I’ve picked up the 2nd ‘partner’ now and loving(!) this game. I got over my music issue.. it’s not that bad. I just wish they had included some ‘wallpaper’ tracks to break it up a bit.

Trent Fingland
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I’m really glad you like the game, Sparky. When I had seen that you picked the game up based on my review, I was sweating a little bit. I have a lot of respect for your work on the site, and I was worried you’d play the game and think I was totally off my rocker. As for the music, I kind of took it as part of the game’s thing. This might just be my naked, unapologetic love for the game talking, but the whole thing is so beautifully ugly, and the overdone soundtrack contributed to that feeling in… Read more »
Sparky Clarkson
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[quote=randomrob]I am a few hours into Nier and am enjoying it, but I don’t care much for the soundtrack. A more ambient or more changing background music scheme would’ve been nice. Nier favors short, dramatic, melody-heavy loops that repeat endlessly.[/quote] That’s interesting. I really liked the soundtrack, but a quick examination of the web suggests that it was pretty polarizing. I’ve seen plenty of comments calling it the best game OST in years, and only slightly fewer calling it out as mediocre for the characteristics you criticized here. I fall somewhere in between. I did like the music, but I… Read more »
randomrob
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I am a few hours into Nier and am enjoying it, but I don’t care much for the soundtrack. A more ambient or more changing background music scheme would’ve been nice. Nier favors short, dramatic, melody-heavy loops that repeat endlessly. In a game like Persona3 this can work because you change location and music alot. Fighting on the bridges in the Aerie, I ended up turning the music off, and left it off. It’s not a big deal, but it’s rare that I turn the music off in a game.

Zolos
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[quote=Crofto]BTW it probably sounds shallow that I based my decision on not buying this game on reviews, but I just wanna rectify that since I actually find most reviews to be full of crap anyway (aside from this site, and the occasional reviews elsewhere). However, when it comes to flaws and bad design then reviewers seem more adept at pointing that out than they are at realising when something is actually superb or not. It does seem that every now and again they do let a good game slip through the net though, and this could be one of them.[/quote]… Read more »
Crofto
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This review and Sakilla’s comment have actually made me want to give this game another look. I checked the initial and overall reviews this game got and decided to pass it up, even though I’m always interested in games like this. The reviews seemed to highlight numerous major flaws, but that you guys clearly see something special means I should give it a proper chance. BTW it probably sounds shallow that I based my decision on not buying this game on reviews, but I just wanna rectify that since I actually find most reviews to be full of crap anyway… Read more »
Zolos
Guest

[quote=Sakilla]You will love Emil. Just you wait. Oh, just you wait. ;)[/quote]

I have to admit that Emil is getting interesting 🙂 (12.5hrs in) but still the voice actor annoys me.

Jeffrey Matulef
Guest
You, good sir, have nailed it! I reviewed Nier myself for X-Play and loved it way more than I ever thought I would. In fact, I ended up having such a great time with it that I beat it in two days of straight play and still had time to go through the abbreviated new game+ mode prior to review. It was definitely an inconsistent game though. The writing wavered from snarky satire, to genuinely moving, to overwrought and cheesy. The characters were great, but by the end I couldn’t tell you what had happened plot-wise. Still, even at its… Read more »
Trent Fingland
Guest
Lunar Coyote: I really wanted to go into all of Nier’s amazing qualities, but the review would’ve been huge as a result. Great bosses and music have been seen before. Though Nier’s bosses and music are themselves pretty amazing, I felt it was wiser to spend my review outlining the qualities that made Nier unique. As for concerns about grinding, there is no mandatory grinding. Every quest (except maybe one) is completely optional. The actual rewards are pretty lame (some don’t even have any rewards, and at least one actually results in losing money), so I suspect the real purpose… Read more »
Sakilla
Guest

You will love Emil. Just you wait. Oh, just you wait. 😉

Zolos
Guest
I am currently playing it myself and i have to say that i am really enjoying it. Not on the same level as you Trent and the rest (10hrs in) yet however. I am enjoying the different gameplay elements it throws at you for sure especially during dungeons. [quote=reason49]I heard that there was a good deal of grinding/repetition often needed to advance in the game. How does this affect the game? Does it ever get tedious?[/quote] So far i never had to grind to get through anything. It’s a relatively easy game tbh. Combat can be repetitive at times as… Read more »
reason49
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I heard that there was a good deal of grinding/repetition often needed to advance in the game. How does this affect the game? Does it ever get tedious?

Sakilla
Guest
I usually don’t concern myself with what reviewers think of any given game, but the response from Nier really kind of upset me. Initially, I glanced at some review scores, saw that it was a bomb, and started to move on. Thank goodness I decided to read a couple of those reviews. And then a few more. And a few more after that. After numerous reviews, I started to realize that this game sounded awesome. It sounded like it had numerous aspects to it that would appeal greatly to me. I couldn’t understand how the game failed critically. So I… Read more »
Lunar Coyote
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I’m in complete agreement with this review, yet there’s still a lot to like from Nier, besides gameplay (which is not perfect, but very functional), character development and storytelling; the music is excellent, the art design (for both locations and characters) is great, the bosses are numberous, varied, interesting and fulfilling, and there is a lot of replay value. While there are minor flaws residing in the gameplay and level design aspects, as well as some repetition and backtracking, I still can’t fathom where all this hate from critics and players alike came from. It is clearly a very good,… Read more »
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