Trying to go the distance.
Getting old can be tough to deal with. Things start to break down after the years of alcoholic abuse (BTW, thanks for all your hard work, liver, I know I can always count on you). Your hearing gets worse and you can lose your ability to see clearly, if at all. I'm starting to think that maybe Square-Enix might be dealing with the latter, as their newest game, Nier, seems to lack focus. You see, part of being old is dealing with not being culturally relevant anymore; right now, I'd say Squenix is in a mid-life crisis... desperately trying to prove they're still cool and hip with it, even though they have no idea what “it” is anymore.
[image1]Now maybe this isn't true in Japan, where games with aspects similar to Nier's are prevalent and popular, but here in America, to paraphrase Hall and Oates, “they're out of touch”. It must be difficult for a Japanese developer to create a title made with a Western audience in mind. Much like the old guy buying beer for the high school kids, it does manage to make a connection, but still gives off that creepy old guy vibe.
The things that us stupid Americans will like about Nier are the same things that we usually like about action games: the hacking and the slashing, the over-the-top kill sequences, and the chick running around fighting monsters in her underwear. The thing that you won't like about it are the same things you've always hated about JRPGs: a lack of guidance and lot of grinding.
It all goes down like this. You're this guy named Nier, who has a daughter who is very ill with the "shadowplague" and is slowly dying. Determined not to let your next of kin meet such a tragic fate, you set off on a quest to find a cure and rid the world of the demonic creatures known as “shades” at the same time. Along the way you join with the hermaphrodite Kainé (at least that's what the game claims, but I never saw a bulge anywhere) who fights in lingerie, a boy named Emil who can turn anything he looks at to stone, and a sassy, jive-talking book named Grimoire Weiss. Yes, a talking book.
[image2]While not the most visually appealing character, Weiss's smart ass remarks - you will laugh at the epic book fight cut sequence - are some of the better lines in the game followed closely by Kaine's no-BS'ing-around potty mouth (she's probably the only reason it got an “M” rating). Both are voiced extremely well. And while the plot may leave you scratching your head at times, at least it sounds nice. In fact, the performance from the entire cast is commendable, so it would have been nice to hear their voices more. It's a crapshoot as to whether dialogue is text or spoken.
Combat is more of mixed bag. The controls are very simplistic, but there's a small amount of depth and tactics necessary to progress. Boss fights in particular can be difficult if you don't equip yourself right, but they offer up the only real variety in gameplay with the exception of a few clever moments, such as one dungeon section that turns the game briefly into an overhead shooter. Most of the time, though, you're just killing the same shades over and over again.
The weapons and spells upgrading system that uses magical words collected from enemies adds a nice little JRPG touch without getting too sub-menu on you. The other touches of influence from such Eastern gaming philosophies don't fair quite so well and come off as being too Monster Hunter-y, and aside from one very frustrating fishing experience, you can get through the entire game without doing any of it. You're never really told how to garden; you just learn you have a garden and the tutorials are nothing more than brief paragraphs describing basic actions that only perplex you further.
[image3]The Monster Hunter-ness doesn't stop there, either. The second half of the game takes a sharp turn and becomes a level grinder. You spend all your time going to places you've already been and killing enemies that are all way too easy for you. While there is variety among the levels, ranging from decrepit ruins to uhm, well, different decrepit ruins... okay, it's all ruins, but they do look different. The sacred temple and the robot base are fine examples of significant contrast - one overrun with flora and fauna, the other an underground military industrial complex. Unfortunately, they're both visually bland and drab. Nier is just not up to par in presentation with other Square-Enix titles, like Final Fantasy XIII, on current-gen consoles.
Overall, Nier has its ups and downs. There are brief moments where you can see the influence from more brilliant games, such as Zelda and Bayonetta, shining through, but the overall experience is lukewarm at its best moments. Still, the fact that most of the sub-quests can be skipped in favor of progressing the plot is a step in the right direction. In other words, it's close but still far away.