It has been a month since I’ve posted about video games. Mostly this is because I haven’t been playing too many. An surfeit of hobbies and responsibilities coupled with a dearth of free time equate to some judicious pruning. It doesn’t help that the kind of games I like to play, RPGs especially, require a lot of investment time. Needless to say playing a lengthy RPG in fits and starts isn’t necessarily the best way to play.
Right now I’ve been sinking time in Nier. Nier, while an RPG, isn’t a typical RPG for me. Nier is a bit of a strange bird, a sort of a JRPG take on an action-rpg. If you imagine that might be a bit problematic than you’re right but the game is frequently more right than it is wrong. I’ll start with that latter bit first which is definitely loading the screens….the many many many loading screens. Nier has you operating in and around a base of operations (your home village) with a considerable amount of back tracking and revisiting of areas in the course of adventuring. There isn’t a lot to keep you lingering once you’ve passed through an area once or twice and thus each area you have to pass through more or less puts you in autopilot until the next loading screen. Unfortunately each of these areas is also relatively small meaning transit time running from loading screen to loading screen is quite small. Now, if I’m being fair it should be noted that this problem isn’t new to RPGs and Nier’s loading screens are fairly quick but they do get rather tiresome.
In addition to those fairly frequent loading breaks Nier’s combat system feels a bit loose. In an action RPG the ability to kill things is perhaps the single most important mechanic to get right. Unfortunately Nier isn’t quite there. That being said the combat is competent at best and a suite of visually impressive spells (even if only a handful ever really feel useful) do make up a bit for imperfect targeting and blocking. Where Nier really shines are in its characters and its world. Nier himself isn’t perhaps the most interesting of guys but the scantily clad Kaine and delightfully sarcastic Grimoire Weiss have entertaining dialogue and amusing quirks. The world is….strange. Even now I know almost nothing about it. There is magic and it might be post-apocalyptic. The game’s tutorial level has a blue-jeans wearing Nier battling monsters with a post from a street sign in a seemingly modern type setting. The rest of the game has an armor-wearing, sword-wielding Nier battling monsters in a fantasy setting. I’m still hoping something in the narrative helps explain this. Areas of the world explored thus far have revealed bits of abandoned futuristic/modern technology with little or no explanation. While this might annoy some players I find that the glimpse of the world’s past, while wholly unexplained, offer up a tantalizing aspect of exploration and discovery that the game never quite embraces fully (a mechanic I’ve been chasing ever since the first Fallout).
Where Nier really shines isn’t in either its gameplay or its story. Rather what I’m enjoying so much about Nier is its willingness to experiment within the confines of its genre. Of course the same willingness is also one of the game’s weaknesses; more on that in a bit. The most shining example of this willingness to experiment came in one of the games dungeons. In stead of your traditional crawl through rooms of monsters, or hunts for keys/switches this desert based dungeon required you to pass through a series of challenge-based rooms. Each room required you to reach and destroy a particular magical device. In each room there were varying patterns of magic turrets that would shift and fire magic at you. The interest part was that each room required you to not use a specific aspect of gameplay doing so would reset the room and start you back at its beginning. The puzzles weren’t startlingly complex but I found that each of these rooms walked that fine line between tantalizing attainability and outright frustration; a perfect brew that kept me on the edge of my seat. Or in the dungeon I’m currently in the view zooms out into an isometric view and requires me to shepherd a (damned useful) NPC. Many of the game’s boss battles are fairly epic offering multi-tiered bosses and, as in the case of the battle that ends the first part of the game, sometimes have a secondary objective that if failed is equal to death.
At the same time as huge and impressive as those bosses can be tactics tend to boil down to the same tactics: hit/blast stuff still it stops moving (or until you initiate a counter that that when hit enough times will start a cut scene/do massive damage). Some of the boss battles, the weirder bosses especially (a bunch of floating boxes, a robot head) require some Zelda-like tactic specific to them (or something recently introduced in the dungeon you’re in) but by and large the bosses are all in the beat into submission category. The seesawing back between innovation and and blandness is what keeps Nier from attaining greatness. There is a decided willingness to try something different that is far too often hampered, or outright crippled, by the game’s seeming desire to please fans of traditional RPGs as well. It is a strange dichotomy and one that often leaves the game feeling a bit half-baked in certain areas. I will finish the game, eventually, but Nier is perhaps more notable for what it failed to accomplish than what it did. What the future holds for Nier is uncertain. Developer Cavia was absorbed by AQ Interactive in July of 2010 and in November of 2010 Nier director Taro Yokoo left the company. There have been rumors that something Nier related is in the works but nothing official is in the works.