Nier: Underappreciated Classic of the Outgoing Generation

On the eve of E3 2014, the first in which we're well and truly "next-gen," Pete looks back on an underappreciated gem from Gen7 and ponders whether we'll ever see its like again.

Retrospective by Pete Davison, .

On this, the eve of E3 2014, the video gaming world hopes -- prays -- for the big hitters of the industry to provide some more compelling reasons to go "next-gen" than have so far arisen. What better time, then, to take a look back on the hardware generation on the way out, and specifically on one of its most criminally underrated games?

There will, of course, be spoilers ahead.

I refer to Nier, a game developed by Cavia as a follow-up to the fifth and final ending of its PS2-era title Drakengard. It's not technically a Drakengard sequel in the strictest sense, since Drakengard itself was directly succeeded by Drakengard 2, also on PS2, and the more recent Drakengard 3 for PS3, which is actually a prequel to everything that's going on. Confused? Understandable; fortunately, Nier stands by itself as its own self-contained story -- the Drakengard connection is just interesting for a bit of narrative context.

For those as yet unfamiliar with Nier, it casts you in the role of the titular character: a far cry from your typical Japanese role-playing game protagonist, Nier is a middle-aged man and a father to a young girl named Yonah. At least he is in the version we got in the West, which is known as Nier Gestalt in Japan; its companion piece Nier Replicant recasts the protagonist as a teenage boy and Yonah as his sister rather than his daughter. The reasons for this were, according to an interview with Japan's Inside Games site, that it was felt the West would respond better to an older, more mature hero with fatherly responsibilities.

Given that JRPGs are frequently criticized by mainstream Western publications for their respective narratives' overreliance on young teen characters -- particularly in the protagonist role -- it's an understandable change. And it's a welcome one, too; Nier Gestalt's father-daughter story is poignant, touching and somewhat different to the norm; while we've seen a number of "father games" since -- notable examples including Heavy Rain (which actually predated Nier by a few months in 2010) and Telltale's The Walking Dead -- it's still far more common to see video game protagonists, particularly in works of Japanese origin, erring towards the teenage end of the spectrum.

Nier isn't the only interesting character in the cast, either. At various points throughout his adventure to save Yonah from the mysterious disease known as the Black Scrawl, he's accompanied by the foul-mouthed, ill-tempered Kainé, the blind boy Emil, and his near-constant companion, the magical, floating, talking book Grimoire Weiss, played with admirable aplomb by prolific anime and video game voice actor Liam O'Brien. Each of these characters has their own story to tell -- and throughout the game's unusual narrative structure, we get the opportunity to get to know them all in a surprising amount of detail.

The character we discover the most about over the course of the game's four endings is, without a doubt, Kainé. Initially presented as an extremely aggressive, scantily clad woman who appears to be in the game largely to provide a dose of sex appeal, we gradually start to discover that all is not as it initially seems with Kainé. From your second playthrough onwards, you get to explore Kainé's past in much more detail through a surprisingly lengthy text-only sequence, during which it's revealed that she was born intersex and is also partly possessed by a "shade" -- the mysterious shadowy creatures that make up the main antagonistic forces throughout the game. The reveal of these character details is respectful, low-key, well-written and utterly fascinating; I can't recall the last time I felt like I really understood -- or at least empathized with -- a character as much as I did as that sequence drew to a close.

Just to add further complexity to matters, though, from Nier's second playthrough onwards, the player's perspective gains the ability to understand the gibberish that the Shades use when talking to one another -- and the implications are fairly horrific considering you spend most of the game butchering them by the thousand. Needless to say, despite the fact that your second, third and fourth playthroughs of Nier will all be near-identical in terms of gameplay, the additional story context added by this simple but horrifyingly effective change in narrative perspective -- you quietly become a third-person omniscient observer in control of Nier rather than fully inhabiting the role of Nier, since Nier himself is still unable to understand the Shades -- makes for a very different experience, and one which causes you to question the very nature of what it is you're doing as you hack and slash your way through hordes of enemies. How many games can you truly say that about?

Nier isn't just fascinating from a narrative perspective, though. No, its gameplay and presentation also feature some odd, interesting choices. The aforementioned flashback sequence where you explore Kainé's past isn't the only text-only part of the game, for example -- there's a significant chunk in the middle that features a number of imaginative dream sequences represented entirely though evocatively written text. And alongside this, at various points throughout the game, you have sequences where the game's conventional third-person action game perspective changes to top-down Zelda-style, bullet hell-inspired shoot 'em up sequences, side-on platformer, 45-degree Diablo-style isometric perspective and old-school Resident Evil-style fixed camera angles. In every case the change in perspective and, sometimes, play style is surprising, but it never quite feels like it's been put there just for the hell of it; in every case Cavia demonstrates a sound understanding of not only the "look" of these different types of games, but also how they play. The Diablo-style sequence is heavily weighted towards the hack-and-slash side of things, for example, while the Resident Evil-style sequence features lots of exploration and occasional surprises as you creep around an abandoned mansion.

What's interesting about the interplay between gameplay and narrative in Nier is that it frequently subverts expectations -- specifically, the expectation that if you do everything the game tells you to, everything will end up just fine. Sidequests frequently end with some sort of horrible tragedy -- in one memorable instance, you return from attempting to recover a medicinal plant too late to save the person in question and there's nothing you can do about it -- but it's firmly in keeping with the nihilistic tone of the game overall. Reviews of the game upon its original release criticized this aspect of the game in particular, noting that sidequests were repetitive, tedious and often featured little payoff, but an alternative way of looking at it is that the game is encouraging you to "method act" the role of Nier: he's a tired, middle-aged man just trying to do what is right in a dying world and, much as we would like to believe that good deeds are always rewarded, the fact is that sometimes even with the best of intentions things don't turn out quite the way you want them to.

This extends to the game's ending, too. None of the game's four conclusions can be regarded as particularly upbeat in tone, and in the case of the game's fourth and final ending Nier wipes himself from existence so completely and thoroughly that you have to watch, unable to do anything, as the game systematically wipes any trace of your journey from your console's hard drive. To add insult to injury, the game then salts the earth so thoroughly that you're unable to even start a new game with the same filename as your previous runthrough, the only indication that you even played the game at all being any achievements you managed to gather and a slightly different title screen. Now that's a bold statement for a developer to make: "You're done. Move on."

The reason I find Nier so interesting is that it's an immensely creative, ballsy, unconventional title that, as the years pass by and game budgets get ever-larger, is the sort of thing we're starting to see less and less of -- at least in the "full price" space. The indie market is doing lots of cool things, for sure -- and that's probably where we'll see more and more brave, bold games going forward as the packaged games space becomes more and more exclusively the domain of triple-A publishers -- but, thinking back on Nier as I have been doing today, I find myself wondering if I'll ever be able to walk into a store, pick up a boxed PS4 or Xbox One game and discover it to be quite as much of fascinating, risk-taking game as Nier was.

I'd like to think the biz can still support that kind of experience alongside the media oversaturation, hype and, sometimes, inevitable disappointment of big-name games like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty and Watch Dogs, but it's still early days for Generation 8 as yet; things could go either way right now, and this year's E3 will be pretty telling with regard to the sort of experiences we'll be able to expect from PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in the future.

Here's hoping we have something interesting to look forward to.

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Comments 8

  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #1 christopherhughes97 4 years ago
    Man, I really need to go back and finish Nier. I burnt myself out on sidequests shortly after Emil takes over his sister's body.

    One of the most interesting things about the game as far as I played was that it seemed to be a tragedy about one person grieving over a dying world, essentially a story of death and coming to terms. Dark Souls got a TON of mileage out of basically the same theme and became a huge hit, even if the sequel kind of undermined that idea, but Nier was not lucky enough to find the same success.
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  • Avatar for cubadoo #2 cubadoo 4 years ago
    The soundtrack was truly awesome to this game.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #3 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    Thank you for writing this. Nier is one of my favorite games of the generation. I wish more people understood its appeal.
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  • Avatar for dekar346 #4 dekar346 4 years ago
    A very similar game from the last generation was Lost Odyssey. It was a turn based RPG instead of whatever Nier is, but it has a lot of other similarities. The text based short stories, the nontraditional protagonists, the weird story. I'd love to see a retrospective on it as well, even if it wasn't quite as experimental as this sounds like it was.
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #5 Dogislander 4 years ago
    Sorry, repost...Edited 3 times. Last edited June 2014 by Dogislander
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #6 Dogislander 4 years ago
    I'm very nervous about these articles drying up, but I'll take what I can get. Glad you are still delivering on these swan song pieces as the niche continues to be filtered out of the mainstream. Nier was an absolute joy to play through.

    The soundtrack matched the melancholy tone, and two scenes compeltely wrecked me:the point of Emil's transformation and the death of the wolves(Hell, the entire second playthrough is ridiculously moving. Emil is turned into this goofy doll-thing but it's played completely STRAIGHT which makes it that much more effective and painful. Will miss these kinds of unique, heartfelt games on the big systems...Great to see you still producing great articles, Pete.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #7 Kadrom 4 years ago
    Criminally underrated is the best way to describe it. Unique characters and setting, a great localization by 8-4, the best soundtrack of the generation, all these disparate play concepts, and the Ending B playthrough which makes you feel like the biggest asshole on the planet. Truly a unique game.
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #8 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    Whoever took the screenshots for this piece? You've got my respect. Nier, however wonderfully bizarre it may be, is one ugly game. It looks like a PS2 title so often - one of those Team Ico-style games that heavily relies on Bloom Lighting instead of ACTUAL lighting, and doesn't mind drowning out color for grey to look... something. But man, the US Nier model is AWFUL. So you didn't want us to get "generic anime kid" Nier? That's cool, Cavia. But why not actually base "Barbarian Nier" on someone so he looks like a cool dude instead of a troll? Google Arnold Schwarzenegger, model his face, done. Worked for Lance (or Bill?) in the original Contra...

    I'm glad he got a mask in the second, pretty depressing part of the game (I mean, let's face it. The story just beat down Emil and Kaine so badly around this point)

    It really was an amazing game. Such a fun, unbalanced (in your favor!) combat system with your partners and magic. And I thoroughly enjoyed the nicely varied dungeons. The entire thing felt like every homage Cavia ever wanted to do, crammed into one game since they knew they were likely going out of business. From the Ikaruga-style bullet hell moments, to the top-down Zelda parts, the text adventure Forest, the Diablo-style isometric place, the Resident Evil Manor... man. That was INSPIRED. And the story + characters are wonderful. I owned Bullet Witch, and I still have (and play) Ghost in the Shell PS2 to this day... I can't believe that this is from the same developer as those two. Neither game is as inspired as Nier is... though GITS PS2 may actually be better looking in places.

    Playing Drakengard 3 right now, and - while it's nice the UE3 powered visuals up the presentation somewhat (still pretty bad for 2014) - it's clear that it's a bit of a step back. It's got... almost none of those inspired components. The combat is much dumber, though only deceptively so? The weapons you can buy DO all have different elements and combos/moves, so they do require experimentation, but it's NOTHING compared to the spells and dark magic the Grimoire could utilize in Nier. The story + characters seem so much dumber and one-dimensional and less interesting in DG3 than in Nier (though they are growing on me, to be honest), with a horrid sheen of "current era Japanese perviness" thrown in for good(?) measure. It's not the follow up to Nier that I wanted, but it's pretty fun.

    It just makes Nier more special is all. It's amazing that it holds together so well, and that it actually maybe (sort of?) has a good message about grief, and dealing with/coming-to-terms with what will be at the end of it all. I really liked Nier as a character, and really ending up loving Nier, the game.

    I just wish the dude wasn't so hideous....Edited 3 times. Last edited June 2014 by Critical_Hit
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