At the end of last year, I had given my GOTY title to Super Mario Galaxy 2 — a brilliant game, and one that really introduces no new concepts, but refines old concepts to a Valve-like spit-polish. Easy-peasy.
...And then I played NIER.
Not until this summer, though, despite the game coming out in 2010 (curse you, Goozex!). At any rate, I was immediately fascinated by this game, and kept getting pulled further in as I went along. It is not a fun game, at least not in the way SMG2 is, and it is definitely not a happy game, but it is a compelling game (take a drink), and does many new things that are to be commended. The attention to detail is staggering at times; and while a few major things were not done as well as they could have been, overall I haven't encountered a game like this in a very long time. But it's nihilistic. The first playthrough is depressing; the subsequent ones are just flat-out sad. Read on for a rambling, unedited, [color=red]heavily spoilered[/color] analysis.
Let's get a few things out of the way first
In the interest of covering everything, I suppose I should briefly mention things like graphics, gameplay, etc. This is not a game that's going to win any graphic awards. The characters look fine, but the scenery and backgrounds are pretty low-res with no visual "hook" (like cel-shading or something) to pick up the slack. The voice-acting is rather good, particularly for a Japanese game. There are a couple quirky characters, but overall definitely above-average. The music is fantastic and deserves a special mention — but more on that later. There are towns and side-quests, and the game definitely feels as though it was originally slated to be a JRPG (it was). Gameplay is fine; though it's fairly basic hack-and-slash, the completely different style of the several weapons and the interesting magics you have access to keep things interesting. Despite being basic, combat feels nice and flows well. Enemies vary enough by type to keep combat from becoming too boring, and thankfully most normal battles are blessedly short (or may be skipped entirely). The boss battles, on the other hand, are actually pretty fun. The more Zelda-style Big-Ass-Boss-Monster is on display, all very visually impressive (perhaps the one place in this game you can say that), and each one has a very different set of tactics needed to topple them.
...And then gameplay begins to diverge. The majority of the game is certainly as described above, but you'll run into sections that play like Gauntlet isometrics, camera-in-the-corner Resident Evil mansions, side-scrollers, and even a text adventure — replete with nary but white text on black background. It's really weird, but somehow it manages to all gel together. The game drops you in a different mood and setting for each tangental experience, so they just feel like they belong. It's fun, and it keeps the relatively short game (20-30 hours depending on your sidequest mood; can be completed in 4 if you skip all cut-scenes, but that would be quite stupid) from getting stale.
But you aren't playing this game for a visual feast or super-tight gameplay. You're playing it for the setting.
NIER is a game about a man (cleverly named Nier) who just wants to find a cure for his ailing daughter. At first glance, it has a relatively straightforward Hero Arc, starting in a small town with a purpose, joining with a ragtag band of oddball characters, realizing his predicament affects the entire world and eventually toppling the Big Bad Guy. Key here is the phrase "at first glance". Nier's daughter, Yonah, is infected with an incurable disease known as The Black Scrawl, so-named because a series of incomprehensible black letters begin to appear on the afflicted's skin...followed by death. Anyway, as mentioned the whole plot basically revolves around Nier trying to find a cure. He's aided in his quest by a few helpful leaders of his village, and eventually joins up with an only-in-Japan lingerie-wearing hermaphrodite (more a Japanese futanari than a real-life hermaphrodite, but that's another story) and a tweener youth who wears a blindfold because everything he looks at turns to stone. Oh yeah, and a talking, floating book that allows Nier to use magic.
Beginnings and Endings
But perhaps I should back up a bit first. There is a prologue, albeit very brief. It involves only a single scene, that of Nier and Yonah struggling through an abandoned, snowy metropolis just trying to survive. Full disclosure: I have a young daughter, so things like this perhaps affect me more than you. Anyway, there's a prologue, things happen, you won't understand what they are until you've beaten the game (twice). (No, that's not a joke.)
There are four, count 'em, four endings in NIER. After you've beaten the game all the way through once, you're given the option to load a clear-save file that will start you roughly halfway through the game (there's a very clear delineation between Parts 1 and 2; you can't miss it). You have not beaten this game until you've played at least to ending B. C and D are perhaps less necessary but are worth viewing — at least, after taking the proper precautions. The latter two are just an added ending, but the B playthrough is just that: a separate playthrough. You won't want to be skipping cut-scenes on the B run. Let's put it this way: the game's tagline on the box art of "Nothing is as it seems" may be the most accurate piece of marketing in the last several years.
Nier's world is a struggling place. It's something like 1300 years since the prologue, and any evidence of the previous civilization (as well as their technology) has been wiped off the map. People struggle to eke out a primitive existence, and lately are under constant threat of attack from shades, wispy black clouds of smoke that periodically take form and, well, attack people. Nier has a particular hatred for shades, as he thinks they are the reason for Yonah's illness. Frankly, things seem off from the very first scene. You've just advanced the clock 1300 years yet Nier and Yonah are right there in front of you. Nier, searching for any clue to help Yonah, winds up in the Lost Shrine (to emulate Zelda again, it is both the first and last dungeon in the game), and sets free Grimoire Weiss: a talking book of obviously ancient power that may hold the key to Yonah's cure. Thus the journey begins.
Nier himself is a fascinating study. He eventually teams up with the aforementioned motley crew, but is all the while consumed by his single-minded pursuit of a cure for Yonah, and believes that smashing every shade that gets in his way will get him to this goal (which is correct, in a way). Again, as a father, I understand this. It made me think of Elysium's play of Heavy Rain where, upon being asked if he offed the guy to save his digital son, he answered yes, without hesitation. At any rate, Nier shows the same determination to do whatever it takes as is typical of the Japanese game hero (and I suppose most any hero), but as you progress through the game, you see all the other characters grow and develop. Kaine (the hermaphrodite) comes to terms with her past, Emil (the kid) comes to terms with his past, etc....but Nier never changes. He doesn't grow or develop. At all.
Most of the time an undeveloped character is just bad writing, but here it's obvious that Nier is defined by the development of the characters around him. Their constant growth makes his lack even more pronounced, and obvious that it was intentional. Even in the first playthrough, this feels very wrong. The writers did a good job of making things feel just off enough to make you uncomfortable. He takes a little too much pleasure in killing shades, even shades that aren't hostile and just minding their own business, despite any information gleaned by the group. When broader-reaching implications of their quest arise (as they must in this style of game), his focus never alters at all. This becomes far more impactful later on after you've beaten the game, when you realize that this entire wretched world was caused in part because the original Nier just wanted to protect his daughter, at the expense of overthrowing the gestalts and oppressing the replicants. Then you realize that the replicant Nier, due to the same single-mindedness, has doomed BOTH the gestalts and replicants to death by his defeat of the Shadowlord. When you hear the shade dialogue in the B run and realize that both Niers are saying exactly the same thing....that is a powerful moment indeed. You come to realize the whole nasty cycle of violence and its consequences.
It's the Little Things that Matter
As I said above (way, way above), one of the things that most impressed me about NIER is how integrated the main concepts were into every tiny corner of the story and world. Every piece of dialogue, every fetch sidequest, they all further the feel of the world. (As an aside, you definitely do not want to skip sidequest dialogue in this game.) Which really, is to say that they all show just how broken and twisted the world is (and depress the hell out of you). Every little character you meet seems to have their own story, and many of them inter-connect, and none of them are good. Some examples:
You can run a side-quest for an old man to find his dog. You find the dog and he is (predictably) dead. You return to the village and...the old man is dead, too. Turns out the dog was hunting for the medicine the old man needed to stay alive.
When you first make it to the junkyard, you search for the two boys' mother. You eventually find her deep in the junkyard...dead. With a man. If you follow a sidequest in Part 2, you discover that this same man was a roustabout who made his living seducing and then swindling widows and single women out of their possessions.
The entire sequence of events with the old woman at the lighthouse.
Even in places like the RE mansion, there's one hallway you'll have to walk through several times. The first time, the pictures look normal. Each subsequent time, they look slightly more evil — and they start to grow horns. Serious Dorian Gray moment. By the end they're just flat-out devils.
Suffice it to say, great care was taken to create a cohesive world. There's even, if you want to go really deep-end of the pool, something incredible in the black scrawl itself, hiding in plain sight (snagged from NeoGAF):
In the opening scenes in Nier, some orange letters that look like Hebrew appear in the background, and they're used all over the game. Trying to read them as Hebrew was pretty confusing at first, because some of the letters are weird (and you have to read it from left to right), but it eventually transpired that they just borrowed the font wholesale from Heinrich Agrippa's 16th-century Angelic alphabet. Using this, you can tell that the two lines of text in the opening video say HOROBIRU SEKAI and HITO SAIGO; the first one means 'a world collapsing' and the second one is not quite grammatical but means something like 'a person's end'.
That's not the mind-blowing fact, though. The mind-blowing fact is this: Most of the text you see in the game is gibberish, including the text on the big round seal on the game's cover. The letters used in the icons above the villagers' heads indicating that they have something to say to you are also gibberish. Almost everything in the game looks like gibberish, but if you look carefully, you'll notice that both the round clock-like indicator used at the end of boss battles, and the Black Scrawl itself, only use four different letters, despite the font having many more than that.
Which four letters are they? Well, test out that font here and see for yourself. Type in A, T, G, and C (in any order you like, just be sure to use capitals) and you'll see that those letters are the Black Scrawl.
These are the initial letters of adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, the four bases that make up human DNA.
When I figured this out, close to the end of the game, I was thinking, "But why would they go out of their way to make the Black Scrawl correspond to human DNA while people's speech and the rest of the text is meaningless garbage?"
Oh. So that's what this "disease" is.
The Second Time Around
This game plants seeds in your head. It makes you wonder exactly what is going on. You don't really begin to find out until the first ending, then it's gradually revealed to you fully over the course of your second playthrough. But the seeds are there, constantly nagging you your entire first run through the game. For instance, you start to wonder why do the shades bleed when I attack them? Why are some of them dropping used coloring books, textbooks and the like? Why are there several cut-scenes where it seems as though the shade is actually talking (unintelligibly)?
And then the other shoe drops on your B run. You suddenly gain the ability to hear the shades (thanks to Kaine...that's all I'm going to say about that), and you get many extended cut-scenes because of it, as well as interstitial dialogue. That's when the central ironies of the game begin to rear their heads, and when things get truly depressing. As tempted as I am to put a wall of spoilers up here and go in-depth about what made every single boss encounter so much more interesting, I won't. Just play the game.
There are other things you notice the second time around, though. Things that were hiding in plain sight the first time, but you mis-interpreted them due to your lack of knowledge. The Aerie is a great example of this:
So the second time through you know that some have turned into shades. The first time through, as you slash through shades, you'll hear things like "That's my husband! He's a shade!" and it will sound like a lament for her loss. The second time through, it sounds much more like a plea not to kill him. Or you realize that the kid whose big sister turns into a shade...he gets so upset when you kill her. He doesn't care that she's a shade, he just doesn't want to be alone.
Or just running through the northern plains. At first you notice that there are groups of smaller shades running around with a single larger (adult-sized) shade always nearby. The second time, after you've pieced together everything about the gestalts, coloring books, and what-not, you realize that it is just that: a teacher or some such watching a bunch of kids playing out in the field. And you just killed all of them.
And things that were already very sad get the added twist of pathos:
For instance, you know the first time that the younger brother at the junkyard basically caused the collapse that killed his older brother (and that he literally pulled his brother's arm off trying to pull him from the wreckage). He hacks his own arm off as penance and replaces it with a non-functioning robot arm as a reminder of who he thinks killed his brother. That's already really messed up, right? But the second time around you see the robot and shade that supposedly did it — the small child shade just lost his mother (she was killed within earshot of him), but eventually befriends the robot, they make plans to see the world, etc. And you know that they're both going to die at your hand soon, because you did it once already. The extra scenes you get with the king of Facade, the list goes on and on. Perhaps the most impressive one of all is when you fight the final boss the second time, and can hear him: Nier's dialogue matches up almost perfectly with the Shadowlord. As mentioned above, the cycle is one of the central tenets of the game.
This game touches on several themes that run throughout its four endings. Bitter Irony: as in, everything about the B run when you get to "peer behind the curtain"; the Aerie after you destroy the one place that has somehow managed (in Part 2) to have gestalts and replicants coexisting harmoniously; and how everything anyone loves is taken from them the second they get the chance to really have it (the king of Facade's wife, Kaine's grandmother, etc. etc.) Dogged determination even with the realization that what you're doing may be wrong (see Nier's dialogue after taking out the Aerie, his corollary speech with the Shadowlord at the end, his saying "I'ma kill ALL the shades!" after Weiss points out the tree shade is sentient in the text adventure, etc.) and total, utter misunderstanding. This perhaps is the central tenet. It's the undercurrent that ties the whole game together. Once you see both sides of the coin, you realize everyone has the same motivations for doing what they're doing: Between Facade's army and the boar in the final dungeon, replicant Nier and gestalt Nier, and so many other places.
But it all seems so intentional. Everyone in the game blinds themselves to other possibilities, clinging desperately to the last little hope that they may be right and the world really is that simple. But the truly amazing thing, that makes me love this game so much, is that it doesn't show you any of this until you've already participated in those actions. The game tries hard to paint Nier as a good and caring man, and if he ever had to confront the humanity of the shades it might destroy him. In a sense it doesn't matter what he might know; he doesn't even bother to question the humanity of the shades and would probably utterly deny it if it was right in front of his face. Most players are probably the same way during their first playthrough of the game, and the brilliance of the New Game + is that it only shows you the pain and cost of Nier's actions after you've become complicit in them. The first time through, you cheer on the gratuitous finishing moves Nier unleashes. The second time, you see them for what they really are.
But you can see the reason for Nier's attitude, too. By the end, whether he understands the Shadowlord's words or not, Nier certainly knows that he has some capacity for thinking and feeling. Yet at the same time, the guy broke into his town, killed a bunch of people, and stole his daughter, backed up by a series of motivations and justifications that the player, much less Nier, can hardly understand. Why does he have any more right to his Yonah than Nier has to his?
In the end, there's no true villian, and that's just astonishing. It's all just...a big misunderstanding.
I ask you, what other game has ever done that?
And so I recommend to you, play NIER. But don't play it as you would play a more basic, visceral game. If a simple game like Peggle is something you can just pick up and play and be satisfied, like good macaroni and cheese, NIER is more akin to 5-star haute cuisine. It may be very good, but you have to sit there and think about it, to concentrate on it — simply because there's so much going on. It's not something you eat and enjoy idly while talking to friends; do so and you will miss the experience. It's something that must be delved into, attentively, to see its brilliance. If that sounds like your thing, play this game!