Arguably the best HD J-RPG of this generation, I’d recommend NIER to any player interested in deep characterization, unusual and well written story, and fresh, ever changing gameplay.
When most gamers talk about the best stories in video games, they usually name blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted. This is weird to me, as these games are obviously pale derivative of some of the most overused movie tropes (Conspiracy Theory Sci-Fi for the former, Indiana Jones and the like for the latter) and don’t bring much to the table in that regard – I don’t know who argues that these games have better stories than the movies they took inspiration from. But NIER is nothing like that. It’s a story you’ve never heard before, a story which makes more sense in a video game that in any other medium – a story that actually takes advantage of the fact it is an RPG – and, more importantly, a great tale that’s intelligently told. NIER is, simply put, one of the best examples of what a story-driven game can be.
As this article is more a recommendation than a review, it feel like I should first remind my readers that this high opinion of NIER is not solely my own. PS3 RPG of the Year for RPGFan, one of the the top 10 RPGs of the decade according to the guys at RPGSite, NIER has become what is called a cult hit, that is a game with moderate commercial success, that most will either love or hate, and that managed to create a strong fan following. If you don’t believe it, see how many people on Siliconera where willing to offer 100, 200$ at Yoko Taro for any new IP in the same vein, in a matter of hours and without any organization or PR, or this board of fans on NeoGAF that’s been going on for two years.
NIER basically plays like a dozen different games mashed together (from Resident Evil to Diablo), although the core mechanics could best be described as Zelda with a Bullet Hell twist. You’ve got your open world, your towns, your dungeons, your fetch quests and your gigantic bosses. You’ve got four unusual (to say the least) main characters and well-written, mature, dialog that feels real. The gameplay is not particularly deep or difficult, but it is refreshing and varied. It obviously comes second next to the fantastic art direction, writing and music, which, as you might have heard, is deemed one of the best, if not the best, OST of all time.
Its not to say that there is nothing remarkable about NIER‘s gameplay. One part that comes together particularly well is the boss battles. Epic, challenging, communicating a sense of urgency and empowerment, NIER‘s boss battles are on par with masters of the art like Demon’s Souls. Much more satisfying in my opinion than those of a Zelda or of a God of War, these battles manage to be an extension of regular gameplay mechanics instead of QTEs and hidden puzzles, and also avoid the pitfall of the too common uninspired mimicking of Shadow of the Colossus.
NIER was pretty much panned by mainstream critics but most of the so-called faults that were pointed out by IGN and the like are nothing compared to how much risks this title takes, and to what it brings to the table. Sure, the production values are not astounding, but, having played this game on PS3 an hour after I was done with Dragon Age, I thought that it actually looked much better. Still, it’s not the same level as, say, Dark Souls and some of the basic monsters design is pretty ugly. The other issue that will always divide critics and fans is backtracking and reuse of assets. If you’d rather power through the game, you’ll be disappointed that, like Resonance of Fate, NIER forces you to the revisit dungeons (albeit, with modifications of course). This is obviously due to budget concerns and it inflates play time while infuriating reviewers who play on a deadline. But NIER has so much to offer story-wise that I’d rather go back to those places to see and hear more story than have these parts altogether cut from the game.
This recommendation will be kept short, as I’d rather not spoil anything about the best parts of the game. You should know where you stand about NIER right now. If you like J-RPGs or story-driven games, then not having played NIER (or Radiata Stories, another game produced by Yosuke Saito) is a crime, as it might become one of your favorite titles. If you’re looking for a great story, great characters, great art direction or music, this game might also be for you depending on your tastes. If you hate backtracking, shoot ’em ups, talking books or female leads who swears like a sailor, then NIER is not for you.