Nier: Look Again [PS3]

I’ve been playing Nier tonight, after an absence of a few weeks, having picked up the World of Recycled Vessel DLC. It’s quite a neat little add-on really, packing in all three of the most common content requests: outfits, exposition, combat challenge.

Hardly anybody will notice the extra exposition. The added story details are conveyed in an extremely subtle way – by the change in the protagonist’s appearance, by some vague lines of text between challenge levels, by the gentle visual manipulation of familiar environments and insertion of new ones. It only works in a game like Nier, where the main game’s story appears throughout in such an artful and constructed manner that you probably won’t even notice it exists until you hit the last hour of play, when you will have your mind blown.

As you may know the version of Nier released in the West is correctly titled Nier Gestalt, whereas the Japanese had the option of purchasing Gestalt on Xbox 360 or Replicant on PlayStation 3. Both games’ stories centre on a young girl named Yonah; in Replicant, the protagonist is her youthful brother, and in Gestalt, he’s her middle aged father. (In Interviews with Japanese press, Cavia suggest stupid Big Nosed Westerners can’t understand how slim young people could possibly be good with weapons; in interviews with Western press, they hint that the effeminate Japanese can’t deal with rough and tough masculine types. We may never know which version they actually prefer.) The character model used in the DLC is that of Replicant, and it’s nice to see how the other half live.

Completing the challenge levels contained in the DLC (memories recorded in Nier‘s dead wife’s diary, and how I would love to know what the Replicant explanation is) isn’t too difficult if you’ve a full play through under your belt, and this very fact is what got me musing on the game’s strengths and weaknesses yet again, because it’s not going to satisfy those looking for an epic action experience. In fact, Nier is a supremely strange (and wonderful) beast likely to go under appreciated by the vast majority of gamers, and that is another reason why every time I meet one of those bastards, I want to beat him or her around the head with a book.

The problem is that so many gamers are ultra conservative. They like things that go in boxes; they like to play the same game over and over again with better looking alligators each time. Nier won’t go in a box and it’s not really like anything you’ve played before. Is it a straight up JRPG? Not really, it’s lacking the tactical and customisation elements so satisfying to traditional RPG battle mechanics. Is it a Western style RPG? Again, no; it’s an extremely linear game with little scope for choice. Is it an action RPG? Well, combat is certainly action-style but it’s not exactly deep. So what is it and what’s the point?

Nier feels to me like a game made to house a story, rather than, as is so god damned frequently the case, a story made to fit a game. It’s impossible to explain why Nier‘s plot is so wonderful without utterly spoiling it, and it does really spoil it in the often forgotten meaning of that word. Nier leads you along by the hand for hours and hours expecting nothing from your narrative organs; for the first half of the game, there’s not even an antagonist, and when one does turn up, you’re not required to engage with it in any way.

Until the final hour or so, Nier is like a loosely woven tapestry artfully depicting the familiar scene outside a window. Very occasionally though, the wind blows and in the flickering movement you see through the gaps to something else. Keep the game’s prologue in mind and pay attention to the rare black loading screens; listen to what people say to you and read documents; and you’ll be better prepared for when the world turns upside down.

Some people don’t like having their world turn upside down; they feel betrayed. Some people are so used to A to B plots capable of filling a 20 minute sitcom schedule that they simply cannot handle anything with a little more depth and interest. Some people are idiots and I wish they’d go away.

Nier is a game that gets better with replays. You can do up to four before you’ve seen everything; this is another thing people consider unfair (what you see after the fourth ending is another thing most people would consider very unfair, and it made me laugh out loud. Self aware games FTW). Probably the same people who disdain close reading and prefer their books along the lines of See Spot Run. Eventually the unique and eventually bizarre atmosphere of Nier, and your desire to have your emotions hammered out again and again on this multi-layered anvil of narrative, become so central to your enjoyment of the game that the gameplay becomes a distraction from getting to the next hidden cutscene.

Again, that’s going to upset some people. Surely, they will argue, it’s a game, and the point is the gameplay!

Is it?

Is it really?

Alright then, let’s say it is. Then what’s the fucking point of gameplay?

I don’t think it has a point. It’s just the mechanics of the game. And I don’t think that’s the sum total of what a good game is – it’s not just mechanically pressing buttons and watching your score go up, and if it is reduced to that than there is no point paying for a console; get yourself a reaction tester and “play” that all day.

Meanwhile the rest of us are going to ignore your trolling about how games can’t be art and enjoy the wonderful worlds, experiences and stories good games contain – and yes get wanky and pretentious about the better ones and invent a critical world and deconstruct and argue and push creators to explore new territory and have a bloody good time, just like cinema and literature and visual art have been doing forever and we will too, when we get our god damned art form out of your plebeian hands and find a way to make it profitable without you numbnuts.

But actually I do enjoy the mechanics of playing Nier. I enjoy all the things about it that have been pulled to pieces by reviewers. I like the adaptable magic system which is open to various forms of abuse – and therefore declared boring by the kinds of people who routinely look for ways to cheat the system rather than experiment and explore new tactics. I like the repetitive and seemingly endless fetch quests – which seem pointless until you have the whole picture in your mind and find yourself reeling with a kind of existential horror when someone asks you to catch them a couple of sardines. I like the sudden disorienting shifts of camera angle that mutate a free roam into side scrolling platformer or top down shooter – the seamless transitions of which only help to demonstrate how well constructed Cavia‘s environments are and provide ample opportunity to test out under utilised moves and actions. I like the rhythmic, fluid melee combat with its accompanying blood splatters – and I don’t know why other people don’t really; maybe they’re not very good at it or have trouble moving the camera manually. Losers.

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I also like the fishing mini-game. But that’s because I’m bright enough to realise that a game with such a palpable awareness of words and language makes a distinction between a beach and a cove, and therefore didn’t get stuck barely a third of the way through and rage quit. Take that, Joystiq. Let me introduce you to Gamefaqs.

Nier is one of the most treasured games in my collection. Each time I explore it further I find more to love. And yet, I’m not at all baffled that it neither sold nor reviewed well. It’s a game that disguises itself heavily, a game that bursts out of its bland shell too late to dazzle and entertain those who threw the controller down four hours earlier. As a JRPG its revolutionary, but that’s nothing to please ye olde FPS fan, nor, it must be said, the rabid adjustment disorders of the “hardcore” role players. Nier is a game for a new breed of gamer who values substance and style over the squeezing of the industry as a cash cow whose milk is repetitive drivel. We, the people who made Modern Warfare 2 a best seller and guaranteed another hundred of its kind, don’t deserve a game as meaningful as Nier, and Cavia deserved better than to shut down in its wake.

Here’s the review I wrote with a traditional hardcore demographic in mind. Compare and contrast with the above. Learn something about how reviewing works in an industry of niches.

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