Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Video Game Assessment: Nier (2010)
I'm not one for anime games. I like some Japanese games, sure, but they are decidedly not anime. I mean, I had a hard enough time actually playing these anime video games in the first place or watching those anime movies. (I'm going to use anime as an adjective here for a while as I rant.) I mean, sure I liked Final Fantasy IX well enough (although not well enough to finish that game. I hate grinding.). And... uh... I think that's about it for JRPGs and me. I mean, I don't even particularly love RPGs in general. Sure, I like some specific instances or series of RPGs (BioWare, Bethesda, and Obsidian RPGs come to mind), but for the mos part I'm not overly fond of the genre. I mean, sure, the Dragon Age games were fun, but repetitive. Skyrim and Oblivion were expansive, but felt so empty. Mass Effect is great, but is much more a shooting and action game at this point than a serious RPG. And Obsidian is just awesome, so let's leave it at that.
My point here is that although I may talk about RPGs, it's much more about the time required to play the game rather than the game itself. Because I take so much time to play the games I much more willing to rant and rave about an RPG than any other game. And this is why I find my eleven dollar copy of Nier so preposterous. It's absolutely ridiculous that this thing is selling for eleven dollars. It's like a slap in the face that this game has been hidden away while crap games are top on every gamer's radar. Hell, I barely knew about this game until now, two years later, when I happened to hear a little of the game's music and found myself intrigued enough to go spend the measly eleven dollars on the game.
Sure, I had heard things about the game, but I also keep my ears open for games like this, games that get mediocre to crappy scores on game review sites, but seem to have their own small fanbase behind them. Another intriguing thing about this game was the story and character heavy elements that it seemingly had within it. I love story in my video games. I was dubious, of course, because anime... but I found myself giving into the notion of the game.
Now, what can I say about this game? Is it perfect? No. There's a lot of issues here. The sidequests can be and are awful. Leveling up weapons is equally bad. Hell, anything that involves grinding for items is basically awful,but those are extras. I guess if you want to do those things (and you never have to do them) then it will be a slog, but... I think it would be a worthy slog. Look, I'm not here to praise a game up and down, not looking at flaws, but I am also certainly not here to give the review for this game that everybody else seems to give it. I mean, seriously guys? This is why critics are always wrong, be they gaming or otherwise. Don't listen to them. I mean, sure, they can be correct about the big games from time to time, but games like this, games that skirt under the radar, they are almost always wrong about.
It reminds me of the situation the gaming community had with Deadly Premonition. I loved Deadly Premonition. It was one of the best games I've ever played despite the dated visuals and not great gameplay. I loved the game because it had heart. It had something to it that most corporate games don't. It had a feeling that was more than just "go here and kill things." It was a game unto itself. One that could stand all by itself and not take all of the other games' crap. It was not a rehash of an existing game. Sure, it took from Twin Peaks, but why not? Twin Peaks is and was awesome and why not utilize that unique feeling into a video game? And they did. They made it amazing, putting so much more into that game than Twin Peaks ever did in two seasons (and I love Twin Peaks.).
My point in comparing these two games: Nier and Deadly Premonition, is that I didn't know what to expect from either of them. Deadly Premonition looked weird, but was certainly my type of game, a mixed horror genre type of game in a Twin Peaks style, while Nier... well, Nier is part of a genre of games I don't particularly love, relying on anime characters, published by Square Enix... It has many checks against it, is what I'm saying. And yet...
And yet, I don't know if there is a better game out there for story right now. I mean, sure, not everybody is going to be down with the story it tells. It reminds me of a mature version of Kingdom Hearts, and I loved those games. This one, though, is better. The story is gripping, the characters are utterly amazing, the feeling of playing this game is priceless.
The game is slow, I'm not going to give any other impression of it. The beginning is a slow build-up to the main story, introducing characters and plots all over the place while exploring the setting. The sidequests give a good feel to the world even if they can be a slog. They paint an important picture of the entire story, something that not many games do.
I don't know if I've ever played a game that felt half as poignant as this. I mean, yes, Silent Hill 2 does it fantastically, and is one of the saddest games that I have ever played. But Nier does it almost as well, and certainly does it more often. Obviously quality count more than quantity about such things, but the feelings and emotions Nier evokes are outstandingly well done from beginning to end. A world is created and drawn together. These characters exist, no longer characters, but people... and then comes the deconstruction. This game, like some before it, deconstructs the video game media, making it almost into a criticism of video games as much as a hack-and-slash game about killing things.
The mixture of gameplay elements and the story blend together almost seamlessly. Every moment during play, you think, you wonder, you may even hate the random item drops for quest pickups, but there is constant and deliberate thought by the player throughout the game. The characters are ambiguous, the plot is ambiguous... hell, even the gameplay is ambiguous, and I've never been happier to say that. Everything blends together to create a game that is everything as well as nothing, ultimately telling the player that it was all for nothing... and yet, for everything still. It was like looking at real life, even for a moment and finally understanding that there is something bigger than any of us, and that even though one person can screw a lot of things up, there might not be anybody left to put those pieces back together again.
I'm being vague on purpose. The true story is something simple and yet so elusive, like water draining through fingers. It moves and breathes along with the characters, and eventually everything seems to be more complex than it had ever seemed, much like real life. There are no bad guys here, no ultimate evil that needs fixing like in so many RPGs and JRPGs. This "evil" is the evil of randomness, of a bad hand, of fate... of whatever you want to call it. All of these characters own a motivation. All of these little plots make sense despite it being in a freaking video game.
I don't think I've ever truly felt sad for a background NPC before this game came around. I don't think I'd ever felt like crying when a character died or was killed before this game. Hell, only Boromir's death in LotR was strong enough to evoke emotions like that, and this game does it for background characters! I mean, come on!
The story here, I believe it's translated into English, is fantastically done. the translation is easily one of the best from Japanese I have ever seen. The voice actors also shine with their lines, with almost every character in the game sounding real instead of awkward like some video games can sound. Nier himself (the dude on the cover) is just about as strange a JRPG or even regular RPG protagonist as one can get. He's a middle-aged muscle-bound man with a daughter. How strange is that? (Yes, I know the Japanese version has a younger "brother" version of Nier, but I didn't play that version, and therefore have no reason to talk about it.)
As for the other characters, I'll remain vague. They all have character arcs, some sad, some very sad, and one or two even happily poignant in the end. I don't think I've seen another game with quite the depth of character that this game seems to have. Every character is consistent and wonderfully done from beginning to end. I can't even fathom how that's even possible. I can't think of another game that does that. Even my favorite game KotOR II, suffers from some crappy characters (like Bao-Dur), so this seems almost unsettling to me, almost unreal.
As for other things, well, the gameplay is solid. I like it. There's nothing insane about it, nothing crazy. It's fairly standard, but has some changeups from time to time, becoming a top-down shooter at points, or looking like some old dungeon crawler at other points. Hell, there are also sidescrolling platformer elements to it as well as some absurdly awesome bullet hell gameplay. It's ridiculous, and I love it for being ridiculous.
The look of the game is fantastic even though at times the bloom can be a little distracting. I was playing it, and I found the landscape, although somewhat barren at times, to be fantastically done. I liked exploring it or simply looking at the sky. I can't think of looking at the sky to be a gameplay element in any other game (except maybe Skyrim) but here it looks so good that I can't complain.
The music is what attracted me to the game, and I have to put in a special mention to the FANTASTIC music that's in the game. My God is the music good. I'm considering buying the soundtrack because it's just that good. Hell, I've had the music for the game just playing in the background because I like it so much. I can't think of many other games where I've found the music such a compelling part of the game. Maybe Skyrim again, but there it was two tracks of music in particular. With this game it's every track.
I'm not going to spoil elements of the game, but there are part of it, specifically towards the end, that are... simply put, fantastic and sad, and done the exact right way. I want to recommend the game to literally everybody who can spend eleven dollars on it. It's worth those eleven dollars and so much more. Even if you don't like it, I think you'd find it hard to say it isn't worth those eleven measly bucks.
The game, though, isn't for everyone, and that needs to be known. It's a story-based game that has some weaker gameplay elements to it (which I don't mind in the slightest because if I can play the game then the gameplay is absolutely fine, but a lot of people seem to mind quite a bit about that). This game is not mediocre, but really, really good. Don't go into it expecting a happy ending. And don't go into it if you don't want a gritty and somewhat sadly realistic version of the world. If you hate everything, this might be the game for you, but even moreso if you want something intelligently done that thrives off of a brilliantly done deconstruction of story, game, and characters... then this might very well be the game for you.
I wish I could go all in and ruin the plot, describing just how good the twists and turns of the story is: the King of Facade, Kaine, Emil, Yonah... the bosses (which are incredible and so great to fight), Nier's village, the temples, the way that the game has bookends, the way it all makes sense despite its heavy plot. I think it puts this game a cut above many others. It certainly puts it into my top echelon of games to stay.
Nier, a game that cost me eleven dollars, which I expected nothing from and got a world, you have surpassed not only my expectations, but the expectations of any video game. This is a game that should be played by everybody. I can't recommend it enough. Go and play it if you have that chance, and if you already have then I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Edit: One more thing before I call this review a complete wrap. The pacing of this game s very strange. The first act (before the clear demarcation of the acts), moves very slowly, especially if you are a completionist like myself. Not a ton happens, and most of it is there to introduce the plot, the characters, and the settings. Most of the first act is filler until the end of the act. The bosses are not well characterized, and, in general, it can get kind of boring if you don't know what comes next. But don't give up! All is not lost!
The second act moves at a very good pace, with no real screwing around when it comes to fighting or anything else. Nier, by the second act, is very strong, able to kill most enemies in a few strikes. Even bosses aren't that much trouble. The game uses those introductions from the first act to build up on characters, plots, and settings. I think it succeeds in this admirably.
The pacing issue is one that I noticed myself, but I think it's actually a great decision by the game, showing a clear difference between the first and second acts in so many ways: in terms of color pallets, pacing, ease of the game, openness of the story, and ambiguity of basically all of the characters.