Nier is not a good game. It tries to be too many different types of games at once, but that’s also what makes it so incessantly interesting. It’s clearly an experimental game and wears that label like a badge of honor. Based on its core mechanics you might describe it as an “action RPG,” but its role-playing elements are so poorly thought out that it’s obvious the developers were bored of RPGs and just wanted to get to the bizarre shoot-‘em-up-puzzle-survival-horror-text-adventuring. Sadly, for as interesting as this genre-bending is, it doesn’t add anything to the overall experience. Save for a couple examples, Nier is just being weird for the sake of weird.
You’re on a quest to find several hidden verses from a magic book, so naturally you’ll travel to many strange lands. Each new area plays like a different game.
It starts as an unassuming action RPG. You run around and hack monsters, gaining experience and leveling up, but it’s obvious the developers don’t care about this part of the game. When you gain a level you’re rewarded with a flashy golden explosion, but other than that visual flourish, gaining levels is meaningless. There’s no level cap for equipping armor or weapons—in fact there’s almost no armor or weapons at all. There’s no menu with stats like Health, Attack, or Defense that increase with each new level. It’s like the game forgot that it’s supposed to be an RPG.
But there’s also already a hint of a gameplay twist. You run around with a floating, sentient book named Grimoire Weiss who shoots an endless stream of magical projectiles. You can aim with the camera, as if this was a third-person shooter. Soon you’ll be fighting bosses that spew out big round balls of energy that move in predictable patterns, like a life-size bullet hell game. It’s this bullet hell mechanic that serves as the basis for some of Nier’s more interesting tricks.
The first foreign land that you visit turns the game into a top-down dual-joystick shooter akin to Robotron. You enter a factory and move from room to room fighting waves of robots. Later on, after several more genre changes, Nier returns to this dual-joystick shooter style but with an isometric top-down view, more similar to recent games like Dead Nation or Super Stardust HD. This is where Nier misses a wonderful opportunity to give it’s genre-bending meaning. By tracing the evolution of a genre like this, with its past and present forms represented as fictional nations, Nier could have acted as a commentary on that very evolution or at least done some subtle world-building by equating each nation with a particular genre from a particular time period. But none of this happens. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the choice of genre given to a foreign land. It’s just Nier being weird.
When visiting a spooky mansion about a quarter of the way through the game, Nier does its best impression of a survival-horror game. It’s a blatant homage to Resident Evil, complete with fixed camera angles, oddly shaped keys, confined hallways, and secret passages. In a nice artistic touch, the normally vivid game is drained of its color as you get closer to the mansion until it’s all but black and white. But again this adds nothing to the overall experience. Nier can’t be scary because it keeps the controls and pace of combat of an action game. If it is meant to be a parody instead of an homage, it fails to focus on the absurd mechanics of survival-horror that are ripe for ridicule.
It’s odd that Nier wouldn’t take the opportunity to make fun of survival-horror games when just a couple hours earlier it was doing just that to puzzle games. Before the mansion, you visit a town in the middle of a desert that’s defined by its adherence to countless crazy laws. All citizens have to wear masks, newcomers have to take a sand-boat around the city before they do anything else, at least one knickknack shop must be open at all times, etc. The dungeon for this town applies all these rules to the gameplay. You must get through a series of rooms, each one governed by some frustrating rule limiting what you can do: don’t stop moving, don’t run, don’t attack, don’t jump, etc. Nier works as a parody here because its characters acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation. As you progress, party members get angry at the rules and try to break them, only to get transported away. Weiss in particular acts as the voice of reason, constantly pointing out how gamey the game is and the absurdity of such a strict puzzle world. It’s a joke I can certainly appreciate after playing so much Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes.
The best genre twist happens when you visit a town hidden within a thick fog. All the citizens are stuck in their dreams, and soon after entering, your party begins to fall asleep and Nier becomes (of all things) a text adventure. The transition is great. You’re talking to a man and flashing through the typical dialogue boxes, but with each new sentence, the dialogue box grows bigger until it takes up the whole screen. Then the background fades to black. The characters are still aware of their situation and even respond to the omniscient narrator. When the narrator writes “Weiss looked up,” Weiss refuses to do so out of pride. He argues back and forth with the protagonist until he finally gives in and only then does the narrator continue with the story. The story consists of you navigating through a series of hallways, so at each intersection, you get a choice of going north, south, east, or west.
In addition to being bizarrely funny, this genre switch helps create a dreamlike world. Dreams are intangible by nature, so its always struck me as odd when they appear in movies or games as a tangible, physical world. By leaving much of the visual world building to the player’s imagination, Nier’s dream world retains a sense of the intangible: It’s not really there, to touch, to see; it’s literally all in your head. From a practical point of view, it’s also incredibly easy to change the layout of a world when it only exists as words. There’s no need for complex level design or artistry or even any programming; if the developer wants a door to appear, all they have to do is write it in.
This is easily the most surreal part of Nier. It forces you to play in a genre that’s so old that it’s almost forgotten, and then uses the inherent flexibility of that genre to emphasize mood and atmosphere.
Nier serves as an example of how genre affects the gaming experience. By layering puzzle mechanics on top of action mechanics, we can see the inherent absurdity of puzzles. By removing all action mechanics in favor of unfamiliar text, it makes the world more unsettling and strange. A game can evoke specific feelings just by laying one genre’s mechanics on top of another’s. While Nier may not be an entirely good game, it serves as an example of just how much other action games can be held back by their dedication to a single genre.
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// Moving Pixels
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