When we sat down earlier this week to get another look at Nier, the bizarre action-RPG due out later this month, the scene we saw could have been from just about any other RPG. The king of a city-state was about to be married, prompting a huge celebration from his subjects and a great outburst of optimism from the hero and his companions – except for one, who was oddly sullen. Then, just as the celebration reached its peak, a pack of monstrous wolves (led by a strange, supernatural shadow-wolf), crashed the party and murdered the bride before fleeing, prompting the heroes and the king to set out on a vengeance-fueled hunt.
Above: Totally fair odds
What's interesting about all this isn't just that it takes place in a bizarre, disease-blighted postapocalyptic world, or that the city-state in question has a strange obsession with rules and pointy masks, or that the heroes consisted of a hulking white-haired badass, a round-headed skeleton, a talking book and a hermaphroditic swordswoman in lingerie. It's also that the game wasn't telling us what was really going on.
See, Nier is a game that's intended to be played more than once – and it'll withhold chunks of the story from you until you do. The shadowy leader of the wolf pack, for example, isn't quite the monster he seems, but you'll only know that if you play through again and see the translated version of his strange mumblings. You also won't find out that your sullen companion – Kainé, the aforementioned swordswoman – was being sullen mainly because she had some unpleasant history with the pointy-masked people.
Above: Still sullen. Just kinda sullen in general, actually
Will knowing any of that change the story? We're told it won't. Will the game be full of withheld moments like that, obliging you to replay it just to understand what the hell it all means? Probably. Will that be enough to get you to play through the game's estimated 15-to-20-hour runtime again? Well, that'll probably depend on how much you like the rest of the game.
Let's get this out of the way first: Nier is not a very pretty game. It seems to borrow a lot of its visual cues from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, which would be commendable if it didn't also borrow their PS2-era graphics. Even so, we're not about to prejudge an RPG just for being homely, especially when we haven't played it yet.
Above: The four heroes! And also that king guy in the foreground
In spite of the way Nier wears its strangeness on its sleeve, what we saw of the actual gameplay looks familiar enough; in combat, you control eponymous hero Nier directly, busting out close-quarters and magical attacks while his companions (and any other helpful NPCs) act mostly on their own. Nier himself can wield up to 30 different, upgradable weapons, and these fall into three categories: two-handed swords, which are slow and powerful but leave Nier vulnerable; spears are quick and have a long reach, but aren't great for swinging around; and one-handed weapons are quick and can be charged up for super attacks.
While combat took up a lot of the time we spent watching the game, we were told repeatedly that Nier isn't just a hack-and-slasher. It's set in a big, freely explorable (but not completely open) world, filled with cities and lots of open wilderness in between. We saw just one of those cities during our demo, Facade – home of the pointy-masked rulemongers – which Nier could travel through using a ferry that stopped off at shops and other points of interest.
The game also puts a heavy emphasis on side tasks – like gardening, fishing and hunting sheep – and as you've probably guessed, finding items to assist you in these will be a significant part of the game (it also factors into that 15-to-20-hour assessment). You can skip these side tasks entirely, but doing so means you won't get money to upgrade your equipment and skills later on.
Above: Well this is exciting
Adding to the strangeness is that the game is being released as two different titles in Japan: Nier Gestalt, which is the version the rest of the world is getting, and Nier Replicant, a special Japan-only edition. The only difference? In the international version, Nier is a father trying to save Yonah, his dying daughter; in Replicant, he's a young boy, and Yonah is his sister. This is apparently a calculated move to appeal to both Japanese gamers (who seem to prefer childlike heroes) and Western ones, who will only play a game if it's about bulging man-slabs punching things to death.
Whatever the case, Nier has our attention: it's different and strange enough to be interesting. Whether that will translate into an awesome game is something we'll find out as we draw closer to its April 27 release.
Apr 2, 2010