Nier, idiosyncratic love song

Nier's arresting cover art

Here we go again. The current generation of game consoles is falling apart, as the pressure of upgraded warmachines is upon us. High price tags, bulky presentation, no white finish, and no proper games: SoSoft, I shall wait a couple of years or more and enjoy what I got on my hands. And while the choir chanting the memory of this next-past gen is getting louder, I think its time to praise Nier’s legacy.   

Nier wa released in 2010, under the helm of a semi obscure Japanese house named Cavia. For once, Cavia has never been known to play the heavy champ category. With limited means, they have been producing underachieving underdogs such as Bullet Witch, Resident Evil shooter games, Drag on Dragoon (Drakenkarg in Europe) and its sequel. The publisher being Square-Enix, it seems like Cavia had some ties with Enix before the two entities merged in 2003. As Square-Enix was starting to produce meaningless Final Fantasy emo fan service, there was a calling for a more mature title. Nier follows the trail of the title character, a hardened brute devoted to redeem his daughter’s fate from a illness that’s been destroying their homeland for centuries. A hack’n’slash adventure told in a third person perspective, it shines a light of its own, recalls what it is to be enamoured with gaming in the first place, and occupies a symbolic place in recent video game history. 

Wolves fight.

A sleeper in the works
When the game came out, the consensus was, roughly, PS2 awful graphics, to the tune of some of the most remarkable music ever composed for a video game. I thought “who would spend some real cues for a turd” and bought it online. The first hour, which occurs mostly in “our” time (yeah 2049 is our time), clearly shows clunky elements, but holds an enigmatic and dreadful atmosphere, prompting to come back and unravel the story. And something truly wonderful happened: I was not disapointed. Its story and set of characters deliver on a level that simply puts it above the rest. Its ongoing sense of despair and pervading solitude ranks among the best efforts I have crossed in this gamut of typically Japanese pop culture emotions. If you have seen such films as Hideo Nakatas’s Dark Water, you know what I mean. This mix of emptiness and existential angst was equally at the core of the the first Silent Hills, or Siren games.  While most of today’s production has a rough time getting past its premise, Nier offers a cohesive, even if lacking in some parts, world and experience,  delivered with guts, and a mighty, mighty heart.

While the graphics were the subject of many criticism, I found them quite pleasant and unique. The design of some places, though feeling disconnected from one another, as well as characters, foes and magic spells are very enticing. I felt transported to this world. Enchanted by it. Cavia, while making other genres contributing to this somewhat RPG game, put insane ideas and tone variations within this title. I had the feeling of going places, and its bland approach was much as a pro for me as  a con for anybody else. It participated in the charisma of solitude Nier is enshrouded with. I liked it just the way it was. It could have been more polished for sure, more populated in a way, but just as it is, it conveys something higher profile productions never came close to.

The real thing that hurts, is the core hack’n’slash mechanic. You collect powerful blades along the way, but using them in combat is tiresome and never feels satsifying. It’s just messy and, for the most part, useless. From what I remember, the range and timing of your strikes is badly integrated. On the other hand, Cavia seems to have spend more time refining what would have been the secondary combat element in the usual Diablo, the magic fighting. The spells become your primary weapons of choice against your foes. And this feels SO good, with red & black sparks, targeted in an over-the-top fashion Bayonetta style. It’s a real shame the two mechanics didn’t mesh well together. But, again, the magic capacity of your character and his hovering book companion is fun from start to finish. 

Weiss, you dumbass!Sound design by the book 
The music is indeed great and participates actively in binding the overall story and mood. But the thing that truly stand outs is the characters themselves, carried over by incredible actors. I cared for this bunch, and Nier is now considered a reference in how to handle solid actors in a game. When the game menu welcomes you with a woman screaming at you with an attitude, you know you’re in for something special. Delivered by the kicking lass of the bunch, this cry for help, badass and noble, vulgar and heroic, gives a deep sense of an impending crisis, of hopelessness and urgency. The urgency to act, and to play the game. And the game NEVER departs from this bravado tease. I felt fullfilled when I played Nier. I felt sad. And quoting another feedback, I never wanted it to end. How many games managed to give me all of this?

But the true stealing character of Nier, setting up the bar for videogame acting is Weiss, the shouted after, “dumbass”, hovering book accompanying the lead in its journey. The banter between them is one of the key elements that keeps you going. Weiss is played out by an accomplished (gaming) actor, Liam O’Brien. His talent and implication to the craft is of Alan Rickman proportion. I kid you not. And I am not talking about the Alan Rickman from the Harry Potter series nor the first Die Hard. We’re talking Colonel Brandon level, the truly, madly, deeply english noble man from Sense & Sensibility. Grimoire Weiss is one of the top characters ever written for a game. 

Obviously a Link.

Video game ethics 
Between the formulatic “its a game so we shall suspend some common sense to enjoy it”, the desire to write whole characters and a griping story, and what seems to be limited means to do so, Cavia manages to retain some true video game ethos while offering a meaningful emotional journey. The fact they did it while paying homages to so many videogame genres is simply stunning. There’s a lesson in NierThe reason why this game is bound for glory is how it bears it’s own load while achieving greatness, at a very critical time for the Japanese market. Of course the graphics are not playing in the same range as some other tripleA productions. Something tragic about the introduction of HD gaming is how we are still focused on how videogames perform on a pure technical level. With still so little attention and credit given to the talent recquired to create a proper atmosphere and writing. The truth, as reminded by Philippe Poisson in “The Indie Game, the Movie”, is that not everyone can pump millions of dollars and 500 people up a targeted mass global hit for 4 years. Nier is the proof that the tech alone still doesn’t make everything, n’en déplaise à Cevat Yerli.

EmilThe basic melee combat is stiff, the land feels a bit dull, the “dungeons” a tad repetitive, and the sidequests a gentle excuse of sorts to spend more time within this world. But that’s close to nothing compared to the massive appeal of the characters, the unique places, the music, the overall arch story, the foes design, the magic spells, the boss battles, the puzzles, the superb voice acting, the multiple endings and yes, the various homages to videogames. It would be a shame to overlook such an immense title only because it wasn’t made by Ubisoft Montreal or Activision Worldwide. It has a videogame ethos, being great in its own right, innovative in many aspects, shortcomings included, while sending a grand love letter to the whole Japanese gaming community.

There is so much things to revel within this adventure and the people at Cavia took great care in surprising the gamers time and again. The magic fighting, as well as the projectiles sent your way, are nods to the shmup genre. Danmaku’s bullet hell puzzles in a hack’n slash RPG? Check. And its a blast. As wonderful references to Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, GTASilent Hill, Resident Evil, Rez  & text only adventurers fly by, it’s impossible not to fall for this world’s idiosyncratic vision. This game, all the while suffering limited ressources and lack of true marketing support on the behalf of Square Enix, sends an strong, meaningful message. 

Kaine's fate.

A legacy of its time 
Nier‘s ultimate message to the world of gamers is “we love you, here we are” signature. And the fact that the company was shut down right after its release, to merge with his upper entity AQ (which was absorbed, in turn, by Marvel in 2011 to form Marvelous AQL), is like writing your most sincere and delicate love letter to the woman of your dreams. With a spit in the face as a response. Cavia‘s disbanding after such a release makes up for a powerful testimonial of the tough crisis Japan has been enduring lately. Finally forced to open up to occidental taste and market, all the while suffering the HD revolution that was mastered faster by western competition, with a top selling leader making profits out of a technically outdweighted console, solely aimed for the casual market… Japanese gaming economy was already going through a lot when Fukushima struckin early 2011. Nier, with its sad narrative, mixed with beloved references, came out at a crucial and difficult moment, both for the company, its publisher and the whole local industry. Which makes it a swansong of a certain Japanese vision. It embodies what Japanese games have been renown for, the formidable triviality, the accute sensitiveness, the fascination with Europe, yet without sacrificing its own merits, pushing ideas and talent forward. 

Nier bears the mark of the great games that have been overlooked initially but will be get their due in time. My flair tells me this game is gonna be considered as our Panzer Dragoon RPG. It came out without much ado, but the ones touched by its mix of tradition and boldness will remember it more fondly than any other game that was out at the time. There are already signs that the word of mouth has been spread to exctatic community feedback these past two years, with ongoing articles and posts about how great and generous this work of art is (check the sources section below for more).  

Drakengard 3

Yoko Taro struggling after Drakengard 3’s release in Japan
The news came in that Nier‘s director, Yoko Taro, after the so-so sales of its latest Drakengard entry, is now “unemployed”. If this man and his crew can’t work around the game industry, what’s the point? 
Let’s hope the man gets his due and will be able to produce new titles in the future. Because it will take like ten years for companies like Quantic Dream or Naughty Dog to achieve the level of emotionnal bound that was found in 2010’s Nier. When Drakengard 3 is released in Europe sometimes this year, I will buy it regardless of its graphics.

Sylvain Thuret
TheNightShift – 01.17.2014

Sources & more

Webcasts & posts
Moggy Aspi Show’s review, 2010 (in French):
http://goo.gl/2MrNWA

Game reflection’s look at the game, january 2014:
http://goo.gl/XD0jyr

An ode to Nier, by Donchipotle, Giant bomb, november 2013:
http://goo.gl/qtxmf6

Press articles & reports
Destructoïd’s report on Yoko Taro’s situation, january 2014:
http://goo.gl/qwXYDj

A look at Japan’s video game industry crisis, Le Monde, 2010 (in French):
http://goo.gl/5gHVUk

A report of the economical crisis impact on the japanese market, France 24, 2009 (in French):
http://goo.gl/AlppJl

Other related content
“Gamers heart Japan”, a Gamespot produced doc made right after Fukushima’s events:
http://goo.gl/b9eCK

Thank you for reading.

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