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Nier Hands-On

Nier is not what I was expecting, but then, I kind of think that’s the point. Yosuke Saito, the game’s executive producer, told me that it was a Japanese game, designed specifically for the western audience by Japanese people. Ignoring the fact that it might be interesting to deconstruct Nier and try to work out what this says about the Japanese gaming industry’s perception of us as consumers, you’d think that this would have tipped me off that I shouldn’t expect the normal.Hell, I thought it had, but apparently I’ve been preconditioned to expect twinkly piano music and lush, rolling FMV fields whenever the Square Enix logo appears on screen, regardless of whether it’s developed by Square Enix or not. Even if it hadn’t, I’m not sure I’d have expected the pre-title screen sequence to begin with a blank screen and audio of an extraordinarily talented female voice actor ranting and raving, culminating with screamed words along the lines of “START FUCKING HELPING US!”You read that correctly. It jarred me about as much as reading that, I suspect, jarred you, if you haven’t already heard that segment in the game’s Kaine trailer. If this was a GTA game it’d be par for the course, but in an action-RPG published by Square Enix? To paraphrase Jerry Maguire: Nier, you had me at the obscenity.The titular Nier is, in the Western version at least, an ageing fellow trying to find a cure for his stricken daughter Yonah in a world that is rapidly going to hell, not least because of a rampant disease and attacks from weird, visually distorted creatures called Shades, which you’ve doubtless seen Nier fighting in screenshots and trailers. What makes this a little bit more interesting is that, prior to taking control of Nier, we play as an identical-looking character defending an identical-looking daughter from the same monsters – only in the near future. Yes, our near future. When we’re done with that, the plot leaps forward 1000 years to the grasslands, swordfighting, and magic you see in the screens. There’s something strange going on here.In any case, while Nier isn’t a particularly violent man, he knows his way around a variety of weapons and is perfectly comfortable with the prospect of killing for survival, whether it’s fending off Shades to save himself or whether it’s the slaughter of sheep for meat. In game terms, this translates to a third-person action-RPG. You run Nier around a variety of areas, beating up foes with a combination of weapon strikes and (after the tutorial dungeon) magic, with defensive options like blocking and evading attacks both possible and necessary. From what we’ve played, combat is swift and responsive, with plenty of tactical options available. Early on, at least, comparisons can be drawn to the Dynasty Warriors series’ style of combat: there’s not so much of an emphasis on locking on to a single target, and while there are still plenty of battles with a few bigger foes, you’re frequently accosted by numerous weaker enemies with each of your strikes hitting four or five of them at a time. In the early game at least it’s enjoyable but basic; thankfully, the first boss battle against a pair of gigantic pseudo-mechanical knights picks up the pace and shows what the game can really do. It’s certainly one of the more enjoyable first bosses in recent memory.Those who’ve been watching the game because of Square Enix’s association rather than Cavia’s development needn’t be disappointed, though, as the RPG aspect of Nier’s action-RPG genre has taken plenty from standard JRPGs. As Nier wanders the land and defeats monsters he levels up, amasses various items, can take on side-quests for other characters in exchange for goods and money, and his variety of weapons can be augmented, upgraded, and customised as players wish. There are even hub locations with characters to converse with. Thus far, it feels about as linear as a Zelda game: while you proceed with the game in a certain order, you’re not restricted to doing level after level.So far, so good: from the first few hours of play the combat is solid, if a little basic, and the RPG aspects are far more developed than usual for this sort of game.There’s one other important thing that bears mention, and that’s the story.I’ve not really touched on this much so far, and I don’t honestly intend to spoil anything about it except to say that, once again, Nier is not quite what I was expecting. Without going into specifics, there’s something very, very unsettling about Nier thus far – a feeling, almost, of being lied to by the game. The fact that the game’s trailers end with the words “nothing is as it seems” only reinforces this in my mind, and combined with both a few early story developments and some genuinely haunting environments, I suspect there’s rather more to it than we’ve been told. All speculation, obviously, but there’s more than a grain of something special in the way Nier is progressing, and as with the opening these feelings are enough to make me sit up and pay serious attention.What initially looked like a bit of a generic hack-and-slasher is shaping up to be something very, very interesting. The graphics are a tad lacklustre barring some beautiful special effects and, barring the early story developments and the near-future section, the opening hours are a little generic, but right now I’m willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt in a big way. In the end, Nier’s success or failure will depend very much on how the game progresses past the first few hours – how the plot develops, how in-depth the RPG aspects really are, and most importantly of all how the currently basic combat evolves. Right now, though, I can comfortably say that it doesn’t feel much like anything I’ve played before, and that this is definitely something worth watching if you’re a fan of action-RPGs.

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