NIER is a remarkable, divisive game. Striking and provocative, it manages to put a new twist on many of cliches and stereotypes that have come to define the baroque genre of Japanese role-playing games. For starters, the main character is not a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teenager. Beneath his spiky hair is the square jaw and furrowed brow of an adult with a crushing responsibility: a sickly daughter with a terminal disease. His over-arching mission is to find a cure, no matter the hardship – no matter the cost. Rather than stepping into the shoes of some whinging little punk, you instead get to be the World's Greatest Dad – the sword-and-sorcery equivalent of Colonel John Matrix, or Mayor Mike Haggar.
The action begins in the year 2049, in a setting very similar to The Road. This frigid future world is plagued by some nameless, frozen blight; an ice age, or possibly a nuclear winter. When we first meet our hero, he's holed up in an abandoned building with his daughter, fending off an army of Shades – ghostly, translucent monsters that crackle with sinister black and orange energy. He finds that flailing at them with a length of pipe just isn't enough to hold them off, and before long enters into a Faustian bargain with a mysterious talking book he just happened to have with him. In exchange for his soul, he gains access to an assortment of magical weapons he can conjure out of thin air: balls of black energy, spectral lances, giant fists, and dozens of pikes that spring from the ground, skewering Shades on all sides. This opening sequence introduces us to the basics of third-person combat, spell-casting, and levelling, and is also our introduction to just how fundamentally frustrating all this third-person biffo is.
Lesser monsters move stupidly, relentlessly, and in large numbers – getting bonked is inevitable. In contrast, the bosses have distinct, and ultimately predictable attack patterns, and long, long health bars. Once you learn to duck and weave between a boss’s slow-moving torrents of glowing red bullets, and wear it down to a critical level of weakness, a neon bull's eye will appear over his weak point. If you don't land your most powerful attack dead centre on this target before the timer goes off, it'll regain around 20% of its health, and the fight will drag on even further. There are no Final Fantasy XIII-style 'auto-fight' options. Chaos and frustration are inescapable.
With the horde vanquished, the action abruptly flashes forward 1,300-odd years into a distant, neo-medieval future. You're controlling the same person, and still working to support his daughter, Yonah. But you're no longer cowering from perpetually overcast skies in a grubbing anorak. Instead, you're kitted out with a sword, sandals, and generic Conan-esque fantasy gear. Step outside, and you enter a world of rolling green hills, blue skies, puffy white clouds, and endlessly streaming folk music. Water wheels turn, children frolic, and young women stroll around in public in exotic nightwear.
Is this.... Heaven? Hell? The hallucinations of a dying man? Who knows. Nothing but mystery surrounds the circumstances of your arrival, but you soon find some familiar handles to grab on to: NPCs that issue fetch quests in a free-form open world, semi-hidden, goodie-concealing crates, and shiny, gatherable objects that are just lying around all over the place. But at the same time, the setting feels vast, sparse, and unreal – not unlike Ico, or Shadow of the Colossus. The high-dynamic range and bloom effects mesh with the distinctly last-gen texture detail to create an eerie, dream like ambience.
NIER's levels have been designed with a mind to not just structuring your actions, but also manipulating your emotional state. For instance, at one point you learn that Yonah has wandered off to an abandoned, monster-infested ruin, lured in by hearsay that a cure to her illness lies within. Before you can even reach the temple she's trapped in, you must wander through a winding, enclosed path for minutes on end. With no map of the area at hand, this becomes a headlong plunge into the unknown – a bit like the infamous 'Press X to Jason' sequence from Heavy Rain.
The camera is also in on the act. While it usually hovers around at a set distance, at the command of the right control stick, it will stand in place when you cross the threshold into a new zone. Pushing forward on the left stick still moves you ahead, but your character rapidly shrinks as he runs off into the distance, before the action fades to white, and yet another loading screen. Certain dungeon sequences will lock the camera in place high above the action, transforming the exploration and minion bashing into a distinctly retro, top-down experience.
Likewise, certain small, NPC-housing rooms will swing the the camera around and lock it into a side-on view, allowing you only one axis of movement: left and right. These cramped, dare we say intimate settings take on the feel of a story book, or one of those medieval tapestries sewn up by artists who had yet to discover the rules of perspective ("It endeth tonight, Mr. Anderson"). The effect is actually pretty freaky. Few games bother to do anything interesting or memorable with their camera angles, but NIER is one of them.
So yes, the game toys with your emotions, but the problem is that with this manipulation comes trolling... lots of trolling. Dungeon sequences seem to go on for ever. Even with your spells, upgrades, and customisation options, combat is a repetitive ordeal. You can only save at certain 'mail boxes'; these are few and far between. Save points have been generously positioned immediately before the major boss battles, but these are always preceded by what feels like an hour or two of Shade-slaying. So not only is the grinding interminable, you are required to gulp it down in large doses. Granted, this is an effective way of building tension before each major encounter. But a less generous assessment would be that it's a transparent attempt to cover for the shallowness of the combat mechanics. If you play NIER, expect to be trolled, trolled, and trolled some more.
Fortunately, there is more to NIER than the combat. The story is engrossing, and the voice acting is good – really good. The idle banter amongst your party members (some spoken, some rendered as on-screen text, as is the custom) draws you in, and the game gives you plenty of excuses to loiter in its world: meaningless side-quests, gardening, fishing... and if 100% completion still isn't enough, you can play through the entire game up to four times for completely different endings. NIER was clearly created to be enjoyed by those freaky Japanese shut-ins who never leave their rooms, both because it offers a fantastical, sexy proxy for the human experience, and because it represents tremendous value for money. You could play this game for months.