With the release of Nier Automata, I thought now would be as good of a time as ever to take a look back at its predecessor and how this niche little RPG from a generation past managed to get a sequel with some pretty high profile developers behind the wheel.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined Nier would get a sequel in collaboration with Platinum Games. It’s nothing short of a miracle that a game that was mostly panned by gamers and critics alike would be reborn for a new generation. Miraculous as it may be however, I can’t say I don’t get the appeal as the original gained quite the cult following and it is actually one of my favourite games not just of the last generation, but of all time.
See, Nier is an odd beast in its own right. For those who don’t like the game, I can completely understand their viewpoint. At its core, Nier is an action RPG, with some quirky game mechanics. If you’ve played Automata, or have seen footage of it, you would’ve seen some of its heritage in the way it plays with the camera perspective, sometimes switching to 2D or even top down, mimicking arcade shooters of old. Nier also tried some other interesting things, such as having a part of the game in text adventure format. I loved the way it played around with game design, but at the end of the day, even as a diehard fan, I can say that the gameplay itself, was not that good, not in the least to be honest.
From a pure visual and gameplay standpoint, Nier was average at best. The game looked like it belonged in the PS2 era, and for all its charm in the way it tried to do things differently, it was held back by bland and boring combat. It’s this very fact that frustrates me the most about the game as most people never got far enough to really understand what makes it so brilliant. So in order to remedy that, I thought I’d replay the game, from start to finish and delve into Nier’s story and why it and by extension, its sequel, absolutely deserves your attention as well as why it means so much to me.
SPOILER WARNING. I will be spoiling all the major twists of the game as it’s nigh impossible to describe what makes it so good without revealing them. So if you’re somehow still planning to play it, I suggest you eject right now.
The first section of the game covers everything up until the halfway mark, and it’s probably the most normal part of the game. It starts in modern day Tokyo where a father, named Nier, is trying to protect his daughter Yonah while fending of these odd-looking monsters, known as Shades. The task eventually proves to be futile, but it’s not before a mysterious, magical book tells him to give in and use its powers. With his back against the wall and no other options left, he accepts the book’s offer and triumphs over his enemies, but unfortunately, that was the least of his problems as he finds that his daughter has somehow been afflicted with an unknown disease. The game cuts here, and fast-forwards 1312 years into the future where Nier hasn’t seemed to have aged a day and is still looking for a cure for Yonah.
The story at this point is immediately intriguing; with the massive timeskip serving to completely confuse players and leave them guessing. The world has also seemed to devolve into a more primitive state with little villages scattered all over. The intrigue and mystery quickly gives way to conventional RPG staples however, as during this time we’ll be doing our usual questing, grinding and other normal RPG stuff (including a horrible fishing mini-game).
The game slowly introduces you to the main cast as well. Along the way, you’ll meet the foul-mouthed and brash Kainé, the timid boy Emil and another magical (and snarky) book, Grimoire Weiss. I won’t be talking much about the characters themselves, but they’re honestly some of the best, most well-voiced and believable characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in a video game.
For the entirety of the game, the central focus of the narrative will always be finding a way to save your daughter. The sacrifices and hardships Nier and the rest of cast experiences really show how far one would go to care for and save the one you love. It’s a beautiful tale at first with characters fleshing out the journey in nuanced and emotional ways, and while it unfolds in a clichéd manner at first, the game flips everything on its head halfway through – and it’s where I became truly hooked.
Conventionality is thrown out the window and the game takes a sudden dark turn. The master of the Shades, the Shadowlord, kidnaps Yonah. 5 years will pass and Nier is now a different man after years of searching for his daughter as what was once a noble conviction to find a cure for Yonah has turned into a bloodlust driven quest for revenge against Shades. To highlight just how depressing things really get, Emil finds out he’s some sort of biological weapon, at one point goes berserk, and kills an entire village by mistake. A girl you met at the start of the game is now older and on the cusp of tying the knot, but is killed during her wedding by a wild wolf Shade. Emil sacrifices himself to save his friends later on and to top it all off, the Shades you’ve been fighting, and killing, is actually human. Yes, you were killing humans all this time.
Near the end of the game, you find out that way back in the past, there was a rapidly spreading disease that was pushing humankind to the brink of extinction. Scientists then came up with a way to separate the soul and consciousness from the body, known as Project Gestalt, thus allowing the soul to live without a body until a cure was found for the disease at which point it would merge into an artificially created body known as a Replicant. There was just one problem however, the soulless Replicants started developing a consciousness of their own, which resulted in a technical error in the process, thus causing the original souls of the humans to go crazy, and hence, they turned into what was now known as Shades. It was always weird to me how at the start of the game, smaller shades would drop colouring books, well, it turns out; those were human kids you were killing.
If that wasn’t enough of a ride, you’re asked to replay the game after completing your first play through, at which point you’ll start at the halfway point again, only this time, you’re given cutscene from the Shade’s perspective and can now understand what they’re saying, and boy, did that just make me feel like a complete a-hole. Turns out that some of the bosses you killed, were not actually bad, at all, and the Shades you engage in combat are actually begging you for mercy while you’re mowing them down. It was really a different kind of feeling, one that I hadn’t quite felt while playing a video game before. I felt genuinely heartbroken, guilty and conflicted. On one end, you have to save Nier’s daughter, which is the main objective of the game, but on the other, the cost of doing so is harming innocent people. Regardless of the moral dilemma, by the time you learn the truth, you have already done those heinous deeds, and there is no choice but to keep on going forward. This alone, made me love the game, but there was one final thing it did that completely blew me away.
Upon finding the Shadowlord, you learn that he is actually Nier’s soul, and he too is trying to save Yonah so that her soul can reunite with her body, unfortunately, things don’t work out as planned as Yonah feels this new consciousness inside her, who too yearns for her father. Riddled with guilt, she releases her soul from the body, vanishing forever so that the new Yonah can be with her father. After killing the now enraged Shadowlord, you’re finally able to be with your daughter once more, but given the track record of this game, it’s obviously not going to be that simple. But before I reveal the true ending of the game, I ask that you would so allow me a bit of self-indulgence as I would just like to share a personal story as well as speak about why video games themselves are so great. I know that the article is about Nier, but I promise it does relate.
Nier has always been a favourite of mine, and when I decided to replay it during the December holidays, my sole intent was just to recap the game’s story and hopefully spur people on to buy the sequel. I didn’t however, expect to play it during such a turbulent time in my life, which resonated with me in a whole new way. Prior to this, my grandmother was really sick. My mother was looking after her at the time and my wife and I would often go there after work and during weekends to help care for her as well. It was an extremely tough time, but you know, like Nier, you kind of put the person you love in front of your own well-being. During this time, work was overly stressful and my wife and I had just started a fertility clinic treatment after years of trying naturally. Needless to say, things were a bit hard, but none of it mattered the day my grandmother passed away.
Death of a loved one is a funny thing. The day of her funeral, the weirdest of memories came flooding in as I stood there, sobbing into my wife’s shoulder. Like that one time she was upset at me for playing too many games ( I was playing the awesome X-Men for the Sega Genesis just by the way), yet somehow she still made the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had in my entire life, despite being upset. Thinking back, it was such a weird memory, but hey, the human brain itself is often an enigma – and it just goes to show that the ones you love, are always there, lingering somehow and somewhere in your mind and heart.
After that day, I felt really off. It probably triggered my month long Insomnia as well and it was during this time that I started my journey back into the world of Nier. Maybe I had been suppressing my emotions, or maybe I was just too exhausted to feel anything, but I had stopped crying, and I no longer felt sad. As I continued playing, I started feeling guilty about my lack of emotions towards my grandmother’s passing, but then I got to the point in the game at which Kainé too starts recalling things about her past, specifically her grandmother, and it was at this point that I had one of the most profound experiences with a videogame yet.
I cried, I cried, and I cried.
Resonation like this could happen with any form of media, really. You could be watching a movie or listening to a song and something will just click within you, but there is a certain kind of beauty and connection that only video games can provide. The catharsis I experienced was only possible because I was interacting with this virtual world, connecting with the characters and story and relating it back to my life. I was playing a game, but I was undertaking a journey of my own. Video games are great, because they are personal. They can do things no other medium can do, and that is what Nier did at the very end. A grand gesture so personal, it could only be achieved in a game.
As the story is nearing it true and final conclusion, Kainé is about to die, and the only way to save here is by sacrificing your life for hers. While this is not a novel concept at all, Nier takes it one step further. If you choose to save her, your existence will be wiped from the memories of everyone you’ve met and it would be as if you never existed. Not only that, but your actual save game will be deleted too. All the hours spent finishing quests, upgrading your weapons, collecting items, will vanish, as the game goes through every menu item and deletes all the entries one by one, until there’s no trace of your character whatsoever. This was the moment that Nier’s brilliance really revealed itself and it was one of the few moments where a game had left me speechless. It was the ultimate sacrifice for both you and the character…
So that about sums up Nier. The director Yoko Taro has been doing these weird and whacky stories since the days of Drakengard back on the PS2, but has never really found its audience with the more mainstream gamer. That seems to have changed with Nier Automata and to a lesser degree, the original Nier. There’s just something so refreshing about the bleak yet hopeful stories he creates. Nier is about love and death and life and sacrifice, all jumbled together in a quirky, imperfect package. Even though the brilliant narrative twists are the reason why it garnered such a cult following, I will always remember it for being a game that dared to be different, a game that made me face my own emotions, and wasn’t afraid to take you on one hell of an emotional ride. Automata carries on this legacy as well and I hope this got you interested enough to give it a chance.