I’m on another one of my extended nomadic trips. Am I the only one who takes these? When freed from the bounds of reason by summer, vacation, or fate I slip the chains of longitude and embark upon a…
What? I was supposed to be talking about a game here? Right right, I forgot.
I had a roommate, once. His name was Adam. He showed me that there were JRPGs beyond Final Fantasy, games like Shadow Hearts, Suikoden, and Breath of Fire. So when I went to visit him and he wanted me to play a new game I was intrigued. The game was Nier, and he praised it more highly than any other current generation RPG. I was already passingly familiar with Nier, my favorite humor boys having done their respective things to it. I expected a weird, grim, post apocalyptic world that transitioned suddenly into a fantasy and town maintenance RPG. That’s sort of what I got, but there is some important information you need about this game, right now:
Bookpunching people is AWESOME.
The bookpunch, as Unskippable dubbed it, is a magic attack that you get very early in the game. It’s represented prominently in the game’s opening cutscene, and for good reason: it feels powerful, it’s an awesome-looking effect, and it’s the most tactically interesting ability I’ve discovered so far. You’re running around with a book hovering behind you from which all your spells emanate. You’ve got a magic bar that refills at a decent rate, and one bookpunch uses about half of your mana bar. A simple press of the trigger and a giant red ghost hand emerges from your book to punch the CRAP out of the ground about a meter in front of you. This means that the best way to deploy this ability is to let enemies get really close, almost in melee range, before knocking them back or, in some cases, simply annihilating them. When it works it feels crafty, risky and good, and it works almost all of the time.
I got so good at using this ability that Adam was shouting at me to stop; warning me that I’d be sorry when I came to a section of the game where I had to melee things again, He might be right about that but screw it. That’s tomorrow, this is today, and I’m a bookpuncher for life.
Ok, I’ve sufficiently covered joy of bookpunching, but what it the game actually like?
You start off with an opening cutscene in the not-too-distant future, but after a few short scenes and sample combats you flash forward to a post-apocalyptic, post-technological society, a la Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Always Coming Home.” You live in an idyllic little town (filled with silly, mostly meaningless little sidequests) with your sick daughter. Eventually you discover a magic talking book that may have the power to cure her if you can unlock its sealed verses. So you travel to other towns and villages and fight monsters in search of these verses. Pretty standard RPG plot.
This is an action RPG, and the combat system is a fun and nerve-wracking. The four face buttons and four triggers have different functions, jump, attack, block, magic, other magic, dodge, special. Pretty standard fare, but the variety of magical attacks, all of which serve very different strategic functions, is interesting. I’m also bad enough at the game to make combat exciting, but it’s not that inherently difficult. Dungeons are simple but interesting in general, except for one dungeon that is the definition of frustration. The sidequests are largely of the kill, fetch and fedex style. I like them, but my roommate says he’s angry at their uselessness and wishes he hadn’t bothered with them on his playthrough. They are rather simplistic and trivial, but I liked the idea that, beyond fighting monsters and trying to save your daughter in classic RPG fashion, you are also the nice old man who does odd jobs. And since there are monsters pretty much everywhere, it makes sense that some shopkeep in town would need you to go to the next city over on a supply trip.
This game has two major minigames, fishing and cultivation. I like minigames, but the fishing in this game is a frustrating trial. Take it from someone who did every fishing-related thing in Ocarina of Time, someone who fish-raced with the best of them in Dark Cloud 2, someone who has maxxed out fishing in World of Warcraft several times: the fishing is terrible. If I get the game home where I can play it without Adam shouting at me, I might do some of the fishing-related quests just for completion, but in really fishing is the worst job in this game. I haven’t started the agriculture minigame yet, but it relies on plants growing in real time, and if you don’t gather them at the appropriate time they wilt and you lose everything. I’m interested in seeing how exactly it plays out.
So far the writing in the game is pretty good. Nier is convincingly concerned for his daughter, and the paternal motivation is a refreshing change of pace from the romantic or politically-motivated plotlines of most RPGs. The characters have fun banter that is often voice-acted and can be triggered by something as mundane as quest acceptance or as major as defeating a storyline boss.
The game’s art direction and atmosphere are a major draw. Something about the world makes me keep wanting to come back. There are some games where it is difficult to explain the appeal, but somehow the whole picture just makes it hard to walk away. Nier is one of those games. That said, I’m not sure if I’ll play the game when I go home: $60 is a little too dear for a new game when I have a lot of unplayed ones sitting around, and the text would likely be unreadable on anything but a decent-sized HDTV. That’s a trend in games I find really frustrating, but it seems pretty unavoidable in current generation RPGs.
In short, Nier is refreshing in many ways, pretty fun, and very engaging. If you’re looking for a JRPG that doesn’t feature a socially-dysfunctional emo git or overly naive, fresh-faced moron as the main character this is one of your best modern options. It also apparently takes only 40-50 hours to play through the main storyline and get most of the endings, if you don’t do all of the sidequests and minigames.
Unfortunately, watching me play has made Adam want to play more, so my chances of making significant further progress now is slim. Still, what I played has me interested enough that I might just make a purchase if Nier goes down in price or I go up in wealth.