They don’t make ’em like Nier anymore. It looks like a lost PlayStation 2 game, a graphically flat but pretty Square Enix adventure a la Samurai Legend Musashi that couples one-button swordplay with light stat building. You roll around as a guy with fabulous hair and spend your time with scantily clad lady warriors and snarky enchanted inanimate objects. There isn’t much in Nier to mark it as a 2010 game other than some shiny textures on characters and enemies. It’s an unassuming game that would have been much loved as a cult hit in 2003. Today it feels like a relic you might find somewhere in the game’s future Earth, a worse-for-wear artifact that no one knows quite what to do with.
The game takes place in the year 3361, but opens in 2049. You, as a spiky-haired guy wielding a pipe in a post-apocalyptic city, defend your ill daughter from monsters that look like the enemies from Ico wearing Hypercolor shirts. After both you and the girl collapse, you’re inexplicably shunted into the future, where the world has transformed into a Hyrule-style fantasy world, complete with Desert (with token funny-speaking, mask-wearing people), Ocean (with requisite fishing mini-game), Mountain, Mysterious Woods, Ruined Factory, and Central Plains. You appear to be the same man as the one from the past and your daughter, Yonah, remains ill. She suffers from Black Scrawl, a terminal illness whose symptoms are pain, death, and being covered in writhing script. The sickness is related to Shades, the enemies from the opening. When Yonah gets lost in some ruins, you save her with the aid of a talking magic book named Grimoire Weiss, a legendary tome with the voice of C-3P0’s drunk cousin and whose lost power might be the key to stopping the Black Scrawl plague.
From there, the story propels you from one locale to the next as you unlock Weiss’s Sacred Verses, each one a spell you can map to one of the controller’s four shoulder buttons. Zelda rules apply: Go to new place, talk to natives, fight boss in dungeon, get new power. Nier’s spells, however, don’t have use outside of combat. In fact, there isn’t much to do outside of combat other than an avalanche of fetch quests for villagers in the game’s towns. The reward for these is almost always money, so the incentive to undertake them is mostly limited to feeling like you got your money’s worth from the game. They do occasionally yield Words, the stat-boosting augments for weapons and spells that act as the game’s only real customization feature, but not consistently.
Though Nier is generic in most respects, it sporadically mixes things up. The game sometimes shifts into a side-scrolling perspective for light platforming, sometimes a top-down perspective mixed with a Smash TV-style boss flooding the screen with hard-to-dodge projectiles. There’s even a little text adventure late in the game. Special note should also be given to the lavish audio: The spectacular voice acting, English script, and Okabe Keiichi’s score are a stark contrast to the game’s dated visuals and play. Great aural presentation and infrequent genre remixing aren’t enough to save the game from mediocrity, though. Only Japanophiles nostalgic for the early aughts need apply.