I do not usually write all that much about game plots. Yet I find myself compelled to write my thoughts about Nier's story. I totally dismissed this game at the time it came out because on the surface it looked like a very mediocre action rpg, and I wasn't such a big fan of Square-Enix at that time either. Much more recently I picked the name up from this article after deeming the list quite credible since it featured Valkyria Chronicles (a marvelous game I have played) and Trails in the Sky plus Radiant Historia (games I was planning to play at the time anyway - I have now started Trails in the Sky). Nier's description promised interesting story and dialogue - both valid reasons to play games for me.
So let's get a few thing out of the way: as a game Nier is not very interesting. Its battle system is a poor imitation of games like God of War and among all the spells in the game I ended up using mostly three. The game is also ridiculously easy on normal difficulty and very frustrating on hard because encounters with normal enemies last a better half of an eternity. Boss fights are quite cool so there's that and the game is at least quite tightly packed. Gameplay is not very inspiring, but it also doesn't get in the way. The game also features a magnificent soundtrack that manages to pour a lot of emotion into different environments. Finally: this post will contain spoilers that will most likely destroy the entire experience for you. There is a reason the writers want you to experience the latter half of the game twice to get the whole picture.
So if you think you will ever be playing this game, do yourself a favor and don't read this post. Let's just say that the game comes with my full recommendations - I hope that's enough for you to pick it up.
1. It is all about the characters (again)
One goal for the creators of Nier was to create a more adult RPG story. Surprisingly they have succeeded in their goal, although the attire of Kainé might suggest otherwise...
I mean we talked about this, right? Kainé is prancing around in her underwear pretty much literally - even other characters in the game comment on this. It does seem quite contradictory to the game's goal but actually, because of the game's sometimes rather strange sense of humor, I am going to put this one down as parody. Kainé is nothing like your typical female companion. This is one angry woman, and has a mouth fouler than any other character in games as far as I recall. I bet her voice actress has had a blast - I also thought she sounded kinda familiar and was absolutely flabbergasted to find out I had previously heard her as Serah in FFXIII(-2) - talk about contrast! Kainé also has a whole lot of resemblance with Annah from possibly the most applauded RPG story ever written: Planescape Torment.
I took Kainé here as an example because the game is pretty much driven by its three defining characters: the protagonist, Kainé and Grimoire Weiss. There is a great sense of bonding between this odd group of rather strong personalities. Most importantly, the game doesn't fail to capitalize on this. Most of the dialogue serves only one purpose: to portray the dynamics of this group to the player. The game wants you to like its characters and care about them. It certainly doesn't hurt that it has some of the best dialogue that's been written for games. I am actually just going to place it in the hall of fame in the company of the likes of Planescape: Torment and Persona 3/4. One important lesson to learn from Nier is that these characters comment on pretty much everything, That is actually the best reason to do sidequests in Nier: to hear Weiss complaing about the pointlessness of the effort.
None of the characters are quite normal. Well, the protagonist maybe but even he is very set on rescuing his daughter. Then there's Kainé and a floating, talking, sarcastic book. Finally we have a boy whose gaze petrifies living things (spoiler: he gets weirder than that). Most of the chatter also takes place during gameplay while the player is making their way towards the next objective. This is something that was already mentioned in my last post. It is a technique that I simply would like to see a lot more. The only complaint I have is placing some key dialogue into boss fights. It works on the first playthough just fine, but on the second there is a high risk of actually killing the boss before the dialogue ends. Which means the player will just run around in circles until talking is definitely done. It doesn't help that there is much more dialogue during boss fights on the second time around.
2. And now with the spoilers
On the surface Nier is about a man facing monsters called shades while desperately trying to rescue his daughter from a deadly sickness. Aided by his weird companions, he eventually encounters Shadowlord, and finally defeats him. This is most of the experience you will get on your first playthrough of Nier. The game does hint at various things and drops a lot of unanswered questions but doesn't really reveal its hand until the very last dungeon in the game. So far so boring. After the true nature of shades has been revealed and the game completed, the player is encouraged to start the game from halfway through to experience another level of the story. On this second playthough, the game contains more dialogue and additional scenes that let the player experience the story with the knowledge they received at the very end.
This is pretty much where the game just pulls the rug right out. Although the knowledge of what is truly going on is shocking in its own right, the game really pushes boundaries by encouraging the player to experience it again with all-new eyes. This is mostly achieved by allowing the player to hear the words of Tyrann - the shade that has possessed Kainé and is giving her strength. Furthermore, because Tyrann understands what the shades are saying, their words are now also shown to the player. Even on the first playthrough there is a point where the protagonist seems to be too far gone. Although he goes on about how it is important to help people it is made rather clear that when it comes to choosing between his daughter and the lives of an entire village, he could not care less about innocent lives.
On the second round of the game, the player is very explicitly shown that the protagonist's heroic actions against shades are in truth sheer mass murder of sentient beings. On the first time through the player is implied this when the full truth is revealed. However, it is an entirely different matter to know in retrospect that you have been murdering innocents than it is to fight them with full knowledge of what is truly going on. When you swing a sword at what you as the player know to be nothing but small children, the chilling effect is quite overwhelming. You will do it, because you are willing to see how far the tragedy reaches - but you will not be happy about it. This power of portraying tragedy is unique to games. Much like the shocking revelation in Brenda Romero's Train, you are forced to face the fact that you are not the good guy.
In a sense this is not the protagonist's tragedy though, because he remains oblivious to the plight of his victims. Instead it is Kainé we should really be looking at. The fact that the second round is called "Kainé's story" does hint that we are experiencing the events from her point of view. This leads me to believe that Kainé can also hear what Tyrann is saying and also what the shades are saying. Therefore she is fully content with murdering them. After all, Tyrann did not just possess her, they struck a bargain: Kainé will be allowed to control her body as long as she keeps brutally murdering shades and pretty much anything else. Although Tyrann is portrayed as the murderer, it is Kainé who chooses to take on his bloodlust in exchange for a chance at revenge. Furthermore we don't see her fighting reluctantly - it is more the opposite. While the protagonist thinks he is slaying monsters, Kainé knows the truth from the start.
It is delightful to see that the writers have not chickened out. There is no redeeming factor at the end - you have simply climbed a mountain of corpses to reunite one man with his daughter. None of the monsters were truly your enemies but rather just bystanders in the rivalry between the protagonist and the Shadowlord.
3. Artistic finishing touch
One last thing to talk about in Nier is its fourth ending. Although it does feel a bit tacked on, this ending is one of the most powerful ones in gaming history. Once again it is also something that only games can really do. There is a choice for the player in the very end of the third round (a bit excessive, including this in the second one would have been enough in my opinion), and one of them is the rather usual "sacrifice yourself" choice - only Nier does it with much more flavor. The option is not just for the protagonist to die: it is for him to be fully erased from existence - history included. What happens in the ending is the interesting part: the game will literally erase your character by removing every saved game associated with that character. Upon choosing the option, the game starts erasing your items from your inventory, one by one. Every tab in your menu gets cleared item by item until only a black screen remains.
Although the effect sounds like at technicality, it once again has a lot more meaning to the player. It tears down the wall between the player and their character, effectively implying that the character is even being erased from the player's "memory". Nothing remains on your hard drive, the character is just gone. It can also be considered as some kind of solace because it allows you to erase that extension of yourself who you used to commit mass murder. All evidence is gone, but of course in your mind the memory is very likely to remain. This ending is pretty much the perfect way to put a game like Nier to rest. What the ending is saying is that the experience was so strong that you will never need to go back to it. This describes Nier perfectly.
Still, I have to complain about this ending because it does seem a bit like an afterthought. The choice is kinda just tacked on. Unless I seriously missed something, nothing during the game hints at such a choice might come around. Much like the final boss in Final Fantasy IX, it just pops right at you when you thought the game was done. I still think it is a great thing to have, but I cannot give it full points because of its disconnectedness.
I don't know if this piece was actually useful for anyone. If you read it and have not played the game, I have pretty much now ruined the experience for you. If you had played the game, you probably know all that. Still, I do enjoy reading similar pieces by other people, so there's that. I also think it is important to highlight the awesomeness of Nier because it breaks free of a lot of stereotypes - a very strong feat indeed in the JRPG genre. The gameplay is still crappy, but the story simply would not have worked so well in any other medium. For an RPG it's not actually that long or huge, I think you can get the whole experience in about twenty hours (that is, two rounds of the second half). It's also an important reminder that artistic games with a lot to say are not always made by indies.