Spoiler Warning: This post will have spoilers for Nier Ending A and B as well as major spoilers for Nier Automata. I haven’t finished Ending C or D of Nier at time of writing so please don’t spoil me either
I remember playing Nier a year or so after it came out and not getting along with it. Partially because the first sidequest I picked up was the one where you can break the thing you’re delivering and partially because I’d only played turn based JRPGs up to this point and my skills were lacking. Years later with all the Souls games under my belt and a strong desire to replay Nier Automata I thought I’d revisit it.
This game has possessed me.
It’s actually really hard to write reviews or thoughts on games for me. Often the thing I love about a game is actually hard to describe after the fact; there’s something about the experience that carries you and lingers with you that’s wordless, it’s just feelings. However it’s very easy to think of things that are not so good about the game, because they are things that disconnect you from that experience. So I’m starting with a few of those, and then I can get on with the nonsensical praise.
The way Nier comforts Emil after the body change is one of the best scenes in the game. The voice acting for Emil in his emotional scenes is so good. It’s jarring then when Nier’s response to the Ultimate Weapon at the Aerie is basically “yeah you killed everyone but we’re ok so meh”. I think it ruins what should be a powerful scene and made me so angry at the character I was supposed to “be”.
Kaine would be a better character with trousers on. It does remove the gravitas from some of her scenes when you’re looking at her barely covered butt. I had the same issue in Automata where some serious moments are marred by a camera angle showing off 2B’s underclothes. It’s not game-breaking but it’s disappointing, and a reminder that this world was created and built by men.
Right, let’s get on to the good stuff.
This game made me think a lot about the difference between functional and emotional challenge. The first time through the game is hard; upgrade materials for weapons need to be collected, the healing item limit helps to prevent cheesing of some of the longer boss sections. The combat is serviceable but clunky especially compared to Automata and there were certain enemies that I could never work out the dodge timings for properly. You don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going, your motivation is a fairly standard “collect items for access to final boss” so you can get your daughter back.
The second time through the combat is nearly trivial, you keep your level and weapons from the previous playthrough so enemies melt like butter. This part of the game is where you’ll hoover up all the “kill this boss in under a minute” achievements. You become the most powerful entity this world has seen. However this is more than just a “play it again” scenario. The second playthrough has extra narrative content; some of which is cutscene but a lot of it is extra dialogue for the previously assumed mindless enemies. You find out that the older brother wasn’t mercilessly killed by robots but actually by the younger brother’s careless mistake. The hordes of Shades you kill in the Aerie talk about how afraid they are of you, that they know you’re coming heralds the end of their existence. Enemies in the last section scream and beg for you to stop killing them, that you’re making a mistake that you will never be able to come back from. You’ve gone from hero to villain and it’s heartbreaking. Yeah the bosses are easy to kill but now you don’t want to kill them, you’re joining in the voices begging you to stop.
The last revelation is that actually the bad guy is you, not just in a metaphorical sense, but in that the last boss, this hyped up Shadowlord who kidnapped your daughter, is actually you, or rather the soul that should be living in your body. He didn’t kidnap your child, he rescued his child from you. There’s no way to compromise, there’s only one body but two souls who want it, both with valid and equal claims. Your character only “wins” because he’s the one you’re controlling. It turns out in Nier Automata that your act of murdering this soul is that humanity just dies out. You actually are the apocalypse made flesh.
This game will break you. It’s beautiful and tragic. Since playing I’ve started just absorbing related content; soundtracks, book translations, wikis. It’s a wonderful commentary on death and violence in gaming and the “hero solves everything with violence” trope. It’s a discussion on what happens with both sides are equally right but fundamentally incompatible. It’s a game where you break your own heart through your own actions, and it’s never going to let me forget.