Nier has been cloaked in a shroud of mystery. Brief gameplay demonstrations and interviews with Japanese developer cavia have done little to enlighten us. Indeed, as we popped the preview code into our PS3 we didn't have any real idea of the kind of game Nier was. Now, some four hours into the game, we still don't have any real idea of the kind of game Nier is.
Why? It probably has something to do with the fact that Nier's completely bonkers and unlike any Square Enix game we've ever played. So bonkers, in fact, that we're struggling to condense Nier's first few hours into cleverly constructed paragraphs. So we're not going to bother. Instead, we'll run through what happens, step by step (sans major spoilers, of course), so you, the dear reader, can have a go at working it out for yourself. This is the only proper course of action. Really it is. We're not doing it because we're lazy. Honest.
Nier begins in the summer of 2049, which makes it sci-fi, except it's not (although it is - more on that later). Nier, a gruffly-voiced father, is wrapped up warm as he stands next to his sick daughter, Yonah. The two are in what looks like an abandoned petrol station. Despite the season, snow is everywhere, and it is bitterly cold. The world seems grey, bleak, and desperate. Yonah is coughing and spluttering as Nier looks on in worry. As he leaves in search of food, he points at a nearby book and tells her never, under any circumstances, to touch it. It would be a scene lifted straight out of the pages of Cormack McCarthy's superb post-apocalyptic novel The Road, if the Road had semi-transparent monsters and sword-slashing combos.
Shades - the aforementioned semi-transparent monsters - appear, somehow attracted to the disease that is coursing through Yonah's veins. This is the point at which the player assumes control over Nier. Bashing the attack button busts out combos with a large stick; blood sprays from the shades - even though it seems odd that they have blood - which splatters on the ground. The camera is set at a middle-distance, but can be moved freely with the right thumb stick. Hacking feels haphazard, almost unsophisticated - certainly compared to the systems in the likes of Bayonetta and God of War, but it is fun and satisfying. Auto-targeting works well, and hit detection is pretty forgiving. A useful evade move makes Nier temporarily invulnerable as he leaps in whatever direction inputted, and a block move comes in handy for when things get too hot to handle.
Nier isn't happy at this stage. He'll do anything to protect his daughter, including knocking lumps out of scores of shades. But there are too many of them. Beaten to within an inch of his life, he crawls towards the mysterious book, and with one final push manages to touch it with his finger. Cue all sorts of pretty magical sparks and effects as Nier powers up.
In Nier's hands, the book, which floats next to him, busts out some seriously special spells, including firing small red blobs (hold the trigger or tap for rapid fire), slamming down a huge blood red fist (again, hold for a charge or tap for a quick hit), and shooting a dark lance (aimed with the right thumb stick). The fighting is fast, frantic, and frenetic. Nier levels up insanely quickly during this tutorial opening section, and gains all of these powerful attacks right off the bat in true Metroid style. The shades haven't got a hope.
Yonah, though, is in dire straights. The Black Scrawl disease, as it is known, is setting in - weird black markings appear on her arms like slithering tattoos. Nier is at a loss… then… all is white.