Interestingly, NIER underwent a redesign for the Western version of the game. We get an older, bulkier NIER, and we're glad.
So, NIER's a science-fiction post-apocalyptic game, despite the swords and spears and dark magic. It's a game that begins with a whiff of Cormack McCarthy's superb novel The Road, but quickly descends into typical video game fare: the slicing and dicing of more monsters than you can swing a double-handed sword at.
Combat is a somewhat schizophrenic fusion of third-person hack-and-slash and spell casting. It revolves around mashing the attack button, barrel rolling to evade enemy attacks when you see their "tell", and using the odd Dark Magic power, cast from the aforementioned floating book Grimoire Weiss.
Ah yes, Grimoire Weiss. NIER has floating, talking books. In fact, it's all about them. Weiss, wonderfully voiced by Liam O'Brien (Gaara from Naruto), is rescued by NIER not long after the jump to the future. The pair agree to help each other: NIER needs the book's power to defeat the Shades and save his daughter, and Weiss needs a companion to help him regain his memory.
Functionally, Weiss grants NEIR an assortment of powerful spells. Dark Blast, perhaps the most useful, fires out damaging red balls, lending the game shooter-like qualities. Dark Whirlwind, on the other hand, protects NIER by surrounding him with rotating blades. There are eight such powers, gained as bosses are defeated (Zelda!), just enough to add depth to combat that can at times feel basic. Indeed, each power has an alternate state, usually triggered by holding one of the shoulder buttons down. But still, NIER's combat is, in truth, simplistic, not least compared to the fighting systems of Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden. It's also somewhat unspectacular, despite the constant blood spraying. But it is satisfying, and manages to avoid feeling repetitive.
While Weiss grants NEIR magical powers, it is the constant banter between the two that proves the highlight of this most unlikely relationship. As NIER takes on side quests from the world's many hapless NPCs, Weiss often snipes with disapproval. His snotty, condescending tone hits all the right notes. Mundane fetch and hunting quests force Weiss to question the duo's actions - in many cases in agreement with the player. There are some genuine laugh out load moments from Weiss, as well as references to video gaming and its traditional components. He'll often call bosses exactly what they are: bosses, and talk about that most ridiculous video game mechanic: the weak point. Weiss is genuinely likeable, somewhat complex, and NIER's Navi.
Speaking of the mundane, NIER's full of it. In between main story missions, you're free to complete side quests or explore the game world and its handful of towns and villages. Outside the main village are open fields (Zelda!), filled with animals, Shades and other oddities, which lead to other areas in the game world, including a village set high up in a mountain, a desert area with a city full of strange, masked people, a mysterious forest, and a junk town packed with robots from the old world. If you dabble in NIER's distractions, the pace slows to a crawl. Everything from fishing (Zelda!) to growing vegetables in your back garden is possible. Neither is particularly good fun or well implemented, but sometimes you do get lost in the banality of it all and forget about poor Yonah's plight completely.