A book called "Grimoire Wiess", to be exact, and it talks. Square Enix and developer Cavia (Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles) won't go into detail about the book's backstory, motivations or how it came to be in NIER's possession, but we do know that it is the source of NIER's magical power, a power he is willing to use to save his daughter no matter what the cost.
Grimoire Weiss-powered spells are mapped to the shoulder buttons. Attacks like "Dark Hand" call forth a.. you guessed it… dark hand, that emerges from the book and lands a meaty punch on NIER's hapless enemies. Then there's "Dark Blast", which shoots out small orbs of energy from the book's pages. And let's not forget "Dark Lance", which does exactly what it says on the tin. There are more - loads more - some of which take out tens of enemies at once, causing blood to spray like streams from water hoses. Put simply, all the magic attacks are dark. Very, very, dark.
NIER, the book, and his daughter are then transported 1,300 years into the future. Why? We don't know. How? We don't know. All we know is that civilisation has reset itself following the apocalyptic effects of the Black Scrawl. The Earth, and NIER's world, is now at the Feudal stage. People live in huts, farm the land to survive, and live in constant terror from demonic beasts.
It is in one Feudal town that we get a better idea about the relationship between NIER and Grimoire Weiss. The book constantly talks to its owner, sniping at NIER with sarcastic and cutting remarks in a stereotypically posh English voice. They don't like each other, but for some mysterious reason they need each other. NIER saved Weiss from eternal doom, and in return it agreed to help our hero save his daughter from the disease. How long this uneasy truce lasts is anyone's guess.
NIER's menu system has been designed to look like you're reading Grimoire Weiss itself - a clever system. Maps, items, quests, weapons, and more can be navigated as if you're thumbing through the pages of a book. It's in Weiss that you'll fuss over one of NIER's more interesting features: word edit. You can add words, which stand for statistical bonuses (+8 per cent attack power, for example), to your weapons, levelling them up as NIER himself grows more powerful. The new weapon, complete with new name, can then be used in battle.
No hack and slash worth its virtual salt would be complete without massive, screen-filling bosses. Luckily, NIER's got you covered. The town NIER and his daughter are holed up in soon comes under attack from a swarm of Shades. As the people retreat to the town library, NIER draws his sword against the demons. But he's soon faced with a bigger problem, a much bigger problem: a huge, tentacle-faced boss that threatens to destroy the library and everyone in it.
Against bosses, attack gauges appear next to weak spots once you've hacked at them enough. These gauges trigger a countdown - hack enough before the time runs out and you'll perform a powerful, Grimoire Weiss-fuelled attack that spawns a blood-coloured hand that rips off the beastie's arm, and takes a chunk out of the boss's life bar in the process. In this case, however, nothing's working - the boss's limbs grow back seconds after they're ripped off. When all looks lost, and the giant demon is literally on top of the town library, our hermaphrodite pal Kainé turns up, f-ing and blinding as she lends a helping hand. This is where our demo ends. It's a shame: we had high hopes for those tentacles.
Obviously, NIER is a game that takes what we think we know about Square Enix games, rips its head off, then nonchalantly uses it to bowl a strike. Really, this is a good thing: we love it when developers try something a bit out there. The question NIER has to answer is: will its combat system be deep enough to keep the God of War/Bayonetta crowd happy? We can already see some lambasting the game's hacking and slashing as too simplistic to carry the player over the course of its 30-something hours. The story, setting and characters are refreshing and interesting - we've had our fill of painfully thin emos. The rivers of blood might look silly, and the swearing might jar, but at least it's different. This is NIER's greatest strength. Fingers crossed the combat does its part, too. If not, well - there's a hermaphrodite in NIER!
NIER will be released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 23 2010.