When Nier first meets hermaphrodite Kainé he comments on her outfit. Then he hears her speak, and all the romance goes out the window.
You know how in some games and films the story jumps forward a few hours, days, weeks, months, or sometimes even years? At this point, Nier jumps forward an eye-watering 1,312 years. Why? We don't know. How? We don't know. All we know is Nier and Yonah now live in a house in a feudal-era style village (hence the sci-fi but not thing earlier), the world is dying, shades are still about, Nier has been stripped of all of his magical powers, and Yonah's still suffering from the Black Scrawl. Not only that, but she's getting worse.
Nier, then, is clearly a post-apocalyptic game: relics from the 21st century remain scattered about the land, from old bridges to mines and machinery. There's a library packed with books written in a language no-one can understand. People farm the land, sell vegetables from market stalls and sing songs in taverns. It's Lord of the Rings meets Japanese mentalism.
Here, Nier gets really interesting. The village acts as a hub of sorts from which mundane jobs for cash are picked up from the townsfolk. When we say mundane, we mean proper boring mundane. Some of the quests, almost all of which involve venturing out of the village into the surrounding shade-infested plains, are so mundane that they almost make you fall asleep. One side quest involves slicing up sheep for ten cuts of mutton, which you then have to return to a lazy woman in the marketplace. Another sees you delivering messages from one village to another (snore). Then there's the job that involves putting books onto shelves in the library. Oh, and let's not forget gathering medicinal herbs and fishing for salmon. But the best one is easily the postman quest: you have to pick up a parcel from the post office for an old lady who spends her days in a lighthouse. Really.
Nier's fishing mini-game involves pressing the jump button at the right time and pulling on the thumb stick. It's tricky, but strangely addictive.
The idea is that Nier isn't just a relentless 20-hour long hack and slash. Well, it is, but it's also got distractions designed to break up the pace with more peaceful, pleasant moments. Working for cash is just one (I spent two hours doing this alone). Spending hours fishing and cultivate plants in your garden are two more. In short, Nier might be packed with action, but it's an epic RPG at heart.
It's not long, however, before Nier's relative tranquillity is shattered by his daughter. She goes missing, and Nier is understandably distraught. The quest that leads to her recovery in a nearby village also leads to the discovery of Grimoire Weiss, the talking spell book, and the beginning of Nier's gradual powering up. Weiss has a snotty, sneering posh English accent, and amnesia. The relationship between the two is fractured, but also warm, and full of entertaining banter. Weiss, who has no memory of his true abilities, agrees to help Nier find a cure for the Black Scrawl as he embarks on a journey of discovery of his own. This is, essentially, what Nier's all about: two unlikely companions, one a father determined to save his dying daughter, the other a powerful magical being determined to regain past glories, both teaming up to save the world.
This set-up is unique enough to pique our interest, but what makes us say Nier's one of the most interesting games we've played in 2010 is the fact that the uniqueness doesn't stop there. When Nier enters a building, for example, the camera switches to a fixed side-on perspective. In some sections, the camera switched to a top down view. Some shades shoot out streams of red balls as if some gargantuan boss in a "shmup". Upgrading equipment involves attaching words to item names, improving statistical bonuses and the like. There are wooden crates to smash, square blocks to push and pull, and more than a hint of The Legend of Zelda about it. There is so much that is different, that it's hard not to feel very curious about what else Nier has to offer. At a time when so much of what we play is rehashed and regurgitated, Nier could prove a refreshing tonic. With its release nearing, answers are coming.
Nier is due out on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 23.