There is a hermaphrodite in NIER. And no, we don't mean an androgynous spiky-haired anime boy with a high-pitched voice. We mean a proper, penis and vagina packing hermaphrodite.
His/her/its name is "Kainé", and is described by publisher Square Enix as a "female warrior" who was part-possessed in a demonic attack. The demon then decided to grow a member, and Kainé became a hermaphrodite, or a "Futanari", the Japanese term to describe or "shemales".
Don't laugh. That's tough luck, right there. Kainé was bullied from an early age, and, out of resentment, came to emphasise her female characteristics. She expresses this resentment by dressing like an anime hooker.
When she opens her gob, though, the man in her comes through. She swears a lot. And not rubbish swearing either, like "damn", "crumbs", and "cripes". She drops the f-bomb all over NIER's virtual world. She says it so much she's wearing it out. You'd think, then, that the game would have a big fat 18 certificate on the box art. It doesn't. It's a 15. Apparently, the f-bomb on its own is fine. The BBFC wags its finger when you say f*cking f*ck. True story.
So, yeah, there's a hermaphrodite in NIER. Obviously the game, due out this April, isn't particularly brand Square Enix. We can't think of another Square Enix game that features a hermaphrodite. Actually, come to think of it, we can't think of any other game that features a hermaphrodite. Well, does a music game with Lady Gaga count? Has there been a game with a voice over from Jamie Lee Curtis? Was there a True Lies game?
But NIER's different from your typical Square Enix game in other ways, too. It takes inspiration from the God of War series, incorporating blood, guts, and loads of hack and slash action, but it's a combination of a number of genres, really: the narrative of a JRPG and the action of a hack and slash, sections viewed from a top down perspective, and even "2.5D" side-scrolling platforming. SE bills it as "Bayonetta with a story", but that's simplifying NIER's variety. Either way, NIER is not your typical Square Enix game. "Toto, I have the feeling we're not in Kansas any more."
This unfamiliar feeling is no more keenly felt than in the design of the game's central character, NIER. Now, most lead characters from Square Enix games are thin, spiky-haired, teenage angst-ridden cry babies. NIER's in his forties, never moans despite his horrendously difficult life, and is beefier than Arnie. He's also a father (we can't remember any Square Enix lead character being a father), who's desperately trying to save his daughter, Yonah, from a disease called the Black Scrawl.
Set in the summer of 2049, the game begins with the sword-wielding NIER and his daughter struggling to survive in a deserted building. Mysterious, semi-transparent creatures called The Shades stalk the snow-covered land, preying on those who suffer the Black Scrawl. NIER sets out to find food when he is attacked by the skulking monsters.
Combat follows typical action game templates. On the Xbox 360 controller, X attacks, Y is a context sensitive action that either triggers a "block breaker" (useful for defeating defending enemies), or a counter attack. The Left Trigger defends and the Right Trigger evades. This is NIER's combat in a nutshell: a basic, slow, and considered system that is more accessible than the likes of Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden, but challenging enough to prove enjoyable. Where does the challenge come from, you ask? The answer is a book.
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.