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.
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.
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.