There's something slightly incongruous about Nier.
Right from the beginning, you'll find strange bedfellows in the gentle orchestra and hefty swearing that accompany the opening credits, and it's not long before the game itself starts to blur traditional boundaries. At Nier's core is a curious clash of Eastern and Western game conventions, blending the physical action combat of Occidental titles with the visual stylings and fishing/farming/amnesia holy trinity of recent JRPGs.
It seems like a bit of an experiment for Square Enix, an attempt to balance a game for the worldwide market by cramming in as much as possible from both sides of the fence. Fittingly, so far the results are a bit of a mixture.
The game opens with a flash-forward tutorial, introducing basic controls and setting some of the scene before the main character is stripped back to basics as the timeline rewinds. The protagonist is a gruffer, older character than you might be used to from Square Enix. He's a father too, which provides the game's narrative focus - instead of saving the world, he's out to save his daughter Yonah from the wasting plague which consumes her.
A more personal motive, then, than the zero-to-hero, world-on-his-shoulders boy-child who traditionally moves these games forward, and a more touching one as a result. Nier is punctuated, in loading screens and through letters from Yonah, with reminders of the fragility of the relationship between father and daughter. People chat about her worsening condition, the unfairness of it all. Our hero is consumed with guilt at leaving her untended when he sallies forth, even though her well-being is his only motivation.
Immediately, this makes Nier engaging. Cast in the role of protector of something so tangible rather than thematic, I found the intrinsic connection between father and child supplanted the awkward emotional exposition which so frequently precedes adventures such as these. Nier's characters are interesting and fairly believable, or at least most of them are; I'll reserve judgement of the intersexual futanari Kaine for a longer look.
The first companion you'll meet, Grimoire Weiss, is a powerful sentient book, full of catty putdowns and powerful magics. He acts more as an accessory than a party member - unlike two later additions - but there's a nice laconic/histrionic back-and-forth between the talking book and Nier that rattles on incidentally in the background as you gad about righting wrongs. Weiss' moral ambiguity and haughty attitude are perfectly couched in the "Alan Rickman after an afternoon on the Valium" voice acting, and the acidity of their banter cuts through the slightly fluffy nature of the main quest line nicely. It's classic buddy movie stuff, and true to form it's not long before the initially off-putting Grimoire starts to show his reticent likeability.
Whilst Nier falls short of a full-on third person hackandslash like Devil May Cry or God of War III, its combat is unashamedly action-heavy. Physical attacks are one-button affairs, with basic combos unleashed by rapid presses. There's a guard break button and jump too, although there's none of Kratos or Dante's aerial juggling. Blocks and rolls complete the roster of fighting manoeuvres, with the acrobatic dodging accentuating the slick and fluid nature of the swordplay.
Encounters occur seamlessly within the expansive environments, which include some classic JRPG staples and range from the banal and innocuous (I spent a good 40 minutes wailing on some pretty vicious sheep and goats) to the sort of glutinous, absurd behemoth which wouldn't be out of place troubling anime schoolgirls.
Once talking spellbook Grimoire Weiss is recruited, these physical assaults are backed up with a bevy of magical attacks too. Initially there's just one: the pew-pew space laser of the Dark Blast, a continuous stream of magical projectiles spewed from Weiss' pages as he floats beside Nier, allowing you to whittle down enemies and interrupt their attacks. Because the blasts shoot in the direction which the camera faces rather than that which Nier himself faces, it also allows some crowd management whilst the hero concentrates on another foe with his sword.
Soon, Weiss unlocks the powers of Dark Fist and Dark Lance (sensing a theme here?) which crush or pierce monsters respectively. These, like melee attacks, can also be charged, going into quasi-bullet time as they do so, to be released for a more devastating effect. Each magical attack consumes a portion of a rapidly recharging mana gauge, which is restocked even more quickly by absorbing the blood which sprays from the corpses of enemies as they fall.
Large boss encounters are multi-staged battles, often requiring a main health bar to be depleted before an area-specific target is opened for attack. These are strictly time-limited in classic boss-battle style; failing to capitalise on their appearance will mean another round of beatings before they appear again. It's never too frustrating, though, a reflection of a generally well-balanced difficulty curve.
What does occasionally grate is the fact that there's no period of invulnerability after being knocked down, meaning that the large mobs of 'shades' which Nier sometimes encounters can easily surround and bully him into submission, sapping health with no chance of reprisal.
But what of the RPG elements? Levelling up is handled in a very lightweight manner. There are no stat increases here, no classes or magic choices, just a simple line of white text which pops up whenever you slip the noose of another XP boundary. In this sense, Nier's progression appears to be very linear, preordained. Where you will get the chance to flex your spreadsheet skills is in the weapon and skill upgrade systems.
Broadly speaking, weapons are upgraded via the collection of various random resources, spawned at shiny points across the various maps. Skills and magic utilise 'words' obtained from monsters, which are applied to Nier's abilities as buff-inducing equipment. We can't really go into too much detail about them, as developer Cavia is still fine-tuning the system, but there isn't currently a huge amount of meat on their RPG bones.
This mention of resource gathering brings us to the the third spoke of Nier's wheel: the Japanese obsession with fishing and farming. There are definite traces of Monster Hunter here, especially in the gathering points, although we didn't see enough of these systems to know how the end products will be used. Both are handled competently enough in terms of the mini-games which they represent, however, as basic fishing equipment and a market garden are picked up fairly early on.
It continues to amaze me that I'm still such a sucker for a nicely implemented fishing mechanic, especially when the products of it are usually tertiary to requirements. Nier's take is fairly unforgiving to begin with, but had already worked its compulsive magic on me by the time I'd finished playing.
A strange mix of ingredients, and an ambitious one, but it remains to be seen whether they can be made to gel. The closest fit I can currently suggest is Final Fantasy spin-off The Crystal Bearers, although Nier's narrative drive doesn't fit with that game's focus on exploration and experimentation.
There's certainly a fair bit of tidying up to be done before Nier's proposed 23rd April release, not least on the bizarrely Vaseline-smeared visual style of our build, but Cavia could well pull something special out of the bag if the studio gets the balance right.