You can tell a lot about a game by its name. Nier, for example, is a collection of perfectly fine letters arranged in a nonsensical way. The arranger could have done worse (Iern, Rnei, Einr), and also much better (Erin, Rein). Just like its name, Nier could have been rearranged into a much more lucid, meaningful game. As it stands, this Japanese action/RPG/shooter/adventure seems odd for oddity's sake.
Take the story, for instance. Nier begins in a desolate, ash-strewn city where a man uses a pipe to protect his daughter from monsters that look like they're made of raffle tickets, or TV static. As the man, you bash roughly 200 of these monsters, go from level 1 to 30, and unlock like 4 different magical powers. You use these to defeat a boss, before returning to your daughter's side. She's sick, and you lamely call for help, but no one is around. This all takes about 15 minutes.
Flash forward 1300 years…and the same story appears to begin again. Except you're in a fantasy world, not a destroyed metropolis, and you're wearing leather straps and armor instead of a tattered hoodie. Your daughter is still sick, and you need to find a cure. So why did you have to play through that fifteen minute intro? There are answers as well as clues, and the developers want you to doggedly search for them, but they don't weave a compelling enough mystery to keep you on its trail.
That's because the real story - the part you can sink your teeth into - is so boring. You look like a buff, leather daddy version of Christopher Lloyd, and you live in a terrible world where your daughter is sick and you need to help her. So, you run all over the place, chasing down leads before you finally encounter a talking book which just happens to be the cure to all the world's ills, including your daughter's. So you and this book have to go around finding its lost verses. Things pick up when you run into a hot woman warrior who wears nothing but a teddy, then quickly droop again when you find out she's a hermaphrodite. Yes, way to give the female lead a penis.
But Nier isn't pure disappointment. The game's engine is outstanding. It always runs at 60 frames per second, and uses those frames to render awesome environments. And what's better, the designers at Cavia really put it to work by shifting the perspective all over the place. One minute you're running across a bridge toward an incredible floating temple, the next you're side-scroll hopping through a 2D maze, before fighting enemies from a top-down perspective in an antechamber. Nier does a great job of shifting from one interesting perspective to another without ever missing a beat.
You, on the other hand, will miss lots of beats, because Nier's game mechanics aren't nearly as well-oiled as its engine. For instance, early on the game told me I needed to push a box against a wall and climb a broken ladder. So I did what I thought was right, pushed the box to the spot and jumped to grab the ladder. Nothing happened. So I readjusted the box more, looked for other places to push it, moved it back to the ladder spot, nothing. Only by accident did I discover that a double jump would send me over the wall. This was a slight miscue, but the beginning of a trend.
Later, I found myself in a city where I needed to get to the King's hut, so I ran across a long ramp then climbed down a ladder. This led me in a linear path all over town and finally - to a dead end. I retraced my steps three or four times before finding another incredibly discreet ladder not far from the first one I climbed - and this ladder took me directly to the king's hut. This was another miscue that caused me to waste nearly a half hour barking up the wrong tree.
The point of these two examples is to point out that Nier is always designed to be intuitive. It doesn't anticipate your actions, nor does it use clues and other game design techniques to lead you down the correct path. As a result, you will occasionally find yourself stuck without any idea what to do.
You can always attempt one of the side quests you pick up from townspeople, though these are designed just as poorly as the main quests. For instance, the fishing mini-game in Nier is the worst fishing mini-game ever. Not only are its instructions inadequate, but your margin for error is minuscule! In my first hour of fishing, I landed an aquatic plant and a rusty bucket. And instead of giving you helpful hints, the game says "Try moving in the opposite direction as the fish." It says that every second time you fail to land a fish, and I think I failed like 200 times. I could not master fishing, and neither could Nier.
And yet the combat is fine. Cavia couldn't design a good fishing mechanic, and yet they managed to build an unorthodox yet intuitive combat engine. You can slash, block, dodge and use magic. Better yet, the magic actually turns Nier into a bit of a third-person shooter. So you might slash away at a giant salamander's hand, then when he scurries up the wall, you'll unleash a barrage of dark magic, or possibly a huge pink energy spike. The combat isn't deep, but this unusual synthesis of shooting and slashing is something few other games attempt.
Ultimately, Nier is more remarkable for the things it does wrong than for the things it does right. Its unique combat model and smooth engine are eclipsed by a boring and convoluted plot about weird and unappealing characters who don't know how to fish to save their lives. Worst of all, its regular lapses of logic will leave you lost and frustrated. Sure, Nier could be much worse, but to be worth your money, it needs to be a lot better.