This discussion will spoil aspects of the entire game. Don’t read any of it unless you’ve completed the whole game or want something spoiled.
Let me preface this by saying that I love this game. I think it’s great, and it gets so many things so right that I think the good outweighs the bad by a wide margin. That being said, I think the game’s been out for long enough that we can start to give it some constructive criticism. I’ll start with my issues, and I hope we can have a nice discussion about the game as a result. Obviously, not all of what I say is going to be new, and maybe I’m missing some pieces of the puzzle, so hopefully you can help me figure things out. But let’s begin.
-Flying sections: One of the more novel concepts of the entire game was the flying shmup sections. It’s just a shame that they mostly fell flat. The opening segment when 2B fights her way into the factory is great and definitely hits the nail on the head. The tension is just right because of how new the whole game feels, and it mixes perceived challenge and novelty with safety in a really effective way. It’s sad, then, to see that the flying sections don't get much more complex than that. 9S’s opening flying segment is cool (and also the one exception to what I just said) because it’s not on rails, and the hacking minigame is brand new to the player as well. I’m not entirely sure why they couldn’t add more novelty to the rest of the segments as well. The “lost child” boss sequence is especially disappointing from a gameplay stance. The sheer spectacle of the whole thing almost makes up for it, but when all you’re doing is holding a couple buttons down for like 5 minutes straight, no amount of spectacle will really make boring gameplay great. I’m no expert on shmups, but I believe some of the appeal of the genre comes from the sense of danger, because your player character is so vulnerable. That’s not really the case in Nier, unless you’re playing on Very Hard, but that’s just adding difficulty to the whole experience.
-Hacking: I’ll remember the boss fight with Simone for a long time because of how out-of-the-blue the hacking minigame is right in the middle of a seemingly normal encounter. There’s no indication that it’s going to happen, and it mixes the fight up so well that I had a big dumb grin on my face for the whole rest of the fight. Unfortunately, though, hacking doesn’t get much more creative than that first encounter for the rest of the game. My feelings on this aspect of the game are actually pretty complex, so I’m gonna break it down into a pros and cons list.
Pros: -The feeling of danger I said the flying sections lacked is actually present with hacking. A lack of healing options gives each hacking encounter high enough stakes for the situation, and getting kicked out, injured in the actual game, and forced to start over is enough incentive to make the player want to git gud.
-Along the same lines, a time limit ups the stakes in an interesting way, and it forces the player to be more aggressive. -There’s an ok amount of variety in the different units you fight and the hazards you face. Again, it’s ok. Not great. I’ll say more in the cons. -Ending E's shmup sequence is absolutely genius, and the rest of the hacking sections could’ve used that kind of creative spark. -Hacking as an aspect of the game was versatile enough to be used not just for combat, but for pushing the narrative forward as well. Props for that. Good way to meld story and mechanics to make the whole experience feel more cohesive.
Cons: -It gets repetitive pretty quick. At the end of the day, every hacking section amounts to getting a ball’s shield down and blowing it up. Sometimes there isn’t a shield. Sometimes there are several balls. Sometimes there are varied hazards. I just don’t think the concept was explored as fully as it could’ve been. What if some of the hazards didn’t just hurt you? What if they reversed your controls or altered your visuals in the same way as the EMP enemies did? What if the plane you’re on dynamically shifted in some way? Those are just a couple of examples I came up with right now, and I’m sure giving it more thought would yield even better ideas. Challenge doesn’t have to come just from the immediate risk of damage. -The difficulty curve isn’t amazing with hacking. I didn’t immediately pick up on the fact that you could move and aim independently (this is partially my fault for not exploring the possibility, and I don’t really hold it against the game), but once I figured that out, anything past the basic version of the minigame became variations on basically the same thing, and it never really got that much harder. -Its use is inconsistent and kind of canon-breaking. Why can’t I hack the locked boxes as 2B, but as A2 it’s just taken for granted that the Pod can take over and hack for her? If A2 can do it, why can’t 2B? They’re supposed to have very similar abilities. I spent my whole first play through frustrated that I couldn’t get into those boxes, and A2 just hacks into 9S like it’s nothing. I’m nitpicking, but it’s kind of a slap in the face to the player. Is 2B just too dumb to ask Pod to try and hack the boxes? I get that they needed a way of locking information away from the player until after the first route, but there are better ways of going about it.
-Quality of boss fights: First off, some of the bosses in this game are amazing. Like I said earlier, Simone is an incredible fight. The first Engels unit in the prologue was also amazing, as well as an impressive first taste of the game. The fight with the sphere goliath in the factory is probably my favorite moment of the whole game. Not all the fights are equally thrilling though.
As interesting as I think Adam and Eve are thematically and narratively, I really wasn’t impressed by their fights. The first one is just a bit more than a glorified cutscene, the fight in the alien ship is there for exposition and isn’t super fun either. The fight with Adam in the Copied City is disappointing in how predictable it is. The fact that you’re able to attack him from afar, perfect dodge, punish and juggle him, and potentially slow down time in the process (depending on your chip setup) really puts to shame the amount of spectacle he can provide. Coming from Platinum, the kings of flashy combat (and especially boss fights), this is pretty disappointing.
Eve wasn’t great either. You could (with a degree of validity) argue that the fight with him is at a point when he’s enraged and probably not at the peak of his creativity, but come on. He’s the last boss of the first two routes of the game, AND he’s in control of the machine network. I’m sure there’s a better way to show this than by giving him big dumb arms made up of robot scraps. Despite the narrative twist of losing control of your weapons, It didn’t FEEL like a final boss either time. Hacking with 9S provided an extra level of flair to it, but it never felt final. Maybe that’s the point though, and you’re supposed to want something more climactic. I dunno.
Like I said before, the lost child machine is awesome narratively, but ultimately not interesting gameplay-wise.
A2 was just boring. She came out of nowhere and didn’t do enough interesting things to feel justified as a boss.
And here’s what I think was the worst part. Fighting her again as the last boss from 9S’s perspective is almost the same fight as before. The whole last arc of the game has led up to this moment, and it’s just a retread of a fight half the game ago? That’s…not good. Thankfully, fighting 9S as A2 is a much different experience. He throws enough curveballs at you right from the start of the fight that it keeps you on your toes throughout the whole thing. Again, I wish it were a bit more interesting and more reflective of his state of mind (maybe in the way he hacks you or something, I dunno), but it’s better than playing the fight the other way around.
A decent portion of the bosses are also just passable. Fighting 9S’s operator and the brother machines is cool narratively, but also not super interesting.
I think my problem with a lot of the bosses is that they’re just fights. A great boss fight (or just fight in general) takes what you know about the game’s mechanics and either adds something new or recontextualizes what you knew in a way that you hadn’t thought of before. This is why I love the fight with Simone so much. First off, her fight is based AROUND the song, and many of her attacks are rhythmic, which wasn’t seen before that point in the game. And then she tries to hack you. The whole screen changes, the music shifts into 8-bit mode, and the player’s thrown into a completely unfamiliar situation. I was scared, intrigued, and excited all at the same time. And then she’s trying to hack the player from multiple enemies at the same time. Then she does all of that at the same time, while also revealing a monster head under her dress and freaking out, pushing the plot and raising the fight’s tension to peak levels. It’s so well done that it makes some of the other fights kind of sad in hindsight.
I might as well talk about the favorite moment I mentioned before as well. The segment with the religious machines in the factory is such an expertly crafted arc. It’s great. The game has shown that this situation could go either way at this point. I was thinking “How is this going to go wrong?” in that moment. Sure enough, all hell breaks loose, and the mixture of a chaotic situation, chilling and tense music playing in the background, and visuals depicting religious violence, confusion, and fear all contribute to an amazing set piece. And then you add in the context of multiple runs of this portion of the game and see what both 2B and 9S are doing at the same time to get a great idea of the way they can work as a team. It all culminates with the goliath fight, with (in my opinion) the best track of the game, a fun fight, and a great moment when the lights go out. This is an amazing example of how narrative, gameplay, and music can all work together to create something that's more than the sum of its parts. Really grade-A stuff. This is why I felt so let down by some of the other fights. When a few bosses set the bar so high, the rest really stick out in a bad way.
-Enemy variety: First off, I’m not talking about the main mobs. I understand that there’s a lot of repetition in the basic enemies’ designs, and the fact that they become more varied as the game goes on serves the narrative well. The biggest gripe I have about enemy variety has to do with some of the larger enemies and a few of the bosses. The first sphere goliath is great, but seeing almost the same thing again so soon afterwards is a little disappointing, although the whole electrified water aspect is a nice touch. Then seeing A2 fight a bunch of those things combined together is…alright. It’s not bad and it’s not great. But so many other things could have been done there. Then to see A2 and 9S fighting more retreads of the same enemy isn’t great. Maybe I was just not paying enough attention, but my first time through, I thought I was fighting the same robot as both 9S and A2. It wasn’t until they combined that I realized that they had been two separate machines, and I think the narrative was served by combining them and making the player fight the new machine as both androids. I think the game would’ve been served better had the devs created a new design for both of those goliaths. It was too late into the narrative to reskin an old boss TWICE. It was too important of a moment for that. It felt like a rare example of budgetary restrictions in a game that mostly seemed like Yoko Taro being set free from the original Nier’s issues.
And that brings me to what I feel is the most egregious offender of them all: the second Emil fight. The multiple Emil copies are a RESKIN of a MODIFIED version of ANOTHER boss that had THREE OTHER reskins. For something that should’ve had much more emotional weight, especially after the player has put in the work to beat Emil’s first form, it felt like a huge let down not to have something more original. I get that it sucks for devs to lock wholly original content away from players who don’t find out about it or who don’t want to put the time into getting there, but Emil is too iconic not to treat with more care. I really put in the effort of finding and upgrading all these weapons for this fight? Feels like a ripoff. If Dark Souls can hide two entire areas from new players and get away with it, Platinum can create a completely novel superboss.
Maybe your opinion on this is different. Please convince me I’m wrong.
-Other gameplay ideas that needed more care: There are a few other gameplay aspects that I feel needed more love. The first one is side quests. Simply put, there’s no reason to make so many of them of them fetch quests. Just cut them out. I get (and appreciate) that the side quests add extra depth to the story, but if they don’t add anything interesting to the gameplay, you should really ask yourself if that plot could be exposed in a different way. A game that doesn’t do much but that does everything well will be remembered as being great, but a game that spreads out an experience too thin with debatable logic isn’t remembered as fondly. This isn’t a huge deal, though, because I do think the added plot and world building the side quests provide outweigh the sometimes repetitive nature of the quests themselves.
Next up is the status effects. They’re used really effectively in the one main sequence they show up for, but after that…they almost disappear. I’m also left wondering why they show up all at once, and then disappear all at once. Taro and Platinum obviously put some thought into it, because the game lets you buy remedy items before the sequence happens, but if they show up twice throughout the whole game, what’s the point? Ease players into the concept, find a better way of integrating them into those two sequences, or cut them out of the game entirely.
A minor gripe that ended up being way more frustrating than it should’ve been was the ambiguity of collision and invisible walls. This is 2017. If there’s a hole in a building that I can fit through, an invisible wall should not stop me. Games solved this years ago. For example, The Last of Us was able to wall players off from going anywhere in a way that made complete sense in the game world and that didn’t feel jarring at all. I understand that The Last of Us deals with much smaller spaces than Nier, but when you decide to make a semi-open world game, you sign up for all the issues that need to be resolved. I lost count of all the times I was just pushed off of a surface that looked completely accessible. If you don’t want a player going somewhere, put an actual wall there. I mean even the idea of the strong desert wind they ripped straight from Journey was better than the unabashed invisible walls in certain places.
-And now for a couple nitpicks that prove I’m a bad person: A2 as a character feels underdeveloped. There’s not enough difference between her and 2B, and she’s left feeling like more of a reskin and less of a different character. Her dash is cool looking, but I can’t figure out if there’s an actual use for it. Is there? Please help me out. Taunting is nice if that’s your thing, but I think locking it away to one character in particular is kind of silly.
Another small nitpick with A2 is that using her long hair “wig” actually functions as just a wig in the game. If you look closely at the back of her head (while fishing, for example), you’ll notice her short hair model peaking out through the long hair. Why? Her hair is definitely a separate object from her body, so why not just swap the hair models when the wig item is equipped? Such an odd decision. As an artist, I get super annoyed by dumb little things like this.
Anyway, I think that’s all I have for now. I know that was super long winded, but I love this game, and I hate to see so many issues with an experience that otherwise was so fun and thought provoking. With all that said, what are your thoughts? Do my arguments hold up, or am I missing something? What things would you have done differently with the game? And if you want to gush about the game too, go right ahead. Let’s have a nice, big discussion.