Nier is stuffed with ideas. It is first and foremost a role-playing game, but it incorporates elements from hack-and-slash swordfests, top-down shoot-'em-ups, two-dimensional platformers, and puzzle games. These elements coalesce nicely in the four or five concluding hours, when Nier drops interesting plot developments while giving you a chance to unleash powerful attacks on menacing-looking (if pushover) bosses. Unfortunately, the 25 or 30 hours leading up to that finale are abysmally paced and dreadfully boring. You don't feel you are the hero in a grand adventure as much as an ugly errand boy with bad hair and a sick daughter, wandering through the same uninspired environments over and over and coping with long stretches of nothing. That's a shame, because Nier's fantastic final hours and a few other graceful details pack some emotional punch. But in spite of its exciting coda and a bright fanfare or two, this action RPG is mostly a long and plodding symphony with too many rests and too few high notes.
The slow pace would be easier to endure if Nier's story drew you in, but the first half of the game offers precious little of substance to chew on. Your daughter Yonah suffers from a disease called the black scrawl, which is slowly killing her and looks to be connected to the lanky spirits called shades that are invading the region. Your character (you name him yourself) is concerned with one thing: to save Yonah from certain death. You encounter a few fascinating twists and uncover some insidious secrets about the old world, but these surprises come late in the game. The father is an uncomplicated and single-minded hero with little to say, yet little air of mystery either. He's also incredibly homely. Dad's triangular face, pronounced chin, and stiff hairdo make him one of the ugliest character models you've seen in years. Interesting protagonists needn't be attractive, of course, but Nier's leading man isn't interesting, or charming, or secretive, or complex, or anything else either. As a result, it's difficult to get invested in this man or his daughter, whom you really never get to know.
Fortunately, a few adventuring companions inject a bit of energy into the soggy story. The most important of them is a sentient book. His name is Grimoire Weiss (don't leave out the "Grimoire" part, unless you want him to deliver a tongue lashing), and he's the source of your magic spells. He's also the most interesting character in the game, and thankfully so, since he's also the most talkative. Weiss is an uppity relic of an unknown age with a British accent and an aggressively prudish attitude--a prep-school prefect with an encyclopedic memory and body shape. The laconic quips he occasionally drops might bring a smile to your face; a ridiculously melodramatic, page-flapping conversation Weiss has with another book, on the other hand, leads to the wrong kinds of laughs. Weiss' antithesis is Kaine, a moody, potty-mouthed young lady from a nearby village. Kaine isn't wholly unlikable, but her filthy language is astoundingly inappropriate for the setting. Nier takes place in the future, but the setting is part fantasy, part steampunk, and part Japanese myth. The profanity is unnecessary and comes across as a forced attempt to seem edgy. An insecure but good-hearted floating skeleton with a bulbous head rounds out your party and is at the center of Nier's most tender turn of events.
Sadly, these characters represent glimmers of personality in an otherwise unexciting world. There are a few sights with a bit of artistic flair, such as a village in the desert populated by masked eccentrics. You spend more time, however, in Nier's overlarge, unattractive green fields. Until you unlock a somewhat helpful quick-travel option later in the game, completing the dozens of side quests involves traipsing back and forth through the same few areas over and again. Go collect some recipe ingredients. Go slay some sheep and bring back the meat. Take this item to be fixed, and then search for the raw materials for the repair. Questing is a series of monotonous events, often connected only by long stretches of nothing. Do you want to upgrade your weapon? You must walk (or ride a boar) across a seemingly endless field and then climb up a series of ladders and trot down a bridge to get to the right shop--the only shop that exists in that area. Do you need to return to a local village populated by the paranoid? You must traverse a ridiculous network of ladders and walkways every time you visit. You spend far too much time traveling from place to place, desperately wishing something interesting would happen.
Nier is structured like many other role-playing games. You complete quests, gain levels, find and purchase new weapons, loot corpses, and so on. The combat, however, is of the Devil May Cry, hack-and-slash variety. You mash buttons to slice up enemies, double-jump and tumble, and charge up attacks to do a bit of extra damage. You also earn a variety of magic skills that you can assign to the bumpers and triggers, from a giant hand you can thwap enemies with, to a rotating whirlwind that damages most foes that come near you. The combat is functional, but it isn't exciting. Part of this has to do with the lack of enemy variety. Some clever bosses notwithstanding, you fight the same few types of shades, some robots, a few wolves, and a charging boar or two. (If you get frustrated by the boars' enormous, practically broken hitboxes, stand behind a boulder; the creatures will just charge into the rock and knock themselves out for a few seconds, over and over again.)
The biggest strike against the combat, however, is that it is incredibly easy. Mash a button, activate your whirlwind, and dodge every so often, and you've done everything you need to do. You're still unlocking tutorials for new combat moves 20 hours in, yet they seem to serve absolutely no point. You can improve your weapons by slotting in "words," which provide stat boosts and other enhancements the way charms or runes do in similar games. You can also upgrade your weapons by taking them to that out-of-the-way shop. But when you can already stab your way through every encounter, an even stabbier weapon is hardly a good reward for the hour of dreary resource grinding and tedious travel required.
Nier doesn't just fancy itself an RPG and an action game, however. It is, at various points, a puzzle adventure, a platformer, and a bullet-hell shooter as well. There are a few surprises in store, but they don't always end up being good ones. A series of puzzle rooms in which you lose access to various powers is a neat idea, but the sequence just goes on and on and on some more. Even worse are the frequent block-pushing puzzles that invade the game's second half. A couple of sequences all in text are neat at first, but they last far too long, describing fantastical events that you'd rather be experiencing than reading about. (You'll long for Lost Odyssey's similar but far superior dream sequences.) In certain areas, the camera perspective will shift to a top-down view, which is a pretty slick effect, and you'll fight meanies and avoid patterned streams of bullets from that angle. Playing with perspective is nice touch, but it doesn't always work out, particularly in a sequence inside a mansion, where the camera angles can keep you from seeing what you need to see. You see the best use of perspective shifting when you enter certain buildings, such as your own home or a seaside lighthouse. The camera swoops around, and you view the scene from the side as you would in a 2D platformer. It's a neat effect, made more magical by the beautiful warbles of the music that usually follows.
That the final few hours of Nier are compelling is a wonder, considering how boring the majority of the game is. Even here, there are a few missteps--more tedious ladder climbing and block pushing, along with a frustrating chase sequence up a winding flight of stairs. But the concluding stretch tightens up the pace and pits you against a few big bosses. These beasties aren't much more challenging than the kid stuff you defeat earlier in the game, but they're designed well and are great to look at. The change of scenery is also welcome, after staring at Nier's lifeless environments for so many hours. Most importantly, the story finally comes into its own. The conclusion would have had more impact had the tale not been so blunted by its simplicity and stilted pace. But the last battle concludes with some imagery that will get you thinking, and the unusual way the game transitions to a new-game-plus deserves kudos.
Nier's excellent soundtrack can get a bit overbearing, but its tumultuous choral refrains and lilting arias have infinitely more character than the flavorless visuals. Unfortunately, great music and a couple of entertaining hours aren't reason enough to slog through this leaden dirge. You get the impression that 10 hours of promising content was mercilessly stretched into a 30-hour marathon of fetch quests and squandered potential. If you're famished for something off the beaten path, Nier might seem like an attractive proposition, but be warned: this unfocused action RPG is less than the sum of its parts.