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.
The flat lighting and color palette make everything look washed out.
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.
Oh joy! Another block-pushing puzzle!
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.