When the original NieR first released in April of 2010, critics were not kind to it. The game was swamped with middling review scores, with many critics citing repetitive combat, tedious side quests, drab environments, and excessive backtracking. Despite this, NieR garnered a sizeable cult following, as many fell in love with its emotional, layered story that often bucked the conventions of the gaming medium. This positive response was strong enough that it contributed to the creation of NieR: Automata, a sequel that became a surprise hit both critically and commercially, and NieR Replicant Ver. 1.22474487139, a remake of the original game with added featured and refined combat mechanics. What makes the success of NieR so fascinating is that it happened largely in spite of its gameplay, which even diehard fans of the game admit is not its strong suit. Whether intended or not, NieR makes a strong case that good gameplay is not everything, especially if a game has larger goals in mind.
Acknowledging the Potential Faults
Of course, flaws are flaws, and if a game has controversial or unsavory elements that could potentially dampen the experience, it’s worth pointing them out. While the combat is perfectly serviceable, there is not much to experiment with other than basic attack strings, ranged auto-fire, and magic spells, and even the Replicant remake only does so much to improve this aspect. Coupled with low enemy variety, it’s likely that many players will become bored by the lack of evolution in the combat. While the world can be seen as either drab or beautiful depending on the perspective, it is fairly small in scale, and players are expected to visit locations several times before the game’s conclusion. As a result, many players will and have grown tired of the game’s exploration, especially since many side quests involve simply taking an item from one area of the map to another. The original version also suffered from a general lack of polish; the framerate often tanked during busy sequences, and certain quality-of-life features, such as a lock-on mechanic, were missing entirely. For players who heavily value the moment-to-moment playing experience, NieR’s rough edges may kill any drive they have for seeing it through to the end.
Where NieR’s Priorities Lie
But it is important to consider that NieR is not necessarily striving to be a great action RPG. That is not to say that the developers neglected the gameplay or made it deliberately unenjoyable; the game is still competently made, and it features a unique blend of genres and perspective tricks that demonstrate a real sense of playfulness by the designers. In the end, however, storytelling and atmosphere constitute NieR’s primary focus, and it’s here where the game succeeds in flying colors. NieR takes its main characters through a rollercoaster of an emotional journey, with tragic events and tests of will coming at seemingly every turn, and it’s inherently engaging to witness how they develop and cope with their struggles. The game consistently messes with player expectations, as the bizarre gameplay shifts and pivotal narrative story beats ensure that players never feel entirely certain over what lies ahead. The soundtrack, with its powerful orchestral punch and its otherworldly vocal performances, is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and it perfectly accentuates every environment, climactic moment, and emotional scene. It’s safe to say that many players will not be pondering over every little gameplay niggle during most of the playthrough — they will be thinking about these elements instead.
For this reason, the gameplay in NieR quickly becomes a vehicle for players to experience the story and world rather than an element viewed in isolation. Many players will not want to visit the first dungeon to see what kind of puzzles it offers—they will want to visit the first dungeon to save the protagonist’s daughter. These players will not want to fight the wolf boss to test their combat skills—they will want to fight the wolf boss to avenge the death of a character they cared about. These players will not want to reach every ending to attain 100% completion or fill out the achievement list—they will want to reach every ending to witness how what were once thought to be the game’s enemies have been affected by the player character’s actions and question whether or not those actions were justified. The gameplay may have flaws, but it still functions with a baseline level of competency, so it nonetheless succeeds in serving as a subconscious motivator that makes these story moments hit all the harder.
The Late-Game Twist
The aforementioned journey to reach every ending in NieR also at least partially justifies the lack of intricacy in the gameplay. When beating the first playthrough and replaying the second half to accomplish this goal, players find out that they have been slaughtering the last remnants of the human race en masse the whole time, and this revelation places the combat mechanics in a different light. In an action game like Devil May Cry, the enemies are clearly not intended to be sympathetic. They are simply foils for players to slice up, and the lack of moral complexity associated with the enemies allows players to dedicate more mental bandwidth to the intricate combat mechanics and how to best make use of them.
NieR, on the other hand, goes out of its way to demonstrate the severe emotional and humanitarian costs of the protagonist’s actions, and if players were encouraged to juggle enemies or learn animation cancels, then the game’s narrative themes and messages would be noticeably undercut. Of course, the developers cannot control the degree to which players enjoy certain gameplay systems, and this is not to suggest that the developers deliberately made the combat unfun. But making the combat relatively simple, even in the Replicant remake, was ultimately the right choice, as the gameplay rarely distracts from the themes and emotional weight of the narrative.
Making a video game is complicated, and there is way more to consider than just making the gameplay enjoyable. Obviously, the more polished and nuanced the gameplay systems are, the more likely players are going to enjoy the title on a surface level, but it’s important to think about the game’s larger goals. Is it focused on telling a powerful narrative above all else? If so, then designing the gameplay to fit with the narrative is crucial, even if it means making the gameplay less enjoyable on a moment-to-moment basis. Despite some of its real faults, NieR’s simplistic gameplay demonstrates the validity of this approach, and judging by the series the title spawned and the overwhelming praise it has garnered, this type of unconventional design can pay off big.