Nier is a game that is kind of unusual in structure but which would easily and quickly win a game of jRPG Trope Bingo. You briefly enjoy a text-adventure boss fight, but you then visit Desert Town and grind for items for villagers. Kaine might curse a bit, but her armor is not only beyond impractical, it’s somehow a plot point that she gets stabbed in the chest on three separate occasions. Boy, some armor would be really helpful in a situation like that!
One problem with the game’s structure is the dungeons. Like many games, you venture into dungeons to grab Macguffins, unlock new powers and fight gigantic bosses. In Zelda games, you get your new ability about halfway through the dungeon and you’re forced to use it to overcome the obstacles of the dungeon. In Nier, you wander through hallways, fight the same enemies over and over, take on the Big Boss and then you get a fancy new ability. Zelda uses dungeons as a training ground for new abilities; Nier’s dungeons are just filler. Zelda bosses have a specific weakness to whatever new weapon you’ve acquired; Nier asks you to take a wild fucking guess at the best strategy at defeating a boss through trial and error, and then asks you to go through the entire process three more times to see All The Endings.
I ragequit Nier twice during boss battles where the bosses spam magic bullets at you with very little chance of evasion. There’s a hard limit on how many healing items you can carry and no chance to replenish before facing the boss. Very, very few enemies require the same sort of tactics you’ll use on a boss. Zelda teaches you how to defeat a boss through its dungeon structure. Nier throws you into the dungeon and gives you a gimmick boss and dares you to get it right on your first try.
I did finish the game, but mostly because of the setting. There are only about eight locations in the world, which makes for a smaller, relaxed and more intimate scope. After a certain point, the protagonist mentions the world is in decline, and it seems like a well-supported conclusion. You visit the towns, see how they struggle to get by and understand how the frontier is pressing in on them throughout your travels. In the early acts of the game, it’s a quick journey through frontier areas to visit each town. A few quests challenge you to reach another town without dodging enemies or getting hit, which is feasible in the wide-open spaces linking locations. Once the enemies ramp up, venturing into the field is legitimately dangerous with tons of enemies spamming magic and swarming over you. Unfortunately, the limited scope backfires when Act II ends up repeating Act I scene-for-scene in almost the exact same order.
There’s also a nonsense plot, vaguely explained, about um, Shades? Betrayals where the bad guys spend 90% of their time straight-up helping you destroy their plans? “Sacrifice”? Whatever. Rest assured, this is a game where you Kill Bad Guys with a sword and then, after all the killing, the game tries to pretend you’re the real monster.
I was told that Nier subverted design tropes, that it was a meta-RPG, that it Tackled The System. It doesn’t. You kill bad guys, you get stronger. If it wanted to do something different besides a tacked-on text adventure, which in all honesty seems like a level sequence that got cut, it could have tried going backwards. If the game is about the decline of a world and the disappearance of humans, wouldn’t it make more sense to start with a horrifically strong protagonist with a ton of abilities, who gradually loses those abilities as his world collapses around him? A game where you lean on your abilities until they are taken away from you and then you are left only with the skill you’ve acquired over the course of playing the game? A game where your strength can’t save the world, not even once? A game where destiny is final and can’t be rewritten by The Chosen One? That would go a lot further toward subverting jRPG tropes than having a sassy sidekick complain about fetch quests.