If you asked a dozen different gamers about their opinions on Cavia’s Nier, you would probably get a dozen very distinct answers. It’s an action-RPG that is both medieval fantasy and post-apocalyptic. It’s a hack ‘n’ slash, but it also contains elements of bullet hell, survival horror, and even a text adventure. It’s terribly unpolished and unrelentingly depressing, yet still poignant and hauntingly beautiful. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a cult classic, an unbearable slog, or an unappreciated masterpiece.
However, there is one thing that everyone can agree on: The music is gorgeous.
In fact, if the soundtrack has any major flaw, it’s that it is too good. Keiichi Okabe’s compositions threaten to overpower the mediocre gameplay and bland graphics, while each new song is so effective that it buries the brilliance of the last. For example, the track “Hills of Radiant Wind” (above) would be an absolute showstopper in any other work, but here it functions as your average, everyday “walking around” music. Most soundtracks juxtapose more mundane pieces with energetic or heartbreaking climaxes in order to facilitate rising action and highlight defining moments. Nier ignores that technique and just makes every song great.
You may have noticed that one of the OST’s defining characteristics is the usage of ethereal vocals. The lyrics were penned by Emi Evans, who is also known for her contributions to the Etrian Odyssey series and her own band. The words themselves are essentially gibberish–Evans used existing languages as a template to fabricate evocative sounds from whole cloth. The development team gave her so much creative freedom that some songs were even altered to fit her creations. Over the course of the 3 years it took the project to come together, some aspects of the game itself were even changed to accommodate the masterful score.
It is actually pretty difficult to overstate how successful the final product turned out. As a game, Nier was critically divisive and commercially unimpressive. Cavia ceased to exist as its own company a mere 2 months after its release. Meanwhile, the original soundtrack album and several arrangement compilations were so popular that they actually charted in Japan. You can even pick up both the OST and “Nightmares & Arrange Tracks” on iTunes right now.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the power of Okabe’s compositions is that they hold up even when divorced from their trademark singing. Check out the official Square Enix 8-bit medley “The Legend of Nier: 8-bit Heroes” (below) and tell me that it doesn’t match the greatest chiptune arrangements ever written for a SNES JRPG. It even contains the rare example of real English words being spoken, courtesy of “Ashes of Dreams” (French, Gaelic, and Japanese versions are also available). Of course, it would be pretty difficult to ruin source material as strong as “Grandma,” “Song of the Ancients / Devola,” and “Shadowlord.”
Say what you will about the video game attached to these tunes. Nier is a fascinating mess, and I would never imply otherwise. Still, I dare anyone to argue that the soundtrack doesn’t rank among the medium’s elite.
Music Mondays is a weekly column by Austin Yorski and Robert Heck dedicated to discussing the most interesting audio experiences in electronic interactive media. Tune in every week for more original game soundtracks that you need to hear. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback.