“The end has never felt so close…”
For many people, 2017’s NieR: Automata was their first exposure to the phenomenal and kooky gaming auteur that is Yoko Taro. This eccentric designer, known for his whimsical public appearances (hello Terrifying Moon Mask!) and his deconstruction-laden narratives, has been putting out his own brand of existential weirdness for over twenty years, first coming to notice with the eccentric and disturbing Action RPG Drag-on Dragoon (or Drakengard, as it’s known here in the West). This flawed yet unforgettable PlayStation 2 exclusive first showed many of the prototypical elements that typified Taro’s design philosophy: multiple endings, occasional nightmarish visuals, the nature of violence and warfare, and questioning just what sort of person would be required to kill hordes of enemies every single day of their lives.
Yet sadly, as would be the case for much of Taro’s career, the game’s incredible story had issues with it’s middling and repetitive gameplay. For whatever reason, Taro was never able to marshal all of his ideas into a straight row to create a game that was both provocative and fun to play… at least until he teamed up with the people from Platinum Games for Automata. That game was a massive success, and now Taro has gone back and redone the first game in the NieR series, one that originated many of the ideas that would become more famous in its sequel… and he largely succeeds.
What Is It?
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… (and that is the LAST time I am referring to it by it’s full title) is the most recent release in the ever-evolving Drakengard/NieR universe created by designer Yoko Taro. A remaster/remake of the original 2011 title (it’s complicated), this particular production attempts to re-engineer some of the significant gameplay issues that its ancestor suffered from. Among other improvements include sharper graphics and textures, a more comprehensive and responsive control scheme, and full audio for every bit of dialogue in the game (random NPCs included).
Story-wise, you play as a young man named Nier (or whatever name you decide to give him). In a hellish, apocalyptic near future, you and your young sister Yonah attempt to eke out a harrowing existence in an abandoned supermarket, trying to protect her from a group of vicious monsters called Shades. You don’t know where these creatures came from, but all you know is that the world outside is a dead, snow-covered hellscape, and you are all that stands between death and possible survival for you and Yonah, who is slowly succumbing to a mysterious disease.
Fast forward 1,000+ years. You are a young man named Nier (or whatever name you decide to give him). In a pastoral, primitive world, you and your young sister Yonah attempt to eke out a harrowing existence in a small, walled-off village near the ocean, trying to protect yourself and others against a group of vicious monsters called Shades. You don’t know where these creatures came from, but they are slowly spreading faster and faster every single day and you are all that stands between death and possible survival for you and Yonah, who is slowly succumbing to a mysterious disease.
No, I didn’t just repeat the same paragraph. That’s actually how the game begins. Welcome to Yoko Taro’s universe. It’ll make a lot more sense in context.
Why Should I Care?
Let’s start with the basics: This is a remake/remaster of the original 2010 cult hit, which itself was given an incredibly limited release over here stateside for the Xbox 360. That version game featured Nier as a grizzled middle-aged father, rather than the young man as he appears here. The reason this was done originally was largely for marketing purposes (since it was thought that pretty-boy protagonists didn’t sell as well State-side). The version we have here is largely the Japanese version, wherein Nier was always the older brother.
Of course, the former isn’t really a ‘change’ so much as a ‘restoration.’ So then, what actual changes does this version have? Well, the first and most obvious is the combat: the original’s combat mechanics were ambitious, but largely clunky and at times unresponsive. This time, now that Taro and co. have the experience of Automata under their belts, they’ve been able to go back to the drawing board and greatly refine the combat of the original, creating a seamless and spectacle-heavy combat system that is both flashy and fun, largely replicating the combat of Automata for its predecessor; If you’ve played the former, you’ll be able to pick this up pretty quickly. Features that were absent in the original, like lock-on mechanics, also offer a drastic improvement to the original.
But other than that, you’ll also experience another draw to the NieR series: the genre changing. Although an Action RPG on the surface, NieR Replicant regularly switches its camera angles to change things up to different types of gameplay: shift the camera to a top-down view while riding a mining cart, and the game becomes a twin-stick on-rails shooter. Switch it to an isometric view, and it suddenly becomes a Diablo clone. Sometimes, the game will surrender graphics altogether and become a text adventure. Granted, the game doesn’t embrace these elements quite as much as its sequel, but this is where they originated.
Then, of course, there’s draw to all of Yoko Taro’s games: the story. In your travels, you will come across a number of unique characters, all with their own histories and traumas to bear. You’ll meet Kaine, the pale and lithe dual-wielding swordswoman with the foul mouth and little clothing (there’s a reason for that). You meet Emil, the gentle boy living in a Victorian estate with eyes that can turns others to stone (there’s a reason for that). There’s even a young king of a desert tribe who live in a walled-city obsessed with rules and regulations and speak a jumbled version of Japanese hiragana (…I got nothing), and of course, there’s Grimoire Weiss, your dour and proper companion who takes the form of a flying book, and is the catalyst for all of your magical attacks.
But there’s also the dark side, as is always the case with Yoko Taro’s games and just as it was with NieR‘s sequel, the revelations here come heavy, hard, and absolutely devastating (people call this the JRPG equivalent of Spec Ops: The Line for a reason). The fact that there’s even a brand new ending in this version (where you actually get to play Kaine herself) is just the cherry on top.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
I mentioned earlier this was a remaster/remake, but that particular label only goes so far. In this game’s case, although significant gameplay and quality of life improvements have been made, the game does still carry the guts of a PS3/Xbox 360 generation production. Some of the character models are still very bland, some textures are still a little muddy, and the overall game flow of ‘get missions, go to place, get item, return to place’ is still very much a thing here. I also occasionally encountered some rather obvious graphical clipping in places (weapons going through cloaks, etc.).
One major issue that this game has (and which was fixed with its sequel) is that lack of fast-travel. Granted, the overworld of NieR Replicant isn’t quite THAT large (and your character can keep running without slowing down), but considering how much backtracking the game has, a lack of fast-travel can be quite annoying. Now, technically there is a fast-travel mechanic (a ferryman who will take you to four or five maps in the game), but said ferryman becomes a plot point midway through the game and is out of commission for some time…so for all intents and purposes, you have no fast-travel for the majority of the game.
But honestly, this game is really more than the sum of its parts. The overall experience, from the character development, the devastating and mind-reeling revelations that plot throws at you, and even the new bits of content specially made for this game make it worthwhile.
And in case you’re wondering: that mask Yoko Taro wears? Yes, it originated from this game. Sweet dreams, kids!