Summer, 2053: it’s snowing. A young boy watches over his sickly little sister in a bombed out convenience store, they haven’t eaten in days. In the parking lot, hundreds of ghostly monsters appear and the boy attempts to defend his sister. Beaten within an inch of his life, the child makes a pact with an evil tome and eventually drives back the beasts. It was all in vain, however, as afterwards he watches in horror as his sister finally succumbs to her illness. 1,412 years later, another boy takes care of his bedridden sister by doing odd jobs around their village. As Yonah’s illness, the Black Scrawl, grows worse, the elder brother must journey out into the world to find a cure.
NieR (originally released in 2010) is quite possibly my favorite piece of media ever made. It’s a deeply tragic tale with a hopeful core and unforgettable characters. It’s also not a very good game. The combat is awful, the performance is shoddy at best, the camera hardly functions, the quests are tedious and repetitive, it’s a very, very flawed game that I love very, very much. A few days after I finished it for the first time, what would eventually be known as NieR Automata was teased at E3 and, while the reception of SquareEnix’s 2015 presentation was lukewarm at best, I was ecstatic. A sequel to a niche, critically panned spinoff of a joke ending to an equally critically panned and niche series? With help from the masters of combat at Platinum Games? Sign me up! If you take a look at my author bio below, you’ll see I definitely wasn’t disappointed. However, there’s still something about the original NieR that makes me like it just a smidge more than Automata, even though it is objectively a better video game. Maybe it was the soundtrack, the fact that it was my first experience with Yoko Taro’s work, or Kainé, Emil, Weiss, and the protagonist’s incredible rapport (it’s that one). There’s just something about the first game that really resonated with me, even more so than Automata.
Eleven years after it’s original release, NieR is getting a second chance in the form of NieR Replicant Ver. 1.22474487139… (we’ll just shorten that to 1.22 from now on). While the only version of NieR we got in the west followed a father saving his daughter, there were actually two editions in Japan: Gestalt and Replicant. Gestalt was the version we got, while Replicant instead followed an older brother protecting his sister. Replicant is the only version being remade (with a tease of Papa NieR being added as DLC), so I was very excited to dive into one of my favorite games with a new perspective.
NieR Replicant ver. 1.22 follows an unnamed protagonist (apparently his name isn’t Nier, so I’ll just call him Yorha) who is searching for a cure to his sister’s terminal illness. After a series of events involving the search for a flower called a Lunar Tear, he encounters Grimoire Weiss; a magic book who grants Yorha the ability to use magic. According to the village’s matriarchal twins, Devola and Popola, Weiss is fated to do battle with Grimoire Noir over the Sealed Verses, which can coincidentally cure the Black Scrawl. When battling the monstrous Shades that infest the land, Yorha can make use of three types of weapons: one-handed swords, two-handed swords, and spears. One-handed swords are quick but don’t deal too much damage, two-handed swords pack quite a punch but are very slow, and spears are the best of both worlds. This was true in the original and is still the case here for the most part: once you gain access to spears, there’s no reason to use anything else. In particular, the Phoenix Spear is far and away the best weapon in the game which you can easily purchase from the desert city Facade.
Aside from that, combat feels much, much better in this self described “version up.” You can perform combos with light and heavy attacks using square and triangle, block and execute a very satisfying parry with L2, dodge with R2, and use Weiss’ magic with L1 and R1. While his basic projectile, Dark Blast, is what you’ll be using a majority of the time there’s one major change that makes other spells like Dark Lance and Dark Phantasm much more useful; you can move while you charge them. Along with the addition of a lock-on, this brings some much needed diversity to combat. Instead of simply holding and occasionally releasing the button for Dark Blast, I would charge up another spell as I got closer to a boss or even use the area of effect spells on large groups of Shades. Once you come to grips with using magic and weapons simultaneously (or use Auto Mode on Easy, no shame), you’ll start wanting to improve so you can defeat each boss as quickly as possible, incentivised by the game’s trophies/achievements. Replicant may not have the breadth of moveset as Automata, but it reaches the same heights.
Along with the normal, 3D action combat and platforming are various other gameplay styles the game seamlessly transitions between. One area plays a top-down shooter, another like Gauntlet or Diablo, and yet another plays like the first Resident Evil. While you may be performing a lot of the same actions, the change in camera angle and context makes these sections a lot more memorable and unique.
Speaking of memorable and unique: the music! Every track has been remastered or rerecorded here, which they really didn’t have to do because the ost was already excellent. I was used to the original mixes, but these new versions are all at the very least as good as their counterparts. Well, except for exactly one song, The Wretched Automatons, which was changed to de-emphasise the metallic beat to its detriment. Other than that one track, every song is uniformly incredible. My favorites include Kainé’s themes, Grandma, Song of the Ancients, and of course Shadowlord. Along with the soundtrack, all the dialogue has been rerecorded as well as the addition of voice over for basically every line in the game. Yorha is now voiced by Zach Aguilar and Ray Chase, while all the other voice actors return to reprise their roles. Again much like the music, the performances are all fantastic.
Playing on a PS5 (essentially the PS4 Pro version), NieR Replicant runs at 60 frames per second… most of the time. It’s not that there are frame rate dips in intense combat sections, I don’t recall it ever dropping frames actually, it’s actually that the cutscenes drop to 30 just like Automata. It’s a really weird choice that can make what are supposed to be smooth transitions between cutscene and gameplay very jarring. There are a few cutscenes that still run at 60, which is even more confusing. It’s clear that the consoles can handle the strain, so is this an artistic choice? If so, I think it hinders more than it helps.
The only other real complaint I have about Replicant is that the text box font is too small and some side quests are very tedious. Of course, all that text is voice and side quests are optional (save for those that give you weapons), but that’s basically it. Toylogic took a flawed masterpiece and essentially removed the flaws, while adding new content like the Mermaid Episode which fits seamlessly into the adventure and the brand new Ending E which is just… so perfect, even if the game doesn’t tell you how to get it. I should mention that, to get the full story, players will be asked to play a lot of the same content several times. You have to play the second half of the game three times to get endings C and D, and a fourth if you want a save with both of those. I didn’t have a problem with that, but to avoid the hassle I would recommend not saving after ending C and just reloading to view ending D. There are new additions to the story for three runs, and being able to quickly decimate bosses that previously gave your trouble is extremely satisfying. In Episode Mermaid in particular, you can actually beat the boss a different way once you’re strong enough.
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474487139… is a pitch perfect update to one of the greatest stories ever told in the medium. Combat feels fast and fluid, much like players’ tears once they finish the game. The new content feels natural, magic is more useful than ever, and the reprised music and voice over bring the world to life.