The best way to experience NieR is finally here, even if some flaws remain.
Playing NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… feels like being lost in a maze with no exit, albeit one full of breathtaking vistas, stunning music, and a story so rich it puts most other modern RPGs to shame. There’s a lot of backtracking to and fro, which showcases the game’s greatest strengths and weaknesses in equal measure.
A remake of 2010’s NieR (called NieR Gestalt in Japan), Replicant is the high-fantasy antithesis to 2017’s beloved sci-fi NieR:Automata. A blindfolded synthezoid and her drones are replaced with a bishōnen boy (a “beautiful youth” like Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife) and his companion: a haughty book of magic capable of human speech. In this dark but beautiful world full of magic, you’re searching for a cure to your sister’s otherworldly terminal illness. Monstrous Shades threaten the remnants of humanity more than a thousand years after the apocalypse, during an era when humanity has regressed into an almost medieval simplicity.
The echoes of an ancient civilization — our civilization — are everywhere as you explore far beyond the young hero’s humble town to uncover the mysteries of the world and save his beloved sister. Though the back half of the game gets far more interesting and dynamic, the repetitive early bits make it hard to sink your teeth into.
Replicant vs. Gestalt vs. Automata
For anyone who fell in love with the franchise through Automata, consider NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… an absolute must-play. This “version update” is closer to a full-on remake than a simple remaster, adding voiceover to even innocuous NPCs and modernizing combat to resemble Automata’s. Most of the gameplay winds up almost identical, with some exceptions.
For curious Nier first-timers, Replicant is an excellent entry point into a compelling franchise. It’s more digestible than Automata, but less elegant. The lore, design, and even gameplay evoke Kingdom Hearts a great deal ... if you replaced the Disney tomfoolery with grim stakes and a more mature story. Core concepts explore the corners of metaphysics, meditating on the soul and moods of existential dread. If you’ve ever dreamt of Final Fantasy XII with Kingdom Hearts combat and a more personal story, then buy Nier Replicant immediately.
A borderline pervy design aesthetic present in every Nier game doesn’t quite detract from the superb narrative, but it certainly distracts from it. This is par for the course if you’re familiar with Automata, where overly attractive androids are ubiquitous. At least one titillating character design is outrageous: A woman possessed by a creature that detests sunlight wears lingerie to expose more of her skin. Is this logical? Sure. Is it necessary?
When combat, story, and design are this good, what else matters?
Here’s a look at some gameplay.
Despite some occasional janky controls or camera angles, combat is frantic and exciting. Most weapons feel distinct from one another, so even simple light and heavy attacks keep Replicant’s combat from becoming boring. It feels like a precursor to the action-heavy gameplay of Final Fantasy VII Remake or even the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI, albeit with less complexity.
Replicant experiments often with its camera, much like Automata, occasionally locking the perspective into top-down or a 2D profile like an old-school platformer. Placing even simple combat encounters or puzzles in these circumstances makes for a jarring but exciting change of pace. Boss encounters mix things up even further, and some dungeon sections experiment with surprising new mechanics.
Writer and Game Director Yoko Taro is an absolute visionary, one of the few today that can be considered an auteur in gaming. The soundtrack by Keiichi Okabe perfectly complements the haunting tone of this world. The atmosphere these two build together within a video game is unparalleled, making any Nier game worth sinking dozens of hours into.
You’ll remember Replicant for the superb opening, the grand story, and the devotion between members of the core cast. And if you’re lucky, you’ll forget all of the repetitive filler that makes it feel a bit too dated.
Warping will turn you to mincemeat!
At the end of an early-game dungeon, the player character will comment how nice it would be to just warp back to the quest-givers, a startling moment of fourth-wall breaking. Your magical book says that the best mages who tried warping were reduced to mincemeat, so you’re stuck backtracking.
It’s the opposite approach to something like Outriders, which incentivizes replaying cringeworthy quests to grind for more gear, so you get a token at the end of each firefight that teleports you to the starting point. Such gameplay loops are convenient, but they shatter the illusion of immersion by oversaturating you with mechanics and systems. You’re constantly reminded that it’s a video game.
In NieR Replicant, however, you might wander to the top of a lighthouse to see the stunning view from the top. The real reward isn’t in the treasure chest you find; it’s the view of the ocean and the millennia-old bridge on the horizon punctuated by the wistful melody drifting into your ears. You won’t care much about “wasting” time when the atmosphere is this good.
Replicant’s greatest flaw, however, is its relentless insistence on backtracking. Many of the main story missions, particularly in the early game, are little more than fetch quests. Your sister Yonah coughs. You talk to the librarian Popola about it. She sends you out into the wilds to find something. You bring it back. You talk to Popola. You talk to Yonah. You go to sleep. You do the same stuff tomorrow. It takes a long time before the game elevates to anything beyond this daily humdrum. Dungeons can be hit or miss, more often bland and repetitive than interesting. But the occasional experimentation keeps things fresh.
When you recognize the realism behind this approach to adventuring, it becomes almost forgivable … almost. In between slaying massive monsters and rescuing innocents from certain doom, heroes have to spend a lot of time traveling between far-off destinations. (Remember in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli just run for days!?) NieR Replicant’s vast world feels more lived-in when you have to run a package across a huge field and into a neighboring town without dodging or getting hit. Otherwise, it breaks.
Replicant goes to great lengths to deconstruct video gaming in this way. The execution is smart, but it is occasionally annoying.
As if to punctuate the protagonist’s time away from home, most loading screens are random journal entries from Yonah about her affection and longing for her brother. She wants to cook or sing for him, to repay all of his kindness and dedication. Replicant is a tender story of love between siblings and how devotion to a singular purpose can destroy and save the world in equal measure. They’re provocative existential questions worth exploring — if you have the patience to do the work. 7/10.
Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139... will be released April 23, 2021.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)