Video Game Review: Nier Replicant ver. 1.22
Updated: Jun 13
Initial release: April 23, 2021
Developed by Toylogic
Published by Square Enix
When I got to ending “E” in Nier: Automata, I remembered simply sitting in my chair, staring agape at my T.V with tears once again rolling down my cheeks, and thinking: “this was special.” Slowly but surely I came to the realization that this game - which on the onset seemed like yet another action-packed romp by Platinum Games with scantily-clad anime waifu’s, but (thankfully) turned out to be so, so much more - is going to cement itself at the top of my “All-time” list. So when Square announced that Yoko Taro would be returning as the head writer for a remaster of the original Nier: Replicant, it was difficult to contain my excitement. Having never played the original game that released in 2010, and seeing people talk about the connections it has to Automata, I was anxious to get my hands on this game to see how the story began. I did so a week after the games release, and took my time to play-through all five endings. Nearly 50 hours, and one month later, here are my thoughts.
A PREQUEL TO A MASTERPIECE
Nier: Replicant ver.1.22 (I’m not typing out all those numbers) is a remaster of the original Nier that released in 2010. Though the version this game remasters is the one that exclusively released in Japan. The only difference with the one that came here to the west being the protagonists age and their relationship to one of the main characters, Yonah. Saying this game is a “remaster” is a little bit of an understatement in my opinion, as Toylogic have done more than simply upgrade the visuals. The game now feels much closer to Automata in terms of gameplay, which from what I gather is a vast - and much needed - improvement. Looking back at old gameplay videos, and reading other reviews from the time, it seems the biggest criticism of the original Nier was the combat, with gripes on it feeling slow, clunky, and outdated even for 2010. Though I cannot comment on how the original felt to play, I can say that this remaster feels great. Movement is fast and fluid without feeling ”floaty,” and the combat is just as frenetic and fun as I remember Automata being. Though there aren’t as many customization options as Automata, and unlike that game where you could combine different sets of weapons - like a lightweight spear and a heavy axe - you don’t get those freedoms here and can honestly play-through the entire game (including all endings) with one weapon. This is a bit of a lost opportunity, as to get the final endings of the game you are required to collect all 33 weapons, and having a mechanic to combine combos using different types of weapons could have lead to some incredibly fun spectacles. Though the combo system with the three main weapon types, coupled with the assortment of magic abilities, still offer a variety of options of play.
Even though the core gameplay sees a vast improvement over the original, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the quest design. Like most open-world RPG’s, this game gives you the option to take on a multitude of side-quests from NPC’s. But many of the quests here revolve around laboriously trekking back-and-forth - sometimes multiple times - from one area of the map to another. And though the treks are fairly quick with movement and locomotion being vastly improved, it still gets rather tedious, with the reward for completion usually not being the most exciting. That being said, some of the stories within these quests are quite interesting; and those that are simply: “go here, pick this up, fight, return,” even have character interactions that are well-written enough for me to feel satisfied. But even Grimoire Weiss’ witty quips, and the awe-inspiring music, weren’t enough for me to see every quest I took on to the end, and a major part of that was due to the constant flailing between hub areas, each of which are beyond a loading screen; which though quick enough, are another sign of an outdated design.
Still, this game does so much right when it comes to the gameplay. As an adult gamer who eventually has the moment of checking howlongtobeat.com to see how much further I have to go to complete a game, regardless of my enjoyment of it; I am pleased to say that there’s something about the combat loop and “feel” of this game (and Automata) that it didn’t have me repeatedly check my progression and time played. Yes, there could have been more options with combat, and yes the quest design and loading screens can be a bore; but Platinum Games are such masters at “game feel,” which Toylogic beautifully recreate here, that these gripes didn’t take away my enjoyment whilst playing through the multiple endings. Though it‘s clear to see that every aspect of this game, from gameplay to narrative (and thematic) design, were precursors to elements of the masterpiece that is, Nier: Automata.
ENDINGS, ENDINGS & KAINÉ
This is the part of the review that I am genuinely struggling to tackle. Only because I have so many thoughts on the narrative of this game, and because I personally feel that Nier: Automata tells its story in probably the most brilliant way I’ve ever seen a video game tell a story. Much of that is because that game used the medium of video games, and the mechanics within video games, and the experience of playing video games, to tell a story about the cyclical tragedies of humanity and our existence. And that word, “cyclical,” is once again at play here in Nier: Replicant. Both games have you play them a minimum of three times, after which you must once again reload your cleared save, but this time instead of making decision X from play-through C, you now make decision Y to then get endings D, which leads to a final decision giving you ending E. Though an interesting mechanic, this in itself is not a revolutionary form of telling a narrative through video games. Other games have had “true endings” and “secret endings,” which only unlock once you complete a certain number of objectives, or collect a certain number of trinkets. This is not the case in either Nier games. There is but only one ending. And that ending for both of these games is “E.” And I say this not because I love both these games and their stories, and because I feel that the context of that ending is meaningful and adds to the story. No, the only ending for both games is “E” because only after having made all the necessary decisions to get that ending, and understanding the themes of loss and repetition, and how those themes are interwoven within the world and enemies you fight, and then to acquiesce to the only possible decision that leads you to the final moments of the game, will you then truly feel the full impact this game offers. Now, I don’t sit here to tell you that I know the inner workings of Yoko Taro’s mind, and therefore can tell you what the intent of such mechanics are, because that is an impossible task; however, what I can tell you is that my understanding of the world and characters of the game only came to fruition once I allowed myself to bask in the memories of each ending, each play-through, and the final credits.
Having said that, I will say that the way in which Replicant handles its multiple play-throughs is far less revolutionary and impactful than those of Automata. In the latter each play-through is significantly different from the last, not only in the narrative, where context is given through additional scenes, but even in the way the game plays. Without getting into spoilers I will simply say that I had the biggest grin on my face during my second play-through because I thought what the game was doing was very impressive and unique. That grin transformed into a jaw-dropped face of bewilderment during my third play-through, which inevitably became a tearful face of, “I can’t believe this is happening” during the end credits leading to ending “E.” Every play-through changes not only the context of the narrative, but in the actual physical way in which you interact with the world within the game. In Replicant, however, much of those mechanical changes are not a part of the game. Instead, each play-through is more or less the same in terms of actual gameplay. You will get expanded - and important - scenes, which heavily impact the way you feel about certain characters, and even question some of your actions. And that in itself is quite unique, and lead me to be heavily impacted emotionally during scenes that I initially did not react to in my first play-through. However, most of those revelatory scenes only come in the second play-through, leaving the third essentially the same (aside from two scenes, which though interesting, aren’t that impressive narratively), leading me to play it like a “speed-run.” The biggest addition to this remaster is the newly added, ending “E,” which did not exist in the original game from 2010. And it’s here where we can see the further inspiration taken from Automata, as the entire fifth play-through is incredibly unique, and completely alters the entire narrative of everything you’ve done up to that point. I wish more of the game could have had moments like this, which made Automata such an incredible experience.
In terms of the story itself this game is, on the surface, about a young man trying to save his sister. It’s set in a gloomy, desolate, and dreary fantasy world that’s inflicted with a disease called “The Black Scrawl,” and infested with these creatures called “Shades.” Along the way you are partnered with a magical, ancient book named Grimoire Weiss, who is, unquestionably, one of the greatest companion characters in all of gaming. A little of that is because of his grandiose English accent, some of it is because that accent is coupled with a razer sharp wit, and some of it is because he gives you magical abilities that are terrifically fun to use. Eventually, you meet the two other side characters in the game, Emil and Kainé. I’ll speak on Emil first as Kainé deserves her own paragraph. Emil is a wonderfully written character, who is sweet, compassionate, and easily the “heart” of the game. I loved the way his sexuality was handled, and actually wished for more conversations and moments surrounding his identity. What surprised me was not only how attached I got to the main cast of characters, but to how drawn I was to even some of the other minor characters. Characters that you’d assume you’ll only interact with a handful of times eventually get their own arc and backstory. But my surprise didn’t end there, as during my second play-through some context was revealed pertaining to the enemies you fight, which after watching some of the added scenes and then being forced to fight brought over such a horrific sensation of grief. It’s rare for fiction to make you question the hero’s fight; but when it’s done effectively using the interactive medium of video games like in these games, the end result is hard to find words to even describe.
Kainé. A dual-wielding badass with a mouth a sailor would find offensive. She is quite the unforgettable character. The thing that I love most about her is the beautiful juxtaposition between her brazen persona, and everything else surrounding her being; whether that be her tragic backstory, the heart-wrenching melody of her theme, or her choices in clothing. The final of those is what I would like to touch upon briefly. For the lack of a better way to go about it, let’s just say Kainé basically wears lingerie for the entirety of the game. This in itself is not what I take issue with, as we’ve seen other female characters like her in games - Cereza in Bayonetta being one that comes to mind - who are written well and whose wardrobe are aptly tied to their persona (obviously examples of the contrary exist, but that’s a separate conversation); but the “justification” given by Taro for her wardrobe is whats concerning. To go into very minor spoilers (so you may skip to the next section if you please) Kainé is intersexual. A disposition she’s been cruelly tormented for by the people in her village during her childhood. The flashback of this time is done via a text-adventure during the second play-through. It’s a gutting and well-written sequence. In an interview, Taro explained that due to this upbringing, Kainé chooses to wear overtly sexualized clothing that would be (usually) worn by women, so that others would not question her gender. Now, in concept this can be an interesting premise, if executed effectively. But, due to the lack of exploration with this premise - aside from slight quips from Weiss every now and then - I can’t help but feel...bothered. I find Kainé such a compelling and multi-dimensional character, and feel there simply could have been a further exploration when it came to her identity and this particular subject. I feel uncomfortable with that explanation by Taro, as to simply use that backstory as justification is problematic in a number of ways, and I would be remiss not to mention it.
There is not much to write here. Nier: Replicant and Nier: Automata have the greatest OSTs in all of gaming. Each track conveys a story, flows through various emotions, and can transport you to specific narrative moments with only a few notes. Keiichi Okabe is a master of his craft, and a genius when it comes to combining orchestral and operatic sounds.
Nier: Replicant ver 1.22 does more than just remake a cult classic. It effectively updates the core gameplay to modern standards, albeit with minor limitations, and adds to an already engaging story with fantastic narrative additions in a new heart-wrenching main quest, and a new ending that completely flips the original game on its head. Every character, both main and supplementary, are well-written and compelling, with their own unique quirks; though unfortunately, some questionable decisions regarding Kainé are hard to disregard. And though the multiple play-throughs aren’t as unique as Automata’s, the journey to get there and experience those final moments are still well worth it.