NieR Replicant is full of moments that are bursting with intrigue, but one that has really stuck with me was my first trip to the Forest of Myth. After spending hours engaging with the game’s unique take on RPG gameplay – roaming the melancholy plains, meeting endearing characters and fighting monsters that drop schoolbooks and broken watches – I was met with a terrible dream.
- READ MORE: ‘NieR’ composer Keiichi Okabe: “I always conveyed the tragic fates that the protagonist and characters are burdened with”
An expressionless shade of the game’s protagonist mouthed words that drew me to a misty forest, just one peculiar pocket of the game’s endlessly interesting world.
Here I met the mayor of this place, who seemed distant, caught in a trance. He warned me about a contagion of words, and as I spoke to him about it, the mood shifted dramatically. Slowly, my screen started to fade out until there was nothing but black.
I could feel an unsettling pit in my stomach as my brain tried to parse what was happening. The mayor and the protagonist’s actions and dialogue then started to be laid out on screen as text, as if I was reading a play. I knew that my character’s mood had darkened and that his partner Grimoire Weiss was startled, but I, the player, had lost control. What followed was a truly mind-blowing bit of storytelling that shouldn’t be spoiled here, but I hope that gives you an inkling of what makes NieR so special.
Like many fans, I came to the series with 2017’s NieR Automata, and have been endeavouring to work my way backwards ever since. You see, NieR originally launched on PS3 and Xbox 360 all the way back in 2010 and gained quite the cult following. This 2021 remake, or “version upgrade” as director Yoko Taro calls it, wants to delight veterans and introduce new fans like me to the game that laid the groundwork for Automata.
In that respect, it more than delivers. The first main point of contention for NieR fans who may have wanted to play the original after Automata was the controls. NieR Automata’s combat was handled by PlatinumGames of Bayonetta fame, which meant it had show-stopping gameplay and an equally compelling narrative. The original NieR has story in spades, but the combat paled in comparison. Luckily, it has been revised in this remake to be closer to its sequel, and now it doesn’t feel at all out of date. It’s frantic due to the bullet hell projectiles that spew from the game’s enemies, but it doesn’t feel mindless. I seem to be constantly finding new moves and thinking tactically about how to unravel enemies with my skill combinations.
As well as swords and spears, the protagonist can leverage his talking book sidekick Grimoire Weiss to use dark magic to deal with foes, and these attacks are mapped to the bumpers. This means you can be lining up dark energy lances and summoning shields while you slash. Having bumper and button attacks is a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head – when it falls into place it’s just so satisfying. As you defeat Shades they’ll leave words as spooky parting shots, and they can be attached to your weapons and abilities to give them statistical buffs, which incentivises mob-crushing and exploration.
What’s so cool about NieR is that if you go into it expecting a typical JRPG you’re going to be so surprised. I feel like I’ve had a smorgasbord of every genre in video games, and I’m fairly confident I’m yet to see everything it has to offer. One dungeon midway through the game makes the camera isometric and another is fixed and stinks of old-school Resident Evil. It’s like playing a whole new game every few hours, but it also has the admirable restraint to pull you back into its main style at narrative flashpoints.
It’s definitely not a game to be rushed, because the open world is tearing at the seams with wonder. The Daedalian layout of the arbitrary desert kingdom Facade never ceases to fool me, while the precarious, spider-web civilisation at The Aerie gives me pause, reminding me of the world that once was. You see, NieR is a spin-off of Drakengard, the result of an imagined future where the world of magic came to our modern reality, and – as is our wicked way – we shot it down with fighter jets. This original sin created a horrendous disease called the Black Scrawl which has pushed humanity to the brink of existence. A medieval society has blossomed on top of the ruins of skyscrapers, playgrounds and public libraries.
Protagonist NieR is searching for a cure for the disease after his sister finds herself afflicted with it, and is joined in his spellbinding journey by an impossibly endearing supporting cast, including blind boy Emil and the foul-mouthed Kaine. The game’s dialogue and voice-acting jump between biting wit and emotional devastation, but in what is perhaps its finest turn, the melancholy tone it sets is still very clear and deeply felt throughout.
I love how it keeps this up while constantly throwing bricks at the fourth wall too, even when it wants to explain why I can’t swim. If it had its way, NieR Replicant would reach out and grab the player, startling and testing them in an even more visceral fashion than it manages through peripherals alone. I really couldn’t stop thinking about it even after I forced myself to switch it off after sessions that lasted for hours. This is definitely augmented by its beautiful, catchy and sometimes haunting soundtrack, masterfully produced by Keiichi Okabe. Another one of my favourite places in the game is just outside the door of the village tavern, where you can hear a diegetic version of the game’s main theme ‘Song Of The Ancients’ being sung from inside the bar.
It loops and loops until it catches you, and from then on it’ll never leave you, even as it’s used as a leitmotif to tug at your heartstrings later down the line. If you’re worried about the graphics, NieR Replicant also happens to be a beautiful game with really striking art direction. Its uncanny character models and Santorini-inspired hubs are reborn thanks to new-generation graphical upgrades.
If you do dive into this singular experience, I’d endeavour to grab all of the game’s weapons, completing the important side quests and exploring to unlock them. Some duds hiding among the diamonds, but even the optional content in NieR is at least thought-provoking or funny, as you find yourself completing absurd tasks at every level of life.
The reason I touched on weapons, in particular, is related to the fact that a Yoko Taro game usually offers multiple endings. I’ve been careful not to spoil much of the game’s narrative here, but it’s worth knowing that having all the weapons opens up so much content after the credits roll in NieR. You could argue that the game only starts when it ends, and I hope that fascinates you as much as it has captivated me.
‘NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…’ is available for PS4, Xbox One and PC on April 23.
NieR Replicant is one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played and a remarkable remake that lovingly augments a cult classic. It’s an essential chaser for fans of NieR Automata but also a great place to start with one of the most thematically fascinating properties in video games right now. It parkours through the gamut of human emotions, its firm belief in its singular ideas creating a vortex that is hard not to get sucked into. Go in blind, lose yourself and leave with a new perspective.
- Thematically fascinating from start to finish
- Combat feels modern and tactical
- Upgraded visuals bring the legend back to life
- An inimitable soundtrack with serious range
- A handful of dull side quests that can easily be skipped