Nier Replicant Refuses to Compromise, for Better and WorseGames Reviews Nier Replicant
Over the last two decades, Yoko Taro has become one of gaming’s most elusive developers. Notably camera shy, he usually appears on-screen in his signature mask rolling on the floor with merch or cracking jokes and generally dodging answers in interviews. Beyond that, his work is known for its singularity—they’re particularly dark while maintaining a morbid humor, gleefully fuse together multiple genres that pique Taro’s interests, and, until Nier: Automata, were known as nearly unplayable. Back in the day, new fans of Taro’s work would be directed to Let’s Plays of Drakengard, under the belief that they’d more likely enjoy their time with Taro’s game if divorced from having to play it themselves.
Taro’s work is thematically just as alienating, and intentionally so; Drakengard is grim to the point of hyperbole, and its connections to the Nier universe are tenuous and esoteric. Drakengard is the kind of series that could never achieve mainstream popularity. It’s dark, but not in the conventional God of War sort of way, and its storytelling is a jumbled, fragmented mess of incest, pedarasty, and cannibalism (all truncated with rhythm games and Panzer Dragoon-esque segments).
Taro managed to achieve a cult following for his work on 2010’s Nier, a game that, like Drakengard, was not destined for mainstream success at the time. Nevertheless, Square Enix attempted for international success—the gameplay was pointedly made into a marketable action-style roleplaying game, and for its Western release, the game featured a burly older main character as opposed to the younger slim character in the game’s original incarnation. Westerners respond more to father-daughter relationships in their games than sibling ones, apparently. Despite these measures, the game was unable to find traction to make it as much of a rousing success as its sequel, Nier: Automata, later became. The game’s shoestring budget was glaring, with choppy visuals, ill-conceived side quests, and shallow gameplay.
Through all the setbacks, Nier’s idiosyncrasies managed to shine and foster a dedicated fanbase. The game popularly became known as a “good story, bad gameplay” game, politely leaving the conversation until Automata’s surprise success in 2017. PlatinumGames’ high octane style managed to give Nier the electric jolt it needed to appeal to a wide audience, Trojan Horse-ing its bizarre storytelling style and philosophical dilemmas with flashy beat-em-up sequences and sumptuous art design. Nier composer Keiichi Okabe’s score gives the game an elegiac, mysterious tone, and rang all the more unique for the next generation of gamers that missed out on the original.
This is all preface to an interesting quandary: what does it look like to remake a game like Nier? How do we reintroduce a game whose seeming failure is almost intrinsic to its legacy? Nier has mythologized itself over the years, thanks in part to its creation myth-esque relationship to Automata, which takes place thousands of years after Nier’s Ending D. Its cryptic storytelling and imperceptible sadness is fascinating and seemingly impenetrable, and conversations over the game’s intentionality versus accidental genius have stirred since the game’s release. Nier is nothing if not a unique game with a scrappy spirit.
Nier Replicant ver1.22474487139… is, in many ways, the perfect reintroduction to a videogame. With revamped visual design that rivals Automata, the game’s setting is a stunning world of shock and awe worth getting lost in. The combat system has been lightly retouched, still echoing Nier’s unique identity when compared to Automata’s 2B but feeling more weighty and purposeful than hollow and repetitive. But does all this necessarily make ver1.22.. the “definitive” Nier experience?
Somehow, somewhere, I expect Yoko Taro is laughing over the sheer amount of thumb-twiddling that has been had over ver1.22..’s release window. He’s already gone so far to say that Automata’s success was a fluke and his expectations for ver1.22’s sales are low. A vocal part of the Nier fandom is dissatisfied with the remake, citing their love of the original low-fidelity graphics, the game’s uneven edges, and disdain for Kainé’s “feminization.” Others sing ver1.22..’s praises for finally “fixing” an otherwise forgettable game. Some are still displeased with the Nier experience as a whole, comparing it unfavorably to the more immediately fun Automata. I can understand elements of all these arguments, but have a hard time aligning myself wholesale with any of them.
ver1.22.. is its own beast, and Yoko Taro understands that—the game’s a “version upgrade” and not a remake or a remaster, after all. The fact remains that all three versions of Nier offer a worthwhile journey, even though only one version was intended to exist at all. The fact that ver1.22.. exists is, to me, a triumph, proof that games are never lost to history and a sign that we are increasingly becoming more open to reevaluating the past with more nuanced takes. I feel optimistic about ver1.22.. and the legacy it may leave behind as a still-flawed upgrade to a divisive game from a defunct developer.
Can I definitively say whether Yoko Taro is a genius? Unfortunately, I can’t, but I can say that I enjoyed ver1.22.. very much. Minor changes in the script were made to more accurately reflect the original game’s vision, which give a fuller and more round view of characters like Kainé and Emil, whose queerness were toned down for Gestalt. I realized elements of Automata that enraptured audiences in 2017 were actually done before—and arguably better—in Nier, such as the chilling Weapon Stories, save-erasing endings, and blend of referential genre shifts. The game reveals as much about Taro’s taste as it does his budding interests he would later explore in Automata. It’s as much a satire of videogames as it is a love letter to them.
And, in true Taro fashion, ver1.22.. is a mixed bag. I still have issues with Kainé’s treatment, despite being one of gaming’s most interesting characters. Nier follows games like Persona 5 that simultaneously treat their female characters and their sexual traumas with sensitivity then go and make achievements out of peeping up their skirts. It’s a recurrence that’s beyond disappointing now—it veers towards the transphobic. Though the game’s fishing and side quest systems have been streamlined, they’re still little more than idle tedium. I like the low-stakes nature of many of the side quests (there’s no lore to be shaped here—just minor favors for hungry villagers), but it’s not exactly riveting stuff. The combat’s the same way; I wouldn’t fault anyone for turning on auto-battle just so they could smoothly glide through the story and look cool while doing it. Farming upgrade materials is essentially bound to one relatively small dungeon, where you’ll be running in and out a machine factory and cursing under your breath as you get another Severed Cable instead of rare Damascus Steel (who do they think we are, 2B?).
I struggle to see an audience for ver1.22.. outside of Nier’s old guard fans and those that already love Automata. No matter the lacquer, the game has an alienating aura, and your engagement with it is far more predicated on your imagination than it is on the moment-to-moment action. But still, few games manage to ingrain such a hefty sorrow as Nier while doing relatively little to achieve it. Perhaps the game’s most stunning moment is the boss battle featuring the game’s main village theme. It’s a disconcerting reminder of the relatively simple conflict the game centers around—the creeping danger of the “others” slowly closing the distance between your family and the outside world.
There’s an effortlessness to the tragedy at the heart of Nier, and no amount of Square Enix-ification can erase that. Yoko Taro’s stubbornness may be his finest quality as a gamemaker but also his Achilles’ heel; it’s this chaos that managed to shift the decade long conversation from “Dad Nier vs. Brother Nier” to “Nier (2010) vs. Nier (2021).” Whether it feels so different because of its changes or because of how much has changed in the decade since Nier’s release is hard to say. ver1.22.. is peerless in many ways, but also the same old story—an auteur nearly swallowed by the industry manages to get out his masterpiece after the smash success of his more palatable work. I, for one, am happy it happened.
Nier Replicant was developed by Toylogic, based on the original Nier by Cavia, and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It’s also available for the Xbox One and PC.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire.