The thing about Yoko Taro games is that there’s nothing else quite like them. And that is, to a certain extent, the problem with Yoko Taro games, because among the things they traditionally haven’t been is very good.
Drakengard was the first Taro game I played, and that was a janky mess that got widely panned as being a repetitive hack-and-slash game… which on one level it was. On another level, it was also a deconstruction of what it meant to have a violent protagonist and the ways in which trying to avoid a bleak ending only produced a darker fate for everyone. There are scenes from that game that still live in my head rent-free (ending B in particular). It was bleak, nihilistic, and absolutely amazing, a game well worth wading through some pretty repetitive hacking and slashing to get at the meat of.
Of course, all of this changed with NieR: Automata, a sequel none of us ever expected to get, and one married to a combat engine that at long last made all of the hacking and slashing feel fun while the story happily weaved through all of Taro’s weighty philosophical musings. And now here we are looking at NieR: Replicant ver. 1.22474487139…, a remaster of the original game with new content, combat improvements, and improved visuals.
And I’m definitely happy.
The game is out for PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and PC via Steam right now. The PS4 version was played for this review… as was the original game on PlayStation 3, to be fair.
A Scrawling [A]pproach
The core of NieR: Replicant’s story (yes, I’m just typing that title, you know which version I’m talking about, deal with it) is about a young man named whatever you choose but ostensibly Nier and his younger sister, Yonah. She’s afflicted with a disease known as the Black Scrawl, which causes strange glyphs to appear along her skin and is, eventually, fatal. After a chance encounter with a magical sentient book named Grimoire Weiss, Nier embarks on an adventure to rescue Yonah from her disease during which he will ruin everything.
That’s not facetious. The thing about NieR: Replicant is that talking about the details of its plot means necessarily spoiling huge chunks of it, because one of the things that slowly becomes clear over the course of the game is that its story is primarily concerned with asking you to really deal with the nature of protagonist-centered morality. I’m intentionally glossing some details above, for example; the story actually starts well before the events of the main game with a young boy and his sister hiding in the ruins of a store, but once you understand the full significance of that it makes you ask even more questions about what you’ve been doing.
Here’s the thing – by the time you’re onto the game’s later endings, you’ll inevitably realize that objectively speaking Nier is kind of a terrible person. His goals and the actions he takes to accomplish them are bad. However, the game also pulls the trick of making him likable. He’s not evil. He’s a likable person doing something you know is bad in the abstract, but you care about him, and the foul-mouthed swordswoman Kainé, and the perpetually shy Emil, and even the abstract aggrandizement of Weiss. All of these characters are charming, and likable, and oh no am I rooting for the bad guys?
Unfortunately, putting in details about why that’s the case means spoiling huge chunks of the game’s story. And, really, it’s better to let it creep in slowly. The story paints a portrait of a world that has slowly decayed away, so far post-apocalypse that it’s no longer a going concern. This is a land of monsters and magic with markers that still resemble bits and pieces of human society – not to sift through the rubble a la its sequel Automata, but to show the way that structures and recognizable elements fade with time.
Some parts of the game are going to be known to you if you already played Automata, but much like how some parts of Automata were spoiled by playing this game first, the trick is in seeing how everything lines up. Just go in expecting that the ride will take you to some places you aren’t expecting, and… you know, you may not be the good guy.
To [B]attle Monsters
Herein lie the problem with NieR as it was originally released in the west: the gameplay wasn’t terrible, but it was just kind of barely acceptable. At the same time, it wasn’t the kind of gameplay that was bad, either. It sat in a midspace where there was nothing so wrong with it that it urgently needed to be reworked from the ground up, but it always felt kind of faintly unsatisfying.
The good news, then, is that NieR: Replicant does not rewrite the fundamentals of the game’s combat, but it… tweaks it. It’s more like watching someone going in with a scalpel to lightly twist values and give you another couple of options here and there, some more charged attacks to spice things up, improve the overall feel of combat. The result is something that feels light and springy, tuned and improved so that it now hits that perfect spot of being the sort of hack-and-slash it always wanted.
It is still very much a hack-and-slash game, of course, and players who are familiar with Automata will find it fairly similar in the broad strokes. You have a button for blocking and one for evading. Precisely timing a block allows you to parry a strike and get in a bonus. You have a little floating companion you can use to shoot at things as aimed by your camera angle. The main difference is that rather than having two different weapons to perform heavy and light attacks, your main weapon has both heavy strikes and light ones depending on your button choice.
Much like other Yoko Taro games, you’ll acquire a wide variety of different weapons that you slowly upgrade to make them more effective, along with slowly unlocking weapon stories that tell you the backstory of these particular arms. Also like other Yoko Taro games, you’ll be expected to replay the game more than once to unlock all of the endings, with each ending denoted by a letter. These multiple endings really serve to explain more of what’s going on with the story. Unique for this particular release is the new Ending E, which… well, it takes what the game already did with its later endings to another level. Let’s leave it at that.
As someone who really enjoyed the original, the remake here is the best possible outcome in terms of mechanics. It still has everything that made the original fun, but it’s polished everything and improved it without making it trivial. The fact that the game even has an easy difficulty that lets you just let the computer handle battling altogether is a nice addition for those mostly here for the story, but in general the combat now feels good enough that it’s no longer a game where the story far outweighs the gameplay.
The [C]larity of Visuals
NieR was always a pretty game, and here again NieR: Replicant shows an impressive fidelity to the original by upscaling assets but still preserving the cold, washed-out and stark beauty of the world. While character models have been improved and tweaked in a few places, they generally still look like solid designs that move and animate fluidly amidst all of the game’s other actions. The scintillating designs of the shades you spend much of the game fighting looked great back on the PS3, so they look good now as well.
Some of the character model tweaks are, admittedly, a touch off-putting. Kainé’s face, for example, looks a little bit softer than it did in the original, although her overall model hasn’t changed. It’s the sort of thing you notice in bits and pieces and doesn’t detract from the overall experience, but it’s still there. Minor concessions to the mark of time, I suppose.
The performances of the voice cast also contribute immensely to the feel of the story, and it’s here where a lot of the game sort of has to hang itself just to ensure that you actually care about these characters. Fortunately, this is also another area the game nails perfectly. Voices are iconic and fun, performances feel memorable, and particular note should be paid to Laura Bailey’s turn as Kainé and Liam O’Brien as Grimoire Weiss. Both characters would be really easy to make annoying, and both of them make their characters instead feel charming and human.
And then there’s the music, which is still basically the same from the original… and that’s to its credit all over again, as the haunting tunes and mix of vocals and styles create a distinct sonic landscape that’s not quite like anything else out there. I love this soundtrack and I’m thrilled to see it get more love, honestly.
NieR: Replicant is, in many ways, an ideal remake. It’s probably not quite as good a game as its sequel, but the improvements of the remake make that a question of degrees rather than Automata being leaps and bounds ahead. Plus, I think there’s also a certain cachet to the idea that anyone who’s made it through Automata absolutely knows that what they’re about to play is going to ask some difficult and strange questions along the way, so now the remake hits differently as a response to that.
I loved the original. I love this remake. And if you’ve never played the original or you did, you owe it to yourself to give this one a check. It’s a game that was always good made that much better, and it’s going to stick with you a long time after the credits roll on the final ending.
Review copy provided courtesy of Square Enix for PS4. All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix.