“Weiss, you dumbass! You better start making sense, you rotten book, or you’re gonna be sorry! Maybe I’ll start ripping your pages out one-by-one, or maybe I’ll put you in a goddamn furnace! How can someone with such a big, smart brain get hypnotized like a little b**ch? Oh, Shadowlord! I love you, Shadowlord! Come over here and give Weiss a big sloppy kiss, Shadowlord! Now pull your head out of your goddamn ass and START F***ING HELPING US!”
That’s the opening line delivered by Kainé, a tough and calloused character with a fighting passion. She yells this directly at Grimoire Weiss, a sentient book who’s a sassy wisecrack that wields crucial powers to fight against the otherworldly threat called Shades. But while this first impression is of conflict between allies, it’s illustrative of the eccentric group dynamic between the characters of Nier. And the line hits you like a truck just before you watch the intro cinematic, which is backed by impassioned orchestrations and chorus composed by Keiichi Okabe. It’s all that’s needed to tell you that you’re in for an emotional journey without saying anything more.
In a post Nier: Automata world, the original Nier has garnered a new spotlight that has afforded it a second lease on life. The initial release was a bit obscured in 2010, dated and rather basic in some aspects, which may have undercut its storytelling chops and the unique narrative stylings of creator Yoko Taro. I’ve been playing the original version on PS3 recently, and, in retrospect, the flaws in its gameplay systems are easier to overlook when it’s understood you’re playing an older game–and through that perspective, I’ve found something really special.
With this remake, fully and oddly named Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, an overlooked gem has been ushered into the modern era on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC with a modernized gameplay experience that’s closer to what you get from Automata. I’ve spent some time playing ahead of its launch, and it leaves me a bit shook to see this game again running in higher resolution and at 60 frames per second, with revamped combat mechanics and the reorchestrated, evocative soundtrack. But more importantly, it’s a real treat knowing that folks have another chance to play through a special piece of video game storytelling, especially considering how tough it is to go back to (and actually find) the original version.
Nier Replicant doesn’t necessarily contain any structural changes from what I’ve seen thus far, essentially preserving the original experience as if it’s a one-to-one recreation. In the small snippets I played, combat scenarios and boss fights in The Aerie and Junk Heap still had their familiar multifaceted challenges, gameplay perspective shifts, and bombastic moments.
In The Aerie, a village constructed along a cliffside, you stand against the imposing threat of a massive Shade. Through sequences of hitting specific spots, reacting to attack patterns, and wailing on the Shade when the opportunity presents itself, you’ll take them down. Junk Heap features robots and machines (vaguely resembling the experience of Nier: Automata’s factories), and a Zelda-like boss fight where you destroy a machine’s floating hands then throw bombs into its mouth at the right time while fending off smaller enemies. It’s all fairly standard action-game-type stuff that doesn’t deviate much from the original Nier, though this does provide a decent vehicle for the game’s stronger elements.
Replicant has an enhanced satisfaction in battle with smoother movements and melee combos, and an enhanced system for Weiss’ Dark abilities (effectively magic spells). These spells are much more enjoyable to pull off, and it’s one aspect where Nier has an edge over Automata–you have hard-hitting projectiles, a Pod-like bullet barrage, spikes to summon from the ground, and a massive hand to call on to smack enemies with metaphysical power. The lock-on system also means that you aren’t necessarily struggling against the game itself to pull off attacks accurately and on your intended targets. I must say I quite like Grimoire Weiss more so than the various Pods of Automata.
Those who played Nier back in the day are getting something new for the Western experience. Replicant stars “Brother Nier” as opposed to “Father Nier.” The core story remains the same, where a young child named Yonah faces a seemingly terminal illness related to the Shades who threaten your world. Although I can’t exactly explore the dynamic in relation to Replicant quite yet, I did find something special about how this story is communicated with a father figure front and center. At a time when we have quite a few prominent games starring dads and parental struggles, the lens through which you view Nier’s desolate world and experience the unlikely relationships has been unique–it’s one that’s less about fatherhood and more about forming bonds with strangers and the power they afford you in critical moments. With the brother now in the starring role, however, I don’t expect Nier’s pivotal moments to lose their impact or poignance.
What I will say is that Nier eventually becomes narratively heavy. It’s blunt sometimes, philosophical at others. It can be grandiose but not without a bit of earnestness and levity in between. If you’re like me–someone who loves investing in stories only to have your heart ripped out–this is a game for us. Remake or otherwise, the original Nier has a keen focus on humanity, empathy, and tragedy, and in that regard, it’s a lot like Nier: Automata. But the original game itself has a charismatic edge that’ll draw you in to hit you in your feelings in a different way. The revelations and connections to Automata are also exciting things to explore, and first-timers should be eager to see this story unfold.
Although it shares the slick feel of a modern action game, this is very much the original Nier with what it asks you to do in terms of its core gameplay structure. That might make Replicant feel a bit outdated or perhaps a step back if you’re coming fresh off Automata–but admittedly, gameplay isn’t exactly why we’re here. Nier can be dark and depressing, but also uplifting at certain moments and in small ways. Surviving in a broken world to preserve your humanity and your connections with whoever you have left doesn’t come without the drama and heart necessary.
Just hearing a few of the songs in this soundtrack again hit something deep that I can’t quite explain without taking the time to really unpack that emotional response. And that’s kind of what Nier: Automata does, too. Not many games can deliver that sort of impact, so I’m looking forward to exploring Nier Replicant more as we get closer to its April 23 release date, if anything, just to feel something.