Nier is a franchise that feels like it didn't start off as popular as it did. It's something I began hearing more about after Nier: Automata released back in 2017. With that in mind, it makes sense that Square Enix would want to introduce the original game to a new gaming generation. For me, it's more of an introduction. Having no prior experience with the first Nier, which released on PlayStation 3 back in 2009, I walked into Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139 (let's mercifully abbreviate that going forward) with an open mind. I walked out with a new appreciation for many aspects of the series, even with some of its glaring pacing problems.
A shadowy future
Nier Replicant feels like a tale of two games, in many ways. After an action-packed opening sequence that introduces players to the core hack-and-slash gameplay, the story fast-forwards more than 1,400 years. (If that sounds like a lot, hold that thought, because it gets explained much later.) The main story sees the unnamed protagonist venture out in hopes of discovering a cure for his sister's deadly Black Scrawl disease, encountering dangerous shadow creatures known as Shades. Players will fight Shades throughout their journey and the design of the Shades themselves are hauntingly mesmerizing, ranging from little imp-like creatures to multi-tentacled beasts the size of skyscrapers. Some of them have human characteristics that are pure nightmare fuel, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Players will meet a handful of supporting cast characters along the way, including the living tome Grimoire Weiss and the lingerie-clad Kaine, all with full voice acting for this remaster. Even with Kaine's overly potty-mouthed dialogue, voice acting is a welcome addition to this game. The banter between the main characters is one of the game's biggest highlights. Weiss, in particular, acts as both a grim source of exposition and a helpful source of comedy relief. That comedy relief is welcome, because this story gets dark in many places, especially in the latter half.
When I say Nier Replicant is a tale of two games, it's because the game hits a major climax at the halfway point before the story fast-forwards another five years. The game's two halves are distinct in several ways. Narratively, the first half is about maintaining hope in the face of growing despair while the second half is about keeping hope alive after despair has set in. There's no way around this, the second half of Replicant's story is a downer. Bad things happen to many of these characters and even some of the minor side NPCs who feel like they're there to provide some laughs don't walk away unscathed. It's all in service of the overarching story, which is fine until the game's final moments jump off a cliff. After the standard "point of no return," the plot goes all over the place, there are twists that don't make sense, and the main villains ultimately feel underdeveloped by the time the credits roll. While Replicant helps players understand the grander world of Nier, as a self-contained story, it feels disappointing. That's even with the prospect of multiple endings.
In terms of the gameplay differences, the main character grows and is able to wield two-handed weapons, which opens up some new fighting styles. But while hack-and-slash combat is a major aspect of the Nier Replicant experience, that's not all there is to it.
Shades of style
There's great depth to the Nier Replicant combat, as players must combine melee weapons and magic in order to take down the game's various Shades. The amount of magical abilities available can be staggering and only four of those spells can be assigned to the standard shoulder buttons. It's an annoying artificial limit to the combat, as you can't see the true array of the main character's power unless you're playing on Easy with Auto Combat enabled. Having said that, almost every weapon and magic power can be upgraded through objects called "words," which offer stat buffs that can help against peskier Shades down the road. Upon hitting the second half of the game, standard Shades become armored and a much greater pain to take down, so experimenting with builds becomes a necessity.
Speaking of things that become a greater pain, there is a lot of padding in Nier Replicant that comes from having to go back-and-forth across various regions for later missions. One later mission, in particular, is so egregious about having players go from the main village, to the seafront, back to the village, and back to the seafront again, even Grimoire Weiss makes a note of how repetitive the whole exercise is. While getting to the heart of every story quest can be time-consuming, they're worth getting to, because they're what make Nier Replicant stand out.
What makes Nier Replicant feel like a unique experience is that while it's an action-RPG at heart, Square Enix and director Yoko Taro go beyond that genre at several points. Early missions will require standard Legend of Zelda-style pushing and pulling of boxes to reach out-of-the-way areas, which is about as traditional an idea for this kind of game as it gets. Later missions get downright experimental. To name a few examples, there's a junkyard with a mine cart shoot-'em-up section, there's a creepy mansion with Resident Evil-style camera placement, the depths of said mention use an overhead camera that's used more in dungeon crawlers like Diablo, and there are even story quests that are text adventures. These are some bold ideas in place and freshen up what could otherwise be a repetitive and grindy adventure.
For those uninitiated with the types of narratives that come out of Square Enix Japan, Nier Replicant can prove to be a lot. The character backstories are heavy, the world is grim, and the overall plot goes all over the place in service of some vague sense of hope. It won't be for everyone, that's for sure. For a Kingdom Hearts fan like me, though, this is just Monday, so even with the story's many faults, I was ultimately fascinated by Nier's overarching lore. If you can get past Replicant's many grimdark moments, the story is worth getting into. The voice acting helps the story a lot, especially the performance from Liam O'Brien as Grimoire Weiss, which feels like one of the most memorable of this early year.
As an action-RPG, there's a solid foundation in place for anyone into swinging heavy weapons or racking up massive combos with lighter weapons. The magic abilities are a lot of fun, though I wish I could assign more than four at a time. Where the game really shines, though, is when it gets experimental. Nier Replicant is not beholden to genre and it's a much better game for it.
As somebody who wasn't into the Nier lore going into this review, I'm fully invested now. That's the magic that Nier Replicant works and, even with its faults, it's a treat for both fans and newcomers.
These impressions were based on a PlayStation 4 digital code provided by the publisher. Nier Replicant is available now on Steam, the PlayStation Store, and the Microsoft Store for $59.99 USD. The game is rated M.