Hatred is a powerful tool, one that can be all-consuming if allowed to run free in someone’s heart. Many games have attempted to explore the causes and effects associated with hate—some successfully, many not—but few do so more effectively than the NieR games. These games are layered, steadily-evolving glimpses into the soul, and they prove that what’s found there is rarely pleasant.
“Well, that’s all very nice, Jeff, but how’s the game?” Right, that.
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… is a “version upgrade” of the first game in the NieR series, which was originally released in the west in 2010. This is a prequel to NieR Automata (one of my favorite games of all time), set thousands of years before the events of that game. The story follows a young boy (with a name of the player’s choosing) who protects and cares for his sister, Yonah, who is sick with a mysterious disease known as the Black Scrawl. He sets off in search of a cure, fighting mysterious enemies called Shades and meeting companions like Emil (another boy with mysterious powers), Kaine (a half-shade, half-human, half-naked badass), and the glorious Grimoire Weiss (a talking magic book) along the way. The characters are very unique and colorful, and their banter makes the game’s many hours of traversal much more bearable. It’s also a treat to discover more about the characters and watch their journeys unfold, as there are some truly surprising—and devastating—revelations and moments in store for all of them.
Now, to speak more about the specifics of NieR Replicant’s story and characters would be a disservice to those looking to experience the game for themselves—something that is essential to Replicant’s effectiveness and resonance. The story begins as fairly generic JRPG fare—almost tediously so, in fact. This is clearly by design, but it makes the early few hours a bit of an endeavor to get through. Once it kicks off, though, it is relentless in its revelations and twists, putting the characters and player through the ringer. Its slow start makes way for a game that unfolds slowly and beautifully, and it’s only so effective because of how well it establishes the characters and stakes so early on. Without those opening hours, the game’s many twists and turns simply would not have the same level of effect.
And boy, are there ever some twists and turns! Like NieR Automata, Replicant requires multiple playthroughs to reach the “true” ending. While the destination is worth the effort, I found this outing to be a bit more difficult to replay over and over. While this game clearly set the stage for Automata in terms of structure and themes, the quest structure has not aged well since its initial release. Most missions involve traversing back and forth between the game’s different locales, collecting an item or speaking to a certain person, and fighting Shades along the way. There are some puzzles and unique encounters sprinkled in, but you will spend a lot of time running back and forth between a small handful of locations—it’s not always thrilling, and while the monotony is intentional early on, it doesn’t make it any more fun to play.
What is fun, however, are the actual acts of moving around the world and fighting Shades. Full disclosure, I never played the original NieR release, but from what I understand the gameplay mechanics in this game were revamped a bit to feel more like Automata—and they do, which is excellent. In Replicant, you string together basic combos and mix in magic abilities like dagger projectiles, spinning blades that surround the player, and even clones of the player that fight alongside them. While there is not a ton of enemy variety outside of boss encounters, the number of different options in combat keeps every battle feeling fresh and open to experimentation. The game eventually even offers different weapon archetypes besides the standard sword, including two-handed greatswords, axes, and spears. The ability to customize both weapons and spells with various stat buffs and effects—as well as switch them on the fly mid-combat—makes combat in this game a consistent joy.
The game also runs very smooth and has a haunting, ethereal beauty when it comes to graphics. The world is largely empty outside of settlements, but it’s littered with environmental hints of what life was like before the world was decimated—nameless stone monuments stand alone in the desert, dilapidated bridges rise over empty, grassy fields. And while the graphics aren’t cutting-edge, they hold up well compared to many remasters.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the game’s unbelievably powerful and stirring soundtrack. Composer Keiichi Okabe, who also composed the all-time-great NieR Automata score, reminds us of his genius with a score that is ambient, melancholy, and epic in equal measure. It will brings tears to your eyes in one scene and have your heart beating a little faster in the next—it’s a masterful example of the power that music in games can have.
NieR Replicant can feel too slow at parts, but it’s a journey well worth taking (over and over and over). Its story is moving and asks big questions about the nature of humanity, and playing it in 2021 really opened my eyes to how ahead of its time this game must have been in 2010. Combine that story with some kinetic combat, absorbing atmosphere and characters, and a haunting score and you have one of the year’s strongest experiences. It’s held back somewhat by its overly-simplistic mission structure and reliance on backtracking, but the good easily outweighs the bad. NieR Replicant, like its sequel, is a game that makes you think, feel, and dream—all while giving players a very enjoyable gaming experience. It’s the textbook definition of a flawed masterpiece, overcoming its weaknesses to deliver something compelling and affirming.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for this review]