'Nier Replicant’ Beautifully Updates a Classic Oddity, but Can’t Replace It

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"What if Ace Combat had Dragons?" is how it all began. Drakengard sprang to life—a mishmash of ground-based action RPG combat (added late in development) and aerial dragon combat, dark European fantasy, and too much Neon Genesis Evangelion—on the Playstation 2 in 2003. It was weird and chaotic, a broken, repetitive, shambling mess. It was just playable enough and outlandishly beautiful in its coarseness that it wasn't critically and commercially abandoned, and instead became one of those oddities of the PS2 era: cultishly adored and largely ignored. 

Tucked away inside it is a joke ending, a what-if alternate timeline scenario where the final boss crashes through an interdimensional portal, chased by the hero and his dragon. The gigantic salt-statue woman fractures over the skyline of Tokyo in 2003. The hero and his dragon are blown out of the sky by the Japan Air Self Defense Force. This is the world from which Nier originates. The joke ending unspooled into its own continuity: the world was brought to the brink of extinction by an extra dimensional terror fallen from the sky onto modern day Tokyo, and the results of that calamity still resonate 1400 years later, where a brother and sister are trying to survive at the end of the world. That's Nier, and at its heart is a question—who gets to persist? 

It's a funny question for a new version of a decade old game. And one that, by the end of the first ending (there are 5 endings now) will become all the more humorous and dire. But to reduce Nier down to its inciting event and core world conceit is to do it a disservice. Like its predecessor, Nier is a broken, shambling beauty. A cult oddity. A relic precious to only the Yoko Taro fandom, at times their own mystery religion. It's not entirely unearned as the art direction, writing, and soundtrack have always put most other games in its class to shame. But in the end comparatively few people played, or wanted to play Nier when it debuted on PS3 in 2010.
'Nier: Automata' screenshot courtesy of Square Enix
All that changed when the sequel to Nier sold five-million-plus copies. Nier: Automata populated the shattered earth with sexy butler and maid androids—horny, aloof, queer, totalitarian ones. It brought all the apocalyptic and cyberpunk tropes from three decades of anime, SparkNotes psychoanalytics, and a survey of western philosophy to the masses of PS4 owners who just wanted to play the new big action rpg with aggressively smooth PlatinumGames combat and sexy, sad androids. It's story and world are a palimpsest, a linkage of a host of multimedia properties, and of course—the original Nier. 

Because of that, Nier was back in vogue. The dismissed oddity had become objet petit a. So now, three years later, Yoko Taro has returned to further complicate matters with NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… (yes, the ellipse at the end of the title is part of it, but we're going to be referring to this version as Nier 1.22 throughout).

Pinning Nier down can be tricky. It's doing a lot of work. But let's try…

There are now three Niers. When it was originally released in Japan, Nier was the story of a hyperattentive brother and his chronically ill sister. The Protagonist (aka Nier) is a fey lad. An overworked but not yet tragic bishi who will become a riff on the naive anime boy with problems—you know like Evangelion's Shinji Ikari or Metal Gear's Raiden. He's a capable killer, a bad listener, and he loves to make friends at the drop of a hat. Precious, exuberant, and pretty.

Marketing said that this wasn't going to sell in "the West," certainly not America—an unrefined wasteland where grim hypermasculine titans like Marcus Fenix and Kratos stomped and grazed like colossal buffalo.

So we got a dad. A grim-looking dad. Yonah turned from a sister into a daughter, and those of us outside Japan got our Nier. 
The original 2010 'Nier' courtesy of Square Enix
This division would eventually come to be represented by two (at the time) unofficial shifts in title —Nier Gestalt (Dad Nier) and Nier Replicant (Brother Nier).

On a purely technical and mechanical level the games were fundamentally unaltered from one another. But this seemingly tiny change creates huge ripples and Nier Gestalt and Nier Replicant become wholly different experiences because of it. All of the neediness, friendship-forging, and community-involvement of brother Nier was still present in this new hypermasculine approach to Nier. Video games got the least toxically masculine sad dad (Kratos 2018 doesn't even come close). If anything, Nier Gestalt is the game that showed us video games could have Better Dads, even when it was a marketing decision laser-targeted to the emotional stuntedness of the American Gamer. 

Because at its core Nier is a game about loving someone so much your heart will burst. It's about chronic illness and friendship and breaking the entire goddamn world apart for the one person you care most about. Nier is a game about caring too much, not enough, just right. It's about making friends and helping everyone, and then it's about being incredibly insular and rigidly focused, until it's about friendship again. When asked, “Is this Loss?” Nier says, “no, this is Loss.” And some people cry, but many others laugh. It's about the fleeting joy in a young brown-limbed girl's footfalls and gentle huffs as she guides you through a bizarre city of rules and masks, or a bickering doomed couple with matching luggage. Nier is a game that is too overwrought, that can't help but undercut its own emotional weight with its melodramatic aggressiveness, and the result is an undeniable mess that is still sublime in many places.

And now we have a new Nier to square with. Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… makes explicit the distinction between the original Gestalt and Replicant. It states the version we formed a relationship with was a more significant edit than imagined that created an aberrant text. That Yoko Taro and Square Enix consider there to be a canonical Nier, that it’s Replicant. But this decade later retcon for the non-Japanese market just proves that there can be no Canonical Nier. 

So what the fuck are we even remaking and why? 

For the first time, players outside Japan are getting to play as the young brother Nier. Which is interesting, sure. It’s an experience we never got to have and it’s the most significant change. I honestly couldn't tell you if there was a difference in most of the areas aside from a greater draw distance and higher resolution textures. Visually the biggest shift is that everyone looks like a Japanese ball-jointed doll now. It’s unsettling in a way that “uncanny valley” doesn’t begin to wrangle. But it works, especially with Yoko Taro’s penchant for swinging the camera into a dollhouse view. All the voice actors who matter have returned—Grimoire Weiss, a timeless magical book, is voiced flawlessly by Liam O'Brien and the inimitable Laura Bailey returns to breathe pathos into constant streams of disaffected profanity. That line you undoubtedly heard about, the one that opened the intro as SQUARE ENIX splashed on the screen in Nier Gestalt? It's still in the game, even if it's been removed from the intro, and Bailey growls it deliciously once again.

There's still fishing (which has been made even easier than it already was—walk to the water, press circle, choose a bait, pull the thumbstick in the opposite direction when you get a bite), and gardening which is unlocked by a quest in Nier's home village, there's weapons to collect (which you'll need to do in order to unlock the third ending) and upgrade (which you'll need to do if you're interested in reading the short stories associated with each weapon), and there's dozens of side quests that unfold character relationships and world details. Are some of those activities still extremely tedious? You bet. And Grimoire Weiss will comment on just how tedious, exhausting, and ridiculous RPG quests each and every time. 

The DLC from the original game is baked-in this time and offers up some challenge dungeons and oddities, from an endurance brawl on a basketball court to a heavily filtered rail shooter on a municipal transit boat. You’ll play through this as Dad Nier, because that’s how it was in the original Replicant, just like in Gestalt, western players were treated to Brother Nier. No, nothing is simple or sensical. 

If you're familiar with Automata, the camera hijacking, field of view changes are just as prevalent in this game—but the update has made the transitions much smoother with a bump to and stabilization of frame rates. Thank god. If you're not familiar with Automata: this game will shift the camera on you as frequently as it changes the kind of game you're in. You thought it was an over the shoulder character action game? And now suddenly you're in an isometric science horror game? Yep. Welcome to Nier.

Where the mixed modalities of Drakengard and Automata truly find their weird home is in Nier, and 1.22 retains all the genre playfulness of the original and even finds time to embellish and expand with a side-scrolling adventure game ghost story interlude on a shipwreck that's new to this version.

Perhaps the biggest change beyond the sheer dedication to upping the graphical fidelity is the combat system. This isn't 2010’s Nier. It's not fiddly and clumsy. There's no coarse brutality in the timings or movements. Even the brutal heft has been diminished. The lessons learned from Platinum's smeary, frictionless Platinum combat in Nier: Automata have been internalized and brought over. But it's not as bad as that may sound. 

In Automata, the combat was purposeful in being ignorable. Killing was supposed to be an effortless glide through the world. Something you forgot about, didn't pay attention to, until you'd racked up a body count in the upper hundreds of thousands. Mechanically the concept worked—the combat was indeed weightless and forgettable. Thematically though…eh.

Nier 1.22 is smoother. That's true. And for the entire first half, it feels far too quick and efficient. It's floaty like Kingdom Hearts, but too generic to be offensive or weird. The second half of the game brings with it two-handed swords, spears, and the mass and awkwardness I had been missing. It's not perfect, it's not the same—but it's damn close and it feels good.

When you embrace Easy Mode and turn on the auto-battle system it feels and looks even better.

Look, there's a hierarchy of combat systems worth genuinely engaging in: Ninja Gaiden (2004) > Devil May Cry (2001) > and then everything else (except for Kingdom Hearts and Dark Souls, which are in their own weird pocket dimensions). Drakengard, Nier, Automata — they were never going to be in the top 10 or the middle 50, they don't need to be, just let it go and enjoy the choreography of chaos in auto mode.

Like in Automata, the automated options turn a sometimes repetitive grind of late-game rare upgrade and quest item acquisitions (that drop less frequently than vanilla World of Warcraft quest turn-ins) into a straight-up stylish anime. It's sick. 

Tragically, this is only available in easy mode, but you can toggle that from the main menu. So whether you want to just bliss your way through boss fights, or really up the stakes, having save points before each arena (even when it makes literally no sense — there's a mailbox on a shipwreck at one point, another in an underground robotic weapons factory, etc.) where you can quickly duck to the title screen to make individual fights more robust or flimsy is nice. 

As for the boss fights themselves? Well if there's one area where Nier has never fallen down, it's in boss encounters. from baffling patterns of giant salmon roe-like bullet hell to multi-phasic mayhem, Nier's boss battles are a sight to behold. Bosses in this game are colossal. I played this on a 55" television and seeing enemies I'd thought were huge at 24" more than in size was tremendous. Only From Software deals with scale and intricacy the way Nier does, and even then I think Nier might have them bested. These bosses are big and the challenge of making them as engaging and interesting as their size is quite the undertaking. Replaying these fights had me wondering how much Naoki Yoshida had looked to Nier for inspiration in various boss encounters in Final Fantasy XIV (and eager to blitz through Shadowbringers to get to the raid Yoko Taro co-designed). 

But more than just their massiveness, difficulty, or complexity, these encounters genuinely try to connect with and communicate their narrative and thematic function within the encounter. The feral grandma-killer, the anguished shipwrecked maiden, or the imprisoned-for-millenia ultimate weapon, and so on. Having to encounter bosses two to three times each gives you a chance to really appreciate not only the artistry behind the model itself, but also the comedic and tragic moments on a fight by fight, phase by phase level. It's rare for bosses to be so lovingly and carefully brought to life, but even the most exhausting battle can be tuned for any level of ability with the use of the auto-battle system. Need an assist in dodging your way through hundreds of giant pink orbs? Nier 1.22… is there for you. It really is a welcome addition that takes the burden off perfect timing and wrestling with an imperfect combat system, and opens this game to be appreciated by more people, which should always be the ultimate goal of any revised work.

And that's ultimately what Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… is — a revision. Really, a revisitation. It's not expansive or deletive enough to be a Director's Cut or a Remake yet despite its conservative nature, it's still much more than a remaster.  This is a pivot point for the franchise. It's drawing a line in the sand and pulling Nier further towards the Automata side of things and away from the Drakengard era. And the inclusion of new content expands upon the world built by the original material in a meaningful, but not overly burdensome way. This is the idealized version of Nier Replicant—for now. 

I’m sure there’s a desire to frame this revision as original intent. That, like the inclusion of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail or Greedo shooting first, this is a Lucasian rework to bring the original product in line with an unproducible-at-the-time master vision. That sells more copies. People genuinely like canonicity. And in the end this is what people will play, and discuss, and it's arguably going to be the focal point of discourse about Yoko Taro, this franchise, and specifically this game. I find it hard to shrug aside the fact that this game is going to introduce countless more people to this franchise, some who were barely even alive for the original. New players can slide into the newly christened Nier series having never known what came before it. And it’s hard to push aside the creeping belief that is exactly what Square Enix wants—The MCU-ification of Nier. A new franchise break point. The Drakengard series becomes the Nier: Automata series. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll see Drakengard being brought into the fold—maybe as Nier: Drakengard—with refreshed combat and visuals to bring it into the aesthetics and mechanics of the present, and jettisoning what made the game interesting in the first place. Nier 1.22 has left me in a weird space. Because while I’m glad to revisit Nier without having to pull out my fatiguing PS3, this is firmly disconnecting itself from the broken, shambling beauty it was. With this revision comes a sense of fulfillment and relief, but also sadness and longing. 

This is Nier. And it isn't. As revisitation, this is arguably the first of a new taxonomy for video games. The original creators returned to oversee the recreation of their original work. On a base level it is almost purely additive. Nothing has truly been removed, the quests and characters are all in their places, and the landscapes have blossomed with more grasses and flowers than ever before. The bit depth is higher, what once existed as a short story is now real content, the ocean of Seafront isn't a flat intense blue, but a graduated Aegean. This is Nier Plus, it is simply More. Even the saccharine and pretentious version numbering in the title cheekily gestures at this being a revision, not a new work. What changes have been made are in some ways a "correction" for things that weren't possible in the time the game was originally made. Perhaps this is the game we should have gotten all along. 

But 11 years is a long time. The Yoko Taro who released Nier in 2010 is arguably not the same Yoko Taro who has left his fingerprints on 1.22. That Yoko Taro hadn't had a surprise success with the standalone sequel Nier: Automata—or the budget and support that comes with such success. This game was overseen by the Yoko Taro who was given the opportunity and the budget to revisit what many consider to be the better game, the maligned darling, the cherished broken treasure and give it the treatment that made Nier: Automata sell over five million copies.

Anyone who says they don't like praise and success is lying (even if it makes them uncomfortable). Why wouldn't Yoko Taro revisit Nier and bring it more in line with Automata? Even if it tragically means stripping the bizarre and chaotic PS2 lifeforce from the game and smoothing it out into a PS4 Greatest Hits that will one day be trotted out by Sony as the Nier Duology for the launch of the PS6. Whether the psychic landscape of the Yoko Taro who made both games is radically altered between them doesn't matter to most people. The debate over remaster vs remake vs revisitation vs preservation isn't a concern for them either—this is the definitive article until further down the line a new definitive article becomes available. This is the state we're in.

Which isn’t to say this is a bad game, far from it. Every step of the way I loved my time with Nier 1.22. I got teary at the exact same moments I knew were coming before I even finished downloading it, and I liked finally being able to play as Brother Nier (even as I mourned Dad Nier). But forcing Nier to become brand-compliant with the accidental hit, especially while burying the original is a categorical loss. Transitioning Nier from feeling like a late-era PS2 game that got a last minute bump to become a PS3 game into a full-fledged end of a generation PS4 title is a massive aesthetic, mechanical, and contextual shift — even more so than Dad Nier vs Brother Nier, and I can't say it sits well. And this is all too indicative of a broader industry trend towards scavenging it’s old media, not to exalt and bring back, but to harvest and re-sell at a higher price? Why bring back a $19.99 game when you can put in a lot of effort to sell it for $69.99? Why keep original versions around and available when you can shutter the stores that support them and tell customers that this new, more expensive version is "what it was meant to be all along" and watch their curiosity and enthusiasm short-circuit their skepticism?

And this is ultimately the root of the problem with Nier 1.22 — it's forcing us into an era where the remake is the definitive text, the canonical copy of a game that existed for over a decade that formed connections with players and shows us an entirely different world of game making. The original text has murdered the exported release and the revision has come to strangle the original text because the best-selling sequel demanded it. What we're left with is two nearly identical Niers each vying to be the true Nier. One must imagine Yoko Taro happy when he watches quietly as one snuffs the other. 
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