Like a lot of people, NieR Automata was my introduction to the world of NieR and the works of Yoko Taro. It’s no exaggeration to say that it quickly earned its place as my favourite game of all time, with its beautiful, heartbreaking story, its sense of humour, its subversive approach to the videogame medium as a whole. But most of all, it’s the philosophical musing that runs through all of that: nuanced, deep, complex, but approachable explorations of existentialism, of revenge, of humanity, of the unique perspective that each individual sees the world from. It blew me away, more than any other game ever has.
If you’re in my shoes, NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… is a chance to see where all those ideas took root. A “version upgrade” of the original NieR, it comes with a suite of technical improvements and new features, but its biggest achievement is simply in making NieR readily available, and giving it another shot at the success it so richly deserves. Off the back of Automata, I don’t think it’s necessarily as shocking to play now—what I wouldn’t give to be able to go back in time and play the original at launch, without any knowledge of what to expect—but it’s every bit as impressive, thoughtful, and beautiful as its sequel.
A note on spoilers: This review will be as spoiler-free as possible, especially with regard to plot details and such, but the nature of NieR—when even the most superficial discussion of something like how much fun it is to press buttons is inherently tied to the themes and narrative—makes it near impossible to avoid spoilers entirely. If you want a 100% spoiler-free review, here it is: “NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474467139… is an absolute masterpiece in the truest sense of the word, and you need to play it immediately.”
Taking place in the distant future, amid the ruins of a long-lost civilization, NieR Replicant tells the story of a young man on a journey to find a cure for the mysterious illness that ails his younger sister. It’s a world where humans scrape by in small, primitive communities, and where deadly monsters known as Shades roam the wastelands. “The Black Scrawl”—called as such for the black letters that appear on the skin of its victims—is a deadly illness with no known remedy, but Nier will do anything for his sister, even if that means walking head-first into the lair of the Shades.
The premise of a young hero travelling the world, going head-to-head with creatures of darkness on a quest to save a loved one is a familiar one. You might even say predictable and tired—and indeed, NieR Replicant starts out walking down exactly this well-trodden path. But that’s the first of its many tricks: this is just laying the groundwork for what amounts to bold subversion of the most common narrative setups in videogames.
As you can probably guess, there’s more to Shades than first meets the eye. There’s more to humans, too, and more to the very fabric of this post-apocalyptic setting. The genius of NieR Replicant lies in how it slowly peels back those layers, setting expectations and then breaking them, over and over again, in a way that questions the very nature of existence.
In the first run through Replicant, what you get is that familiar confronting-the-darkness adventure—a particularly well-told version of it, full of complex characters in a rich, unique setting, but a familiar tale all the same. But upon “completion”, you’ll continue from part-way through, only this time with the shocking revelations from the first ending and some additional scenes adding new context—not just a different perspective, but one that fundamentally up-ends everything that came before. “Complete” the game again, and you’ll dig deeper, throwing ever more spanners into the “truth” that you thought you knew, questioning the questions that came before as much as the answers you thought you had to them.
NieR goes beyond the question of “what does it mean to be human?”. Fascinating though that is to ponder, it’s just a starting point for far more interesting questions than “what”: the whys and the hows and the what ifs. Not just “what does it mean to be human”, but “what does it mean for me to be human, in this very specific time and place in which I exist?” It’s a rejection of assumptions about the very nature of existence, given weight by the way those questions take form in the rejection of assumptions about how a story should be told. (Granted, “fake endings” somewhat synonymous with the name Yoko Taro now, but the impact of them is no less for it.)
In the same vein, NieR Replicant rejects a lot of the assumptions we have about videogames as a medium. At its core, it’s an action RPG that sees you running around a fantasy-ish world, hacking and slashing your way through monsters… until a camera shift to a side-scrolling perspective means you’re suddenly playing a platformer. Nothing has changed on any fundamental mechanical level, but a simple shift in perspective reframes the entire experience. Shift the camera again, and you’re playing a twin-stick shooter or a Diablo-style hack-and-slash. Fix a normally free-moving camera in place, within the context of an eerie mansion, and suddenly you’re playing what feels like Resident Evil. Stretch a dialogue window out to full screen, and what was an action RPG becomes a visual novel.
Ask Yoko Taro about this, and he’ll always say that it’s simply because he gets bored easily. But there’s a lot more to it than that: that the game can change genre so easily and so seamlessly shows how fickle assumptions about the fundamental structure of a game really are. It’s that whole question about the meaning of existence again, but given form in the most direct, mechanical way possible. (It’s also just a whole lot of fun to be playing a third-person action game that decides to just be a visual novel for a bit.)
Much of what I’ve said above applies to NieR Automata (honestly, I was a little tempted to just copy-paste pieces of that review…), but as someone who played Automata first, it’s fascinating to see the inception of those ideas. Automata is big and refined, going further and deeper in the way it brought things like religion and gender into the existential question—it was, after all, a game that built upon the foundation of what came before. By contrast, Replicant is a little rougher, a little more experimental, and a little narrower in focus. And honestly? It’s better for it. For all the love I have for Automata, Replicant‘s more intimate, less pristine nature makes it hit that much harder.
If the genius of NieR Replicant is in how it subverts structure and expectation in service of a theme, the magic of it is in how, for all its heady philosophical musing, it always keeps humanity at its core. Its existentialist ideas could easily become dry and academic, but NieR weaves them through stories and characters that are beautiful, funny, bittersweet, flawed, fascinating, and deeply, deeply human.
NieR is, at heart, a story about a bunch of outcasts trying to find their places in a world that often wants nothing to do with them. It’s a game where your companions are a self-important talking book, a foul-mouthed woman who runs around in literal lingerie, and a flying skeleton, and where these details are the least interesting things about them. What’s far more noteworthy is how they relate to one another and respond to the world around them, and how much care the game takes in telling their stories—without judgement and without comment, just a raw, honest reflection on who they are as people and the inherent worth of their existence, regardless of how their world sees them.
This is true across the board, but Kainé—the aforementioned undergarment-wearing profanity queen—is an especially noteworthy example. She’s powerful, fragile, unbending, caring, scared, playful, heroic, cute, with all these different traits not just coexisting, but being different sides of the same die. She’s not powerful in spite of being fragile, or even really because of it, either; they’re just dimensions to a complex, human character.
Kainé is intersex, which is both a fundamental and crucial part of her character but also something that doesn’t really get talked about much directly because it’s not that relevant to what’s going on most of the time. It’s an important part of her identity, but it’s far from the entirety of who she is, and the nuance and care with which the script navigates that distinction is remarkable. Even the whole lingerie thing manages to come across without seeming sexualised, forced, or played for laughs; Kainé has her reasons for dressing the way she does, and they’re important to her, but not really that relevant to the story. Where any other game would turn it into a source of lewd humour, NieR just makes Kainé’s outfit another dimension to an incredibly multifaceted character.
There’s plenty of humour and levity, too. Yoko Taro’s always been fond of self-aware jokes and broken fourth walls, and NieR Replicant is no exception, but the greatest source of laughs is, once again, in the dynamics between the characters. The exchanges between Grimoire Weiss and Kainé, especially, are legendary: the combination of a prudish old tome doing a perfect Alan Rickman impression and a brash young woman with language so colourful it’d take George Carlin by surprise is a recipe for some truly hilarious moments.
It’s a beautiful thing to witness, made all the more so for Keiichi Okabe’s stunning score. The atmosphere it creates adds so much to every moment of the game, from the excitement of a big boss battle to a quiet heart-to-heart between characters. The world of NieR is a desolate one, the last vestige of a dying planet, and necessarily barren because of that—but the richness of the music brings texture and meaning to even something as seemingly mundane as trekking back and forth across a desert.
Thankfully, NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… hasn’t tried to “fix” this setting, despite the common criticism of the original for being too brown and lifeless. That mood is kept fully intact here, but with increased draw distances, improved textures, and other such technical improvements making those sparse landscapes that much more impressive and impactful. The character models are much more detailed this time around, letting their personalities shine through even more, and a more refined combat system tidies up the clunkiness of the original, bringing it closer to NieR Automata.
Between bonus dungeons, new costumes, and additional story elements, there’s plenty of new stuff for old NieR fans to enjoy, too. It’s mostly superficial but welcome stuff, with some Automata tie-ins being a particular delight, but there’s one other little extra that brings a lot to the table in terms of the whole NieR storyline and the ideas it encompasses. I’ll say no more than that, but know that it’s something to look forward to.
The original NieR was a masterpiece, even if a middling critical reception and commercial struggles meant too few people got to enjoy and appreciate it. With NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, it finally gets a second chance at the acclaim it deserves, at a time when the world’s much more receptive to Yoko Taro’s particular style, and with all the improvements that this version upgrade brings. Automata will always have a special place in my heart as the game that introduced me to NieR, but Replicant—with its narrower focus, with its raw energy, with its humanity, with Kainé—might just have taken the crown.
Title: NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
Developer: Square Enix, ToyLogic
Publisher: Square Enix
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.