NieR always deserved a second chance, and you could argue that the very well received NieR Automata was exactly that. The tale of 2B touched the hearts of many a player back in 2017, but for a while, it felt like the original NieR had been left behind and largely forgotten. After all, the NieR that we got here in the West — the one starring the grumpy father figure — divided opinion to an extreme degree. The 2010 release was an intriguing title that featured a bunch of unique and surprising ideas, but it was hamstrung by clunky gameplay, piss-stained PS3-era visuals, and a story that didn't go anywhere for about ten hours or so.
And yet here we are, 11 years later, playing NieR Replicant Ver. 1.22474487139. Halfway between a remake and a remaster, it's based on the original NieR Replicant — the Japan-only version of NieR that featured a younger protagonist, instead of the aforementioned father figure that made it West.
Right off the bat, this remake-remaster does away with what was arguably NieR's biggest problem: the inherent jank. Running at a super smooth 60 frames-per-second, the new NieR Replicant is a joy to play. The controls are tight and impressively responsive, allowing for the kind of satisfyingly slick motion that eluded the original NieR.
Needless to say, it also looks a hell of a lot better than its PS3 predecessor. Although it still makes use of a rather muted colour palette, the infamous brown-grey-yellow filter that was so prominent on Sony's last-last-gen console is gone. What's more, character models have been overhauled — mostly for the better. We say that because there was a strange but somehow fitting ugliness to characters in the original NieR, but now, the main cast resemble immaculate porcelain dolls. We suppose that the change was inevitable, but hardcore NieR fans may not appreciate the alterations.
Okay, so now we have to try and explain what NieR Replicant is all about. The gist of it is that you're a young boy with an even younger sister, and she's not well. Set far into the future, human civilisation is in ruins, and murderous monsters known as shades have pushed mankind to the brink of extinction. It's a dour setting for a dour story, but your duty as an older brother demands that you find a way to cure your sibling's mysterious illness.
The opening hours of NieR Replicant are slow to say the least. You'll learn the ropes by accepting the most basic of jobs from people who live nearby, which mostly involve sprinting from one side of the village to the other more times than you care to count. Give it a bit of patience and the story does start to unfurl little by little, but for some players, it's going to be an exercise in frustration.
And at this point, we really should mention the side quests, which are largely terrible. Almost as soon as you're free to explore the village, you'll find opportunities to help the locals with their unspeakably mundane tasks. The majority of these missions boil down to fetching a number of items, or delivering a message to someone on the other side of the map. To be frank, they're not worth your time, and NieR Replicant is a far better game when you stick to the main story.
Thankfully, you can do just that. While there are a few diamonds in the rough when it comes to side quests — a handful do hinge on touching personal stories and interesting world building — the rest will quickly sap your will to play. What's more, there's no immediate value in pursuing every quest that you come across. Money is usually the sole reward, and on a regular playthrough, you don't need a whole lot of dosh.
Now, we get why the side quests are there. As noted, they do give you insight into the state of the game's world, and the roles of the people that inhabit it. However, to lock somewhat important world building behind such mind-numbingly tedious tasks is one of NieR Replicant's greatest sins.
It's this kind of design that no doubt put a lot of people off the original release, but look beyond the horrors of being asked to find ten different types of fruit, and NieR Replicant has an awful lot of heart. When the main plot finally kicks into gear and you're introduced to the rest of the game's main cast, the adventure begins to blossom. There's still an odd magic to NieR that's difficult to properly convey; a unique combination of sombre music, outlandish plot twists, and an underlying sense of otherworldly dread.
The actual gameplay structure of NieR Replicant isn't all that special. The game's world consists of several towns, separated by relatively small stretches of wilderness. The story has you go back and forth between these settlements, again, slowly unravelling the mystery of your sister's disease. And from time to time, you'll traverse a dungeon, complete with platforming, puzzles, and combat encounters.
It's really the subversion of expectations that makes NieR a cult classic. The structure might be quite formulaic, but there's a lot of creativity in the way that the game presents itself. Most notably, the title uses different camera angles to great effect, shifting the perspective during specific stints of exploration. For example, one dungeon later in the game forces a top-down, isometric view of the action, and transforms the adventure into what feels like a Diablo-esque RPG. It's these flourishes that make playing through NieR Replicant so memorable.
The game's story also leaves a valuable impression when all's said and done. We obviously won't spoil anything here, but certain plot points elevate the entire experience. That said, the writing is borderline egregious at times — the kind of nonsensical slop that would make Kingdom Hearts blush — but NieR's fusion of oddball humour and anime-style swagger is enough to carry the game's more questionable moments. Overall, it's a great ride.
Speaking of rides, combat can be quite the thrill. Even as a child, the protagonist is more than capable of swinging a sword, slicing enemies to ribbons with deft cuts and lightning fast movement. NieR Automata's influence can definitely be felt in the overhauled combat system, which is more fluid than what you'll find in the original game. Simplistic controls and easy-to-learn combos, combined with a generous dodge roll, give fights a fast but precise feel. It's fun stuff, even if it lacks the depth that was added in Automata.
Boss battles in particular showcase the strengths of Replicant's high-energy combat. The best of them have you utilising all of your abilities — including the satisfying magical attacks that come courtesy of Weiss, a brilliantly voiced talking book and steadfast companion. Your other allies aren't bad in a brawl, either, but it should be noted that you have almost no control over them. As such, combat is more Devil May Cry than a party-based action RPG.
NieR Replicant remains a memorable and affecting action RPG. Elements of its PS3-era design really haven't aged well, but this remade remaster does a lot to enhance the experience. Incredibly tight and responsive gameplay, tied together with a touching tale of uniquely oddball characters, makes for an adventure that stands the test of time.