Yoko Taro's recent transformation from cult JRPG auteur to something of a fandom icon has been a very welcome surprise. To be clear, Taro is not the sole reason for the monumental success of 2017's NieR: Automata. The talented developers at Platinum Games worked overtime to create action-packed and polished gameplay to match the title's narrative ambitions, and Yoko Taro's usual cadre of Drakengard/Nier collaborators (including writer Hana Kikuchi and producer Yosuke Saito) were on hand to make sure that the dark, existential story came together in a masterful package. The original Nier may have forever remained a hidden gem of console generations past if Nier: Automata hadn't sold millions of copies worldwide.
Automata was a hit, and suddenly Yoko Taro's penchant for crafting dark and subversive video-game stories had garnered him some newfound celebrity, and with it came franchise crossovers with big-name hits like Soul Caliber VI and Final Fantasy XIV. So, here we are in 2021, and Square Enix has seen fit to partner with the developers at Toylogic to craft what Yoko Taro himself has called a “version” upgrade to the original: Nier Replicant Ver.1.22474487139... (and as much as I appreciate the typical IDGAF attitude over naming conventions, I'll stick to calling it “Replicant” from now on for the sake of convenience).
Similar to what BioWare recently did for the original Mass Effect with its new Legendary Edition, Nier Replicant is both a little more than a remaster, while not quite hitting the mark of a full-fledged remake. Outside of the obvious graphical touch-ups, the oft-maligned combat of the original has been given a much-needed fine-tuning, and this is the first time that those of us in the West will be experiencing the story of Nier with the younger, “brother” version of the protagonist (the Western release from 2010 infamously replaced Brother Nier with an adorably ugly middle-aged man that the fandom refers to as “Papa Nier”, a move that preceded the oncoming wave of “Dad Simulator” games by a solid few years). Beyond that, the campaign offers a new “Episode Mermaid” story that fits nicely along with the main plot, in addition to a brand-new Ending E that I wouldn't dream of spoiling here. At the end of the day, however, this core of the game remains virtually identical to what Taro and Co. cooked up back in 2010.
This is very much a good thing. Though Nier gained a lot of notoriety for its obvious jank and lack of polish, there's a reason the game became such a cult favorite over the years: It was a masterpiece. The melancholy and fractured world that Nier wanders through was modest in size and scope even by the standards of a mid-budget 2010s game, but it is brimming with more character and emotional impact than most of today's billion-dollar success stories can't muster. The haunting story was bolstered with the time that Nier and Weiss spend with characters like Emil, the goodest skeleton boy that ever lived, and Kainé, the foul-mouthed maiden of murder that steals every scene she appears in. Sure, Nier wasn't always exactly fun to play…but it didn't need to be. It was an emotional, engrossing experience, one that wouldn't be matched until, well, NieR: Automata.
With this Version Upgrade, Toylogic has managed to retain every single one of Nier's great qualities – its incredible writing, its willingness to challenge and shock its players, Keiichi's Okabe's perfect OST – while sanding off many of the original's rougher edges. Graphically, Nier Replicant isn't going to be winning any awards for being the prettiest belle at the ball, but it looks a damn sight better than the original did chugging along on seventh-generation hardware. The layout of the environments is 1:1 with the 2010 game, but every surface and corner has been given just enough of a spit-shine to stand up to modern expectations.
Just as impressive is the game's performance, which is rock-solid for the first time ever. I played the PS4 version of the game via backwards compatibility on my PS5, and it maintained a stable 60 FPS at 1080p resolution for all fifty-three hours of my complete playthrough (save for cutscenes, which run at 30 FPS). I was more than happy with this experience, though if you are itching for even more Ks to add to your Ps, the Xbox One X and Series X versions run at 1440p. I haven't had the opportunity to check out the PC version, but I hear tell it's rough around the edges, at least as of the time of this writing.
Even more than its visuals, Nier Replicant knocks it out of the park with its audio design. Across Drakengard 3 and both Nier games, composer Keiichi Okabe has produced some of the finest video game soundtracks of all time. Newly remixed and remastered, Nier Replicant's OST grabs you from the opening seconds of the game and literally never stops topping itself until the game is finished. This is also a case in which I recommend that even the most hardline of sub purists give the English localization a chance, because it's first-class. Not only is the translation on point, but Laura Bailey, Julie Ann Taylor, and Liam O'Brien return to voice Kainé, Emil, and Weiss respectively, and they each absolutely kill it with their performances. Zach Aguilar and Ray Chase both split the billing as Nier at different points in his life, and they capture the character's many nuanced shades of anger, resilience, compassion, and undying loyalty. Best of all, every single NPC in the game has now been given a voice to match their dialogue, which goes a long way towards selling the humanity that is such a key component of the story's success.
Okay, so we've established that Nier Replicant earns top marks for its aesthetics. The real question is whether or not it is actually any fun to play, now, and the answer is: “…kind of? Sometimes. But it's bad on purpose, I swear!” Let me explain. Yes, Toylogic has given Nier's combat a vital injection of speed and weight, and minor additions like one-button combos and the inclusion of an optional auto-battle mode go a long way towards making the fighting in Nier as flashy and engaging as ever. The problem is that no matter how many new moves get added to Nier and Co.'s arsenal, the enemies themselves are as mindless and lifeless as ever. Outside of bosses, there is virtually no strategy to attacking enemies outside of mashing your assigned physical attack and magic buttons until they're dead. You get an admittedly wide array of cool-looking spells to use throughout the game, but switching between spells mid-game is tedious, so you end up sticking to the first couple that end up working for you for the majority of your playthrough. Boss encounters are a bit more interesting (especially the new bosses added in the Upgraded story content), but Nier lacks any meaningful difficulty scale. If you're a completionist like me, and you upgrade a couple of the weapons to their max level, the combat will be astoundingly easy even on the highest difficulty levels.
Outside of the combat and the main storyline, the game breaks down into an extremely basic routine of completing fetch-quests and other errands, which boils down to a lot of walking. Now, the original game got called out for this archaic design sensibility even in 2010, but it should be said that Nier Replicant's stubborn refusal to let you off the hook of the usual JRPG tedium is very intentional. Hell, characters like Weiss make many jokes throughout the game at the expense of Nier and his seemingly pathological need to help every living human with any number of their problems, no matter how small. Some of these quests pour more salt in the wound for refusing to even reward you with any items or EXP. It isn't very “fun” in the traditional sense, but it achieves a kind of weird, artistic simulacrum of the life of a world-weary fantasy hero, and you really do end up feeling closer to Nier and his companions because of it. To put it another way: If you liked Death Stranding as much as I did, then you'll probably love Nier Replicant.
Cards on the table: NieR: Automata is my favorite game of all time. I love literally everything about it. Yoko Taro's entire approach to game and narrative design is pretty much completely on point with what I love about the medium, and it was an absolute joy for me to complete all of the extra side-quests and play-throughs needed to see Nier Replicant through to the end(s), tedium and all. That won't be the case for everyone. It is a far more polished and complete experience than it was eleven years ago, but it is still Nier, and Nier is by definition an imperfect and awkward thing. I'd be a fool to tell you that it is a flawless game, but those imperfections don't matter much to me in the grand scheme of things. Nier Replicant is a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same, and one that I recommend to anyone who is seeking to be challenged and inspired by a genuine work of art.