Video Game Review: Nier Replicant

This one of the bigger games of the year for me, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Flawed, sure, but still an amazing experience.

Nier: Replicant, or its full name, Nier: Replicant ver.1.22474487139 is a remaster of a game that originally came out in 2010, during the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era. It’s the work of a Japanese game developer by the name of Yoko Taro who now has a reputation for creating some of the most distinct, absurd, genre-breaking, existential games out there. In other words, the guy is an auteur in the video game arena, same as other legendary designers like Hideo Kojima, or Richard Garriot, aka Lord British.

I first came across Yoko Taro when I innocently and foolishly popped a game into my PlayStation 2 called Drakengard. I’d gotten it because I thought it would be fun to play a game where you ride a dragon. Well… you do ride a dragon in this game, but you are also introduced a hellscape of twisted motivations, vengeance gone off the rails, existential angst, incestuous desires and the end of the world. Mechanically, it wasn’t an amazing game to play. Narratively and thematically, it was a like being asked to light a firecracker and finding out you’d detonated a nuke.

The Taro-Ness Continues

Since then, Yoko Taro has hewed closely to this particular brand of dark, existential, surprisingly deep narratives, embedded in games that usually devolve into slaughter-fests. That was a pretty niche space of occupy, but he filled it for a certain kind of gamer for many years. Until Nier: Automata came out in 2017 and suddenly put him on the mainstream map and made him a critical darling. I couldn’t even tell you what it was that changed. Was it that gamer and critical taste had changed? Was it that he worked with Platinum Games, a revered developer of combat-action games, so this time the fighting was actually really good? Was it just his time, because eventually the best kept secrets come out?

Whatever the case, Nier: Automata blew up, became a surprise hit, and Square-Enix, the publishers, suddenly needed to fill a void for more Yoko Taro they hadn’t anticipated they’d have to worry about. Fortunately for them, Automata was the spiritual successor to Replicant, and since everyone was going Nier crazy now, hey, why not just trot that previous game out again, since so few people played it?

That New Car Smell In Your Old Car

Nier: Replicant is a narratively ambitious action-RPG. The baffling opening occurs in the summer of 2053, except that Tokyo is an urban wasteland and snow is falling. A boy and his sick little sister are eking out an existence in an abandoned store, when shadow demons attack, a book grants the boy super human powers, and then the game time-skips to 1412 years later. A new boy that looks exactly like the old boy is a warrior in a quaint fantasy village, and his sister who looks identical to the other girl is still here and still sick.

The game continues to remain confusing after that.

I only got a couple of hours into the original PS3 version way back when, so this was essentially a new game for me. I will say though, that I appreciate the application of that slick, shiny, modern console graphical paint job. The biggest thing, however, is that they gave the combat engine a massive overhaul, probably to bring it in line with the high quality combat of Automata.

Yoko Taro is an incredibly visionary when it comes to telling stories. He’s also great at playing with the expectations and conventions in game design that players take for granted. However, he is not great at designing a snappy, responsive combat system that feels good. That was very apparent in the original Replicant, but this remastered version takes cues from Automata and is all the better for it.

This Is Not As Simple As You Think It’s Going To Be

Now that the game has gotten its HD facelift, and combat has been tweaked to feel faster and better, there’s nothing holding the game back from being deeply weird and disturbing. And it is, in that sneaky Yoko Taro way that catches the uninitiated off guard with a major does of guilt and self-reflection by the time you get to the end.

It starts out as a generic fantasy action RPG. You have an idyllic village, a quest to save your sister who is afflicted with an illness referred to as “the black scrawl,” and you set off on your adventure. You even make an arch-nemesis of someone who calls himself the Shadowlord, so it all feels very trope-y fantasy. Then the Yoko Taron-ness kicks in.

One thing Taro loves to do is change the story through multiple playthroughs. The first time you play the game and see it through to its “end,” that’s only the first of many endings. Also usually the most generic/expected/tropey one. Subsequent playthroughs, however, reveal more about what’s going on under the surface. It’s not unusual in a Taro game to think you’re just killing bad guys without remorse, and then, as the game reveals more of itself, really question if you’re doing the right thing, and just who is the bad guy here after all?

Mechanically, the game plays and feels fine. Not amazing, not to the same heights as Automata or the big action games like Devil May Cry, but it’s playable and responsive now. There’s a LOT of repetition in this game, a lot of fetch-quests with to-ing and fro-in across the world. Those elements can definitely wear out less patient gamers, but I’m not one of those.

Not For Everyone

I personally enjoyed my time with this game a lot. However, I don’t necessarily make a general recommendation of this game for everyone, because of my two disclaimers:

a) I am a Yoko Taro fan, so things that others find infuriating, such as a not happily ever after, or repetition in gameplay are things I can tolerate.

b) I’m one of those pretentious gamers that enjoys “meta” aspects of game design that look at and subvert traditional game themes and mechanics in unexpected ways.

I’m glad I finally got a chance to sit down and play this game, years later, improved both graphically and mechanically. None of the Yoko Taro insanity has been compromised, and it continues to be a fun, albeit weird, narratively challenging experience.

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