For players who first discovered Nier through PlatinumGames’ 2017 outing, its 2010 predecessor may seem like it’s from another time and place.
The post-apocalyptic future depicted in Nier Replicant (or to give the remaster its full title, Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…) appears less sci-fi based but a world of ruins where humans still try to survive, while your powers come from dark magic rather than high-tech gadgets.
But even for those who did play the original Nier by the now-defunct Cavia (the remaster is handled by ToyLogic), this is still technically a new experience as it’s actually a remaster of the Japanese version of the game where the protagonist was a teenage boy rather than a middle-aged man, which does significantly alter the story’s context.
Our hands-on isn’t focused on the story, instead Square Enix seems intent on reminding us of the parallels Replicant shares with Automata, at least based on our trip to the Junk Heap in the early hours of the game. This dungeon of narrow corridors has us fighting against enemies not unlike the Machines in Automata, and similarly not all that inspiring in design.
Combat might not have the lustre of a PlatinumGames production but controls similarly with quick melee combos and a dodge that when timed correctly has you sliding around your enemy. One welcome addition is being able to block attacks, which can also turn into a parry that lets you follow up with a high-damaging counter.
It’s however tricky to gauge the attack windows just right, not helped by the fact you’re often being assailed by multiple enemies, which also makes the lock-on camera frustrating, as we found it frequently targeting a different enemy from what we anticipated. As with Automata, the game also regularly changes its third-person behind-the-player action perspective, going from side-scrolling to top-down, sometimes without rhyme or reason.
That said, in the Junk Heap we mostly keep our distance since these machines frequently shoot volts of electricity in front. This is where our dark magic comes in handy, thanks to an unlikely alliance with a floating, talking book named Grimoire Weiss. His presence could be likened to the pods that followed the player around in Automata and one spell Dark Blast is essentially firing projectiles like a turret.
But there are even more spells at your disposal, from a close-to-mid-ranged dark fist smash to another that shoots a dark lance long-range, with most spells able to become more powerful when charged up. You can, in theory, map up to four spells to the shoulder buttons, though we personally opted to keep our ability to defend and evade for the triggers.
As a knowledgeable tome, Weiss also functions as your encyclopedia and organiser in the menu screen, whether you need to dig up tutorials or track quests. Aside from spells, some defeated enemies also drop ‘words’. Similar to how your spells come from Sealed Verses, Weiss can also use these words as modifiers to improve your weapons and spells. If the words sound like mumbo-jumbo to you, the good news is you also have an option to just auto-equip the best combination.
“That Replicant is essentially a ‘new’ Nier experience, or at least a version we never got in the West before, should be reason enough for dedicated Nier fans to seek it out.”
Weiss’ dialogue is also undoubtedly one of Replicant’s highlights, with the air of a rude and weary butler, and although the remaster offers dual audio options, it’s as good a reason as any to stick with the English audio – not to mention you’ll spare yourself trying to keep up reading subtitles in the middle of combat.
Indeed, audio remains Nier’s biggest strength, and those enraptured by Automata’s ethereal score will be pleased that composer Keiichi Okabe returns with a re-scored and extended soundtrack, from the Northern Plains theme with Emi Evans’ beautiful otherworldly vocals to the epic choirs during the large-scale boss battles.
These soundscapes certainly do a lot of the aesthetic and emotional heavy-lifting compared to the visuals, which while clearly a vast improvement over the PS3/360 versions nonetheless feels a little underwhelming. The frame rate doubling to 60fps is naturally great but it’s a shame there’s no resolution upgrade beyond 1080p for those with a PS4 Pro, Xbox One X or a new-gen console.
Yet an increased resolution would probably do no favours for the ultimately bland environments, as seen in both the Junk Heap and the Northern Plains, the latter an open but empty field for you to slaughter sheep or the game’s principal enemies, Shades.
The dated character design is more evident when in another boss fight we team up with Kainé, a potty-mouthed woman who fights in her undergarments, a fact the game almost never fails to remind us about.
Still, for those who preferred the older protagonist in the Gestalt version released in the West, it does make a bit more sense to play with a younger protagonist. As the story jumps five years later in the mid-point, there’s evidently a more pronounced difference in seeing a boy become a man.
The melee combat also opens up, where before, we felt little difference between the one-handed weapons we were using. But as an adult able to use two-handed and spear weapons, there’s a greater sense of weight and speed to distinguish the weapon types to influence your playstyle.
That Replicant is essentially a ‘new’ Nier experience, or at least a version we never got in the West before, should be reason enough for dedicated Nier fans to seek it out. At the moment, it’s a bit of an uneven remaster compared to more polished re-releases, but for new converts who a masterpiece in the rough edges and quirks of Automata, it probably won’t matter when it’s still a game that’s filled with Yoko Taro’s unique personality, warts and all.