Warning: This review contains mild, non-ending plot spoilers.
Yoko Taro’s victory lap continues, strangely, with the game where the ascendant visionary phase of his career began.
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, stylized hereafter as Nier for obvious reasons, began life as a third Drakengard project out of the Japanese game studio Cavia, after Taro had rather infamously been put in the backseat during development of the second Drakengard game over rather heated arguments with Cavia executives about…well, go play Drakengard. They had a lot to object to. Taro was still coming into his own as a writer and narrative designer, and for every indelible instance of “demented babies crawling over the horizon to eat the good people of the kingdom,” there were pointlessly brutal vignettes and sidequests that sorely tested the patience of ratings boards across the world, combined with tedious, punishing, and “old-school” unfun sidequest and collect-a-thon gates to see all the story content the game had to offer. The original versions of this game, NieR Gestalt and NieR Replicant (released simultaneously in 2010; only Gestalt made it overseas), played a bit nicer, and instantly won a cult following of both people who’d loved the work he’d directed on Drakengard and people who found those games (there would eventually be a proper Drakengard 3, made to his specification) to be too much, but found the relatively lighter and more hopeful tone of Nier more appealing.
That second group of people, myself included, were fools, of course; Taro didn’t get more hopeful in his work. He just got more skilled in slipping in the knife.
Fans would have to wait seven years to get a sequel to the original Nier titles, and it’s not a sequel anyone really expected or imagined would happen — there will not be spoilers for the endings of Nier in this piece except to note that there are of course multiple endings, as in every Taro project, and none of them really lent themselves to great sequel hooks. NieR Automata is in many ways its own project that just incidentally collides with Nier here and there, mainly in some shared supporting members of the cast…but at least one, Emil, the man with the creepy moon golem head, is among the most iconic and beloved. Not in the least because Taro himself never gives an interview without wearing the thing.
Our Nier then, Nier 2021, is the original NieR Replicant ported into the NieR Automata engine. It’s been a long time since I played NieR Gestalt — literally over a decade, such that while I have the original disc in storage somewhere still I no longer have the XBox 360 I’d need to play it — but this is a decisive step up in terms of gamefeel. Not cataclysmically so; there’s been some talk about the original games surrounding this release as if they were unplayable, and they were far from that. But they were clumsy and rote, and while the Automata engine is far from the most complicated or clean combat system that Platinum Games has put together (they were not involved in this remake, but the game runs, looks, and plays essentially identical to Automata except for stylistic differences in how various characters work mechanically in combat), it is a modern third person character action combat suite, instead of a kludged-together semi-3D Zelda-like that also had to deal with bullet hell situations. In terms of content, aside from the engine upgrades and some gameplay upgrades that have come with that, the content seems to be an exact port of what those who played NieR Replicant got eleven years ago.
Which was not any of us in the west! So, the difference between Gestalt, the version that was localized for North American and Europe, and Replicant is that in Gestalt you play the middle-aged white-haired father of a young girl with a mysterious disease who is sought by powerful, secretive forces; in Replicant, you play her bishounen, late-teens white-haired brother. While at first I wasn’t a huge fan of the change for nostalgia reasons — all of my fond memories of the original game feature the grumpy father rather than the naive teen brother — it becomes clear about halfway through your first run why a boy growing into a man would be a more compelling character for this particular story than a man growing into a slightly older man. And it certainly makes rolling around the countryside with a foul-mouthed twenty-something in her underwear (Kainé) and a middle-schooler (Emil) a bit more age — or at least maturity — appropriate. The ostentatious, vain, and exceedingly erudite Grimoire Weiss is all the old man that the game’s protagonist party needs anyway. The game shows its age as a remake of a title from before fully-fleshed out party mechanics were really a thing when Kainé and Emil join your group permanently; they simply run around after you on the map shooting relatively weak magic at your foes or casting supporting magic on you, depending on the very basic AI settings you toggle for them in the menu. This isn’t to say they aren’t helpful; it’s quite difficult for them to die on the Normal difficulty level, so if you need someone to eat aggro for you while pumping dozens of blue and purple magic bolts into their fight, they’ve got you covered.
Another way in which this game is very of-its-moment, with that moment being 11 years ago: the sidequests. Automata was like this as well; this is simply how Taro likes to make his games. But Nier goes to much greater lengths to pad the game out with incessant, difficult, ultimately kind of pointless fetch quests and errand boy assignments. There are a couple popular memes out there about the sidequests in this game which ultimately boil down to “don’t do them if they’re annoying,” and I mostly agree, except I think first time players should be willing to tolerate a little bit of annoyance if a sidequest is clearly being driven by a character moment or story that the developers wish to tell, rather than “get 10 wool, 10 goat skin, and 5 rubber and bring them back here.” Skip that stuff. But if a guy wants you to deliver a letter to his girlfriend triumphantly telling her his business is on its feet and he’s ready for her to move to the big city so they can be together again? Go do that one, even if the lady lives all the way across the map. That’s the stuff where the game’s mood gets its hooks in. Important exception: never under any circumstances agree to deliver anything fragile. (Sadly I think the infamously aggravating Fragile Delivery quests do their best not to hint at the nature of their cargo until after you accept the assignment.)
The soundtrack has been rescored and re-orchestrated yet again, and thank God for that — not because it’s bad but the precise and exact opposite. The original Nier soundtrack is an all-time great, and the five arrangements of it that had already been put out over the years, from the official soundtrack to a second take on the official soundtrack with different arrangements to a tribute album to a piano arrangement to a jazz arrangement weren’t enough; we’ve now got a sixth one for the 2021 remake. That is simply how good the music in this game is (and how coherent it is, that it has enough motifs and guiding themes to warrant this level of interaction at the compositional level). “Shadowlord” is in the running for the best JRPG boss theme ever written, and that includes the music in the similarly-astounding Automata.
This version of Nier is also fully-voiced, which will delight fans because Laura Bailey’s Kainé is now cleared to use a lot more f-bombs than I remember her getting the first time they brought the game over. The entire English voice cast from the original Gestalt localization returns, in fact — though a couple actors, like Yuri Lowenthal, have been moved to more prominent duty now that there are a lot more lines to go around. Even the one guy who you’d expect to get boxed out, Jaimeson Price, the voice of the father protagonist, shows up for a little bit, and the two new VAs for the brother (if you hadn’t pieced it together yet, there’s a time skip dividing the game in half) both do excellent work. Liam O’Brian’s Grimoire Weiss especially remains iconic, and now has a lot more lines to bounce off of the other heroes.
If you’ve played through Automata, you’ll probably know already that Nier is also a game designed for multiple playthroughs to get multiple endings; unlike Automata, you won’t be radically changing the player character perspective heading into New Game+. In that respect, Nier is a bit more challenging to plunge through multiple times, though once you’re no longer doing all those sidequests, the game world is small enough you can get through it and do what you need to do pretty quickly.
You probably won’t have the same emotional exhaustion at the end of Nier as you did after Ending E of Automata, if you’re one of the fans of that game who went far enough to get the “final” ending; after all, Taro was still learning what buttons to press when he made this game the first time. However, this is probably the first chance a bunch of gamers who came to dearly love Automata will have to experience the title that literally laid the foundation for it; as a remake, it’s pitch-perfect. They should give it a look.
It’s on the major current-gen consoles except Switch (for now) and also available on PC, retailing for $60. It’s a full-length game that kind of ruthlessly reuses assets and areas for new content; this is something you’re probably already familiar with if you played Automata, but it’s worth mentioning here if that was a sticking point — it’s true of this title as well. If Taro already has you in the door, though, that won’t matter. The game is worth the price tag.
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