The desolate world of Nier Replicant is over a decade old (the original Nier, released in 2010), yet its pathetic commentary on human frailty resonates. This bittersweet narrative is backed up by improved character models, satisfying hack-and-slash mechanics, and a haunting soundtrack that tells its own gripping story. At the same time, it retains outdated features that made playing the original game a chore, and that’s because Nier Replicant is neither a remake nor a remaster of this 2010 title. Creative Director Yoko Taro prefers the term “version upgrade,” and that moniker fits perfectly – for better and for worse.
Fans will immediately notice the influence of Nier: Automata; The replicant’s fight is simple and flashy. A new lock-on camera makes parries and evasive maneuvers much easier, but light and heavy attacks are your bread and butter. Chaining combos with a range of different weapons or running off incompetent enemies is the fastest way to win engagements. Unusual animations, such as vortices in the air and ground slams in slow motion, made the close combat action so exciting that I was able to actively search for groups of opponents on my own.
A repertoire of dazzling magic brings these barren battlefields to life. You can equip two skills at any time, so experimentation is key. I usually combined Dark Whirlwind – which conjures spinning purple blades to deal AoE damage – with Dark Blast’s rapid fire rounds so I could always stay on the offensive. You can also give orders to your companions, but apart from being directly instructed from time to time to break up, I did not notice any changes in their behavior.
You need these mystical powers to survive because the world is dying. Small settlements shape the landscape, in which umbrella monsters, so-called “shadows”, move in packs. In addition, a mysterious disease is slowly eating away the last vestiges of civilization. The withered state of humanity is far more personal to you than to anyone else: Yonah, your little sister, is slowly succumbing to a plague called the Black Scrawl. Strange runes continue to spread across their flesh as you venture into the wild to find a cure. But you are never alone. A floating band named Grimoire Weiss, a kind-hearted boy named Emil and a scantily clad warrior with a bad mouth named Kainé accompany you through the vastness of the continent. Together you will brave stormy deserts, race along the beaches of coastal cities and search creepy mansions to save Yonah. Hard story beats like a generation trauma and the cycle of hatred offered exciting surprises that left me in emotional chaos several times.
I loved Nier Replicant’s quirky cast, too, and that goes beyond the main crew. Conversations you have with characters are filled to the brim with deep, if belligerent, feelings. Side missions add narrative character to an otherwise boring game world, but I wish these missions were more varied as most of the missions are memorable retrieval quests. Also, unlike your great accomplished party members, all NPCs are poorly structured. Because of this, the emotional efforts and resolutions of side missions fall flat. It’s hard to relate to a figure when its facial features are virtually invisible.
Shadows are the most common enemy you will encounter in your travels. They strike in mobs, but don’t let their numbers fool you. They’re weaklings aside from the high-level damage sponges that emerge in the late game. Shadow attacks are very easy to anticipate and counter, which makes their constant ambushes more annoying than anything else. Boss fights, however, are fun sequences that push your mechanical skills to the limit, forcing you to react quickly to a barrage of magical and physical attacks, often at the same time. Atmospheric refrains paired with the visual smorgasbord of blood and sword sparks make each of these tense confrontations unforgettable.
It’s a shame that upgrading your gear to end these battles comfortably is less fun. Combat mods, known as words, fall from slain shadows and can be used for permanent buffs in weapons or magical abilities. You can also collect resources scattered around each location and exchange them for upgrades. Both options (especially the latter) require hours of monotonous grinding, backtracking, and luck. At one point I spent almost five hours in one place collecting enough “eagle eggs” to straighten my favorite sword and spear with one hand. Hard random number generators are common in RPGs, but Nier Replicant’s implementation creates a frustrating exploration loop.
Despite some obsolete flaws, this “version upgrade” is more than the sum of its parts. Novel design decisions such as camera and genre shifts are just as impressive today as they were more than 10 years ago. The main characters are dynamic with their own interesting backstories, and the plot is as deliciously devastating as you’d expect. Nier Replicant may not convert players who have been knocked out by the original or by machines, but there are more than enough quality of life updates and story-driven nuances to keep longtime fans and new insiders coming back for subsequent playthroughs.