Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Square Enix
The original "NieR" game is interesting in that it came out in two different versions. "NieR Replicant" was released in Japan with a young protagonist being Yonah's brother, while "NieR Gestalt" was released everywhere else with an older protagonist being Yonah's father. The 10th anniversary remake of the game uses the Japanese version of the characters and includes a complete graphical overhaul, improved combat mechanics, new and remixed music, new vocal performances, and a new "E" ending. The story is a spin-off of the original "Drakengard" game, and a prequel of sorts to the superb "NieR: Automata" (2017).
In the near future, humankind finds itself on the verge of extinction due to a mysterious disease called "the black scrawl." 1300 years in the future, the remnants of humanity live in the ruins of civilization in a low-tech, medieval-like manner. Shadowy creatures known as "Shades" roam the countryside and pose an increasing threat to the population. The story truly begins when a young girl named Yonah contracts the black scrawl and her older brother NieR sets out to find a cure. He encounters a talking book named Grimoire Weiss that can summon powerful magic, and the two of them team up to learn more about the disease. Later on, NieR recruits two more companions: a fierce and foul-mouthed woman named Kainé who runs around in trashy lingerie, and a kind-hearted, effeminate young boy named Emil whose eyes turn whatever he looks at into stone. Over the course of the game, NieR becomes a vengeful and ruthless killing machine on his mission to save his sister, which makes you question if his actions are truly justified. A second playthrough of the game shifts the narrative perspective to the Shades, which clearly makes NieR out to be a bad guy and completely changes the emotional tone. While playing through all of the boss encounters again is tedious, the tonal shift is fascinating and the additional cutscenes are worth the effort. There are three other endings beyond that which add even more narrative and emotional depth, but I didn't bother with those.
As a huge fan of "NieR: Automata," I was really excited to dive back into its world along with series writer Yoko Taro's bizarre sensibilities. While "Replicant" is inferior to "Automata," the structure, themes, presentation, and gameplay are nearly identical. NieR can execute strong and weak attacks with one-handed swords, two-handed swords, and spears, which can all be upgraded by collecting certain resources. He is also annoyingly reminiscent of "Automata's" 9S character. Grimoire Weiss follows NieR around and essentially performs the same functions as 2B's support pod in "Automata." You can ride boars as a means of safe and fast travel, and there are numerous side quests that involve fishing. The fishing mechanics are even harder and more annoying than "Automata's" and it took me 96 attempts to land a certain fish for one side quest. "Replicant" also features tedious real-time gardening side quests, which "Automata" thankfully doesn't have. Similar to "Automata," there's an auto-battle feature which can aid you greatly in combat. Fortunately, it's extremely straight forward and not as crazy and convoluted as "Automata's" chip system. The system can be frustrating when it takes over and fights you for control, but it's definitely useful during the more intense battles late in the game. However, even with auto-battle enabled it's easy to die, so you still have to plan your strategies accordingly. Another intriguing connection to "Automata" is that Devola and Popola are present in NieR's village, which raises some very interesting questions.
Visually, the game is very similar to "Automata" and uses the same color palette, environments, and ruined architecture. There are even rivers of sand in both games. The haunting and melancholy music is superb and instantly reminiscent of "Automata." Yoko Taro seems to love misery, and there's an oppressive veil of dread, depression, and despair hanging over the entire game. Nearly every side quest you take on has a tragic result, which eventually makes you not want to help anyone. The setting also becomes more bleak and desperate as the game progresses, as resources become scarce, people mysteriously disappear, and there's not enough food for everyone. The writing is excellent throughout, although the large amount of reading can become extremely tiresome. I played the game with Japanese audio and the voice acting is excellent. Atsuko Tanaka (Motoko Kusanagi and Bayonetta) gives a wonderful performance as Kainé and I never grew tired of listening to Hiroki Yasumoto's rich and cultured baritone voice as Grimoire Weiss. The only problem with the Japanese dialog is that it clearly doesn't match the English subtitles, and they often speak during battles when it's impossible to read the screen. I listened to the English dialog briefly, but it wasn't to my liking and I quickly switched back to Japanese. Laura Bailey is great as Kainé, but everyone else fell short and didn't match the characters and mood very well.
The game is definitely a slow starter and it takes a few hours to find its footing. The game structure also suffers from outdated design decisions (so much resource grinding and running back and forth!), which makes it more tedious than it should be. However, once Kainé joins you, things become more interesting, and Emil's story arc is heart wrenching. Kainé and Emil also contribute to combat (much like 9S assists 2B), and while they're not super powerful, sometimes they'll end up taking care of enemies without you ever lifting a finger. The banter between Weiss, Kainé, and Emil is always entertaining, and I always stopped whatever I was doing whenever they started talking. Kainé and Emil also offer an interesting perspective as people who are social outcasts and "not quite normal." On the surface, they are ostracized due to their physical characteristics (Kainé is half-possessed and Emil is a floating skeleton), but it's also hinted that Emil is gay and Kainé is intersex, which adds another layer of complexity to their characters. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the game and it was great to revisit that world, despite how sad and depressing it was. While the remake modernizes the experience considerably, it still falls short of greatness, especially in the shadow of "NieR: Automata." Fans of Yoko Taro's work and "Automata" in particular should definitely check it out, though.