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The Subtle Brilliance of Choice in Square Enix’s ‘Nier: Replicant’

Unlike many linear games with universal conclusions, the follow-up to 2017’s acclaimed ‘Nier: Automata’ prompts the player to wonder whether they’re actually willing to live with the decisions they’re making

SquareEnix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

More than a millennia into the future, NieR: Replicant ver. 1.22474487139… finds humanity in a sad, strange, and irreconcilable state. The world is filled with rust, ruins, sickness, and monsters. Replicant follows Nier, a young warrior tending to his younger sister, Yonah, who suffers a debilitating illness known as “the black scrawl.” Seeking a cure, Nier explores a countryside overrun with ethereal creatures known as Shades. They’re led by the mysterious Shadowlord, who is determined to overrun the last few villages in this emaciated civilization. In his travels Nier also recruits a few crucial allies: the brooding vagabond Kainé; the friendly boy Emil; and a snobby, levitating, anthropomorphic tome, Grimoire Weiss, which grants Nier magical powers. Together, Nier, Weiss, Kainé, and Emil must rescue Yonah and defeat the Shadowlord, vanquishing the Shades once and for all.

As a fantasy conceit, Replicant, the Square Enix RPG out Friday for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and on Steam sounds simple and familiar enough. It’s a young warrior’s open-world quest to save a loved one and purge evil from a world on the brink. But Replicant twists this premise into devious contortions. For one, there’s a certain shonen angst which distinguishes the characters in these games. The game knows you’re nostalgic for Zelda but also knows you’re spoiling for a more mature outlook on love and war. So Nier draws copious amounts of blood and dark magic in battle. Kainé fights in a nightgown and unleashes obscenities upon friends and foes; Kainé calls Weiss “a little bitch,” and Weiss, with equal affection, takes to calling Kainé a “hussy.” There’s a prevailing sincerity and abiding innocence in the more precious characters, such as Yonah and Emil, but otherwise Replicant grinds Nier and his allies to bitter extremes.

Beyond the tone of storytelling and characterizations, there’s also the structure: nested endings which require the player to commit to playing the game multiple times, with new knowledge and assets, before they’ve experienced it in full. In the era of cinematic video games, Replicant is a treasure. There are cinematic video games that frog-march the player through a story and more or less disregard the player’s choices along the way. There are “moral choice” games that process, but trivialize, such decisions as a conversational gimmick, with blunt, uninteresting consequences. And then there’s Nier, a series that keeps you second-guessing your own role and decisions in the story.

At each new milestone in his quest, Nier sounds a bit less heroic and a bit more inhumane in his determination to purge the Shades. The mild-mannered boy who cares for his sister becomes a vengeful man lost in his vendetta against enemies who turn out to be profoundly misunderstood. But gradually, Replicant illuminates the big misunderstanding. Only after beating the game does the player begin to understand what Nier and his allies have wrought. That’s the magic in Replicant: a puzzling narrative structure that protects the game’s great secrets. The player sees Nier’s journey through to its most optimistic and straightforward resolution in Ending A, but then the game encourages the player to repeat the latter half with new perspectives on certain events and characters. It provides fuller context for the broader conflict between the villagers and the Shades.

For instance, Shades are more or less unintelligible to the player during the first playthrough, but the second time around, their groans are translated into anguished speech. The empathy once reserved for Yonah, Nier, and his allies now extends to the Shades, revealed to have their own humanity and innocence. These new insights on the core conflict culminate in alternative endings, labeled B through E in the save files, each further complicating Nier’s cause and rendering its resolution all the more regrettable. There’s mischief at every level of design in Replicant, and the game turns this mischief into melancholy.

Commercially, Replicant follows one of the biggest breakout video game titles in recent years, Nier: Automata. Additionally published by Square Enix, Automata sold more than 5.5 million copies following its release four years ago and received widespread critical acclaim for its story and gameplay. The game is a sequel to a spinoff—the original Nier released in 2010—based on the dark fantasy series, Drakengard. Following the collapse of human civilization in the main series, Automata follows a paramilitary group of androids on an expedition through postapocalyptic ruins of Earth.

Though Drakengard and the original Nier were popular for the past couple decades in their home market of Japan, the games never quite captivated North America. Automata’s prerelease hype in the U.S. owed in large part to the grim splendor in its early trailers and a peculiar exuberance from the game’s director, Yoko Taro, the quirky, candid mascot for his own series. For Automata, Square Enix turned to the Japanese video game developer PlatinumGames, renowned for the hack-and-slash, bullet-time combat style popularized by the company’s biggest original series, Bayonetta. Automata wedded this ecstatic fighting style to an engrossing narrative structure, branching into 26 different finales, some hilarious, some heartbreaking. The breathtaking musical score, composed by Keiichi Okabe, enlarges the sorrow at the game’s heart.

Replicant remasters the original Nier, also directed by Taro and scored by Okabe, with PlatinumGames revamping the old combat system implemented by the original game’s developer, Cavia. The long version number in the title is the square root of 1.5, positioning Replicant as something a bit more ambitious than a simple remaster, with a new Ending E. Taro discourages reviewers from regarding Replicant as a remake, though. Final Fantasy and Resident Evil lead the current trend in remaking first-gen PlayStation hits, such as Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 2, for much newer consoles. It’s notable that Square Enix publishes Nier as well as Final Fantasy. “I thought it would be terribly inconvenient to be compared to such a massive blockbuster,” Taro wrote in a recent note to reviewers, referring to Final Fantasy VII Remake, released last year.

Though remakes and remasters are often pitched as technical improvements, they also happen to be the only way many beloved games manage to propagate to later generations of players and hardware. Released for the maligned PlayStation 3, Nier might have languished in the shadow of its own sequel, preserved in too small part by janky emulators and playthrough footage on YouTube. It would be a real shame to lose Nier—a series which mourns the slow but total erosion of human history and culture—to time.