Nier Replicant hands-on preview: imperfect, but loaded with personality
After eleven long years, Nier Replicant will soon be available in the West, this time playable on PS5, Xbox Series X and PC. This is great news if you were one of the 12 or so people who waited with bated breath for this special version of Square Enix’s oddball action / RPG, a forerunner to 2017’s stellar NieR: Automata. For everyone else, Nier Replicant is developing into an unforgettable and heartfelt game, albeit with essentially the same advantages and disadvantages as last time.
For those unfamiliar with the details of Square Enix releases, a game called Nier was released for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010. In the west, this game was a middle-aged man trying to find a cure for his sick daughter, who teamed up with a woman with a bad mouth, a speaking book, and a young skeleton wizard to do so. (It makes a little more sense in context, but the craziness is definitely part of Nier’s charm.) In Japan, however, the game was called Nier Replicant, and it played a teenager who instead tried to find a cure for his sister. In addition, the story and gameplay were almost identical.
Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139 …. (yes, that’s really the full name of the game, and no, I’m not going to try and write this out from memory) is a PC, PS4, and Xbox One remaster of the original Japanese Game. first published in western areas. Square Enix provided Tom’s Guide with an early review of the game. While we can only discuss three areas of this much larger game, these levels set the tone for an odd, charming title.
(Image credit: Square Enix)
The first level we can talk about is the Junk Heap: an abandoned arms factory where the protagonist (named Nier by default) and one of his companions battle a small army of robots while they look for a missing woman. This is actually the perfect level to start with as it highlights some of the joys and frustrations of playing Nier Replicant.
First off, Nier Replicant deserves a lot of credit for its affable cast of characters. Nier’s party members do not immediately join him. That way, you’ll get to know each and every one of them before someone else joins in and changes the group dynamics. At this point in history, Nier’s only companion is Grimoire Weiss: a talking, floating magic book with an inflated opinion of himself and a weakness for the brave boy who woke him up.
Nier and Weiss are constantly joking as they explore the garbage heap. When you listen to them talk about Nier’s situation, Weiss’ abilities, and the original purpose of the factory, it feels really entertaining. It turns out that’s a good thing because exploring the junk heap itself is a bit of a mixed bag. The Junk Heap, like many of the game’s dungeons, is a somewhat repetitive experience. You explore a small collection of extremely similar square rooms, each done in brown and gray, and occasionally trigger a switch to unlock a distant door. For the most part, Nier Replicant is a game that you’ll want to play for the characters rather than the level design.
The good news is that as you explore the junk heap, you will also have plenty of time with the game’s combat system. While Nier Replicant’s battle isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the action / RPG genre, it works well enough to keep players interested in the game’s 30-40 hour runtime.
You control Nier as he runs across the battlefield, lining up regular and special attacks with a variety of swords and daggers. (You can switch weapons on the fly, though there aren’t many reasons to do so early in the game.) You can stand behind enemies to make more beneficial attacks, or dodge their blows or jump up to make aerial combos. Aiming can get a little shaky (clinging to enemies never feels as seamless or precise as it should), but hand-to-hand combat generally works well.
More interesting is the game’s magical system that allows you to assign two different spells to two different shoulder buttons. Press a button and you’ll start a basic version of the spell. However, hold the button down longer and your spell will charge, often with devastating effects. The trick is that more powerful spells will consume more MP, which will take some time to recharge during combat. Since you can perform magic and melee attacks at the same time, mastering combat requires a balance between the two. There is a lot to consider, but once you get into a groove the fight has a comfortable rhythm.
The junk heap ends with a climatic boss fight against a giant robot named Defense System Geppetto. This is where some of Nier Replicant’s influences, like Bullet Hell Shooter and the Legend of Zelda series, come into their own. Geppetto is a huge, floating robot, and as such, Nier cannot attack it directly. Instead, Nier must either block, dodge, or cut through Geppetto’s spherical projectiles while waiting for rare opportunities to hack his robot’s hands when it strikes in an attack. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Bongo Bongo from Ocarina of Time and feels similarly satisfying to beat.
(Image credit: Square Enix)
The second area of the game that we can talk about is a remote mountain village called The Aerie. A few hours into the game, Nier and Weiss team up with a spirited woman named Kainé and defeat a giant boss named Hook.
Like the fight against Geppetto, the Banter is also a highlight in a fight. Kainé is one of the strangest female lead roles in a Japanese RPG in recent years. She’s neither a reluctant healer nor a brave swordswoman, but an angry, battle-mad berserk who releases a series of shocking profanities every time she pulls her twin serrated swords out of their sheaths. She fights in her underwear (as Nier and Weiss never tire of pointing out) and doesn’t seem to be of any use to Nier or his book. She’s hard to like – and as such, it’s all the more rewarding that over time she really begins to grow on you.
Hook is one of the more exciting fights in Nier Replicant, in which Nier, Weiss and Kainé battle a gigantic glowing lizard as they struggle to hold onto their ground on small platforms several hundred meters in the air. During this multi-stage battle, Hook leaps from place to place in the aerie, doing hand-to-hand combat, magic, and platforming all the keys to victory. That’s what Nier Replicant does well: exciting, lengthy battles against incredibly large monsters.
(Image credit: Square Enix)
The last area we can talk about is the Northern Plains in the second half of the game. Without spoiling the fascinating story of Nier Replicant, we can say that after a certain point the action goes forward five years. When Nier re-explores old areas, the enemies have become much tougher – but so has he.
The Northern Plains is one of Nier’s great outskirts and, like other elements of the game, an incomplete implementation of a great idea. In theory, these vast levels help make the world of Nier Replicant feel large and interconnected. In practice, however, the northern plains can feel a little empty, with plenty of time between enemy encounters and only a handful of side quests to complete along the way.
On the other hand, the Northern Plain is also an excellent place to try out the full range of Nier’s magic and combat skills, both of which expand significantly after the first half. Magic is no longer just about hitting distant targets. Now Nier can put up defensive barriers, create arcane doppelgangers, or even summon a giant elk hand to slay his enemies.
Melee combat has a lot more variety in the second half of the game too, as you are no longer limited to one-handed swords and daggers. Now you can equip slow and heavy greatswords or balanced spears too. Since there are different combos available for each weapon, it’s worth experimenting. On the flip side, certain enemies are not particularly vulnerable to one weapon over the other, so it mostly comes down to player preferences. It’s another area where Nier Replicant offers some depth, but the idea could have taken it further.
(Image credit: Square Enix)
Nier Replicant Outlook
After about 15 hours with Nier Replicant, it’s easy to see why the game became a cult classic – but it’s also easy to see why it never became a mainstream hit. Nier Replicant has some of the most charming and bizarre JRPG characters I’ve ever met, and their jokes alone take the game far. At the same time, the world can repeat itself and many of the tasks that are assigned to you.
The fight is good too without ever crossing the barrier in “great”. There’s a lot of variety and it can feel rewarding to find a style of play that works for you. On the other hand, the game’s difficulty curve is omnipresent. Even simple enemies can take a long time to submit without offering much XP as a reward.
If nothing else, Nier Replicant is different and in a market full of games it deserves some credit for that. Sure, it’s technically a remaster, but it’s a remaster of a variant of the game that we haven’t seen on this side of the Pacific. If that sounds like a good game to you, the game will be released on April 23rd and will cost you $ 60. We’ll have a full review closer to release.
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