My first hours with Nier Replicant were dull. I knew they would be dull, because I was told they were dull. I soldiered on at a brisk but not unreasonable pace, aching for the other shoe to drop hour after hour. When it did, Yoko Taro’s vision came into focus, as I knew it would, and recontextualized everything I had experienced in a way that made the tedium worth it.
Nier Replicant is a lopsided game. Many reviewers have already said that the experience is uneven, that the beginning “half” is rough and bland, seemingly on purpose. But I love media that transforms itself, as is the case with some of my favorite shows like Hunter x Hunter, or one of my favorite games: Final Fantasy XIV. These glacial works lull their audience into a sense of familiarity, all while driving a knife into their back one millimeter at a time. When the twist of the wrist finally comes, it’s so violent and unexpected that it makes all the time spent prior feel necessary.
The first ten hours or so of Nier Replicant is a generic RPG in which you play as a young man trying to save his sister from a deadly curse. Shadow of the Colossus vibes abound, you’ll explore regions of a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by deadly “shades,” as your meager village serves as the central hub of your journey. A cast of barely-developed characters like the scantily-clad Kaine and the Medusa-esque Emil join our hero as he quests, along with the ever-present Grimoire Weiss: a magical book that may or may not be able to cure your sister of her disease when enough MacGuffins are collected.
Much of my time with these early segments was spent embarking on hilariously derivative sidequests for villagers in what seemed to be Yoko Taro’s way of daring me to give up playing. Luckily, I knew what was in store, but I couldn’t help but wonder how many others, unaware of the slow unraveling of the genre that awaited them, gave up long before reaching the meat of the game. Much like A Realm Reborn, Nier Replicant wants you to eat your vegetables before dessert.
The combat, unlike the quest design, is a vastly improved version of 2010’s original. More akin to Automata, combos flow and Weiss’ magical abilities lash out at foes as fast as the myriad weapons you’ll find along your journey. Bosses are a highlight, with unique designs and satisfying cutscenes to accompany them.
After collecting the aforementioned MacGuffins, our hero endeavors to save his sister from the Black Scrawl, the deadly disease that threatens her life. Things… do not go as planned.
After this point, which I’d rather not spoil, Nier Replicant enters its second “part.” It’s here that all the setups of the first half are paid off, and all the empty outlines of characters are given vibrancy and life. Like a volleyball set up for a perfect spike, Taro uses the quiet and mundane to give weight and meaning to later developments. Emil, for instance, transforms (literally) from a slightly unusual young man into a fragile, heartwarming, self-affirmed presence in your party.
The second half of the game’s narrative structure is where the bed of its content lies. Alternate endings are played out from this point forward, and repeat playthroughs under certain conditions (like painstakingly collecting every weapon in the game) will be altered, affording further glimpses into Nier’s world and characters. Like someone had flipped a switch, I was transfixed on the mystery of this world, keeping tabs on everything I would need to see things to the very end — and this is all after I swore I’d give things up for good once I got ending A.
Time with my party members felt more intimate as time wore on, owing in large part to the unorthodox structuring of their development. Even our hero remarks, when realizing later on that Emil and Kaine slept outside the walls of each town they visited, that he’d never even considered this fact before now. Similar realizations struck me as I learned more of my companions, and their struggles that had once seemed so trite became heartwrenching and poetic.
Nier Replicant will fool many into thinking it’s a sub-par JRPG worth a few hours of attention, and it will be dropped by just as many before showing its cards. It’s a flaw, to be certain — even though the first half is used for setup to a grander tale, I still believe it could be done much more elegantly. Even so, the reveals and myriad alterations that occur as the story unfolds more than make up for these early hours.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Square Enix.
Nier Replicant is a chameleon, as its slow start serves as a siren song that leads to explosive emotional crescendos and satisfying narrative payoffs.