I am never more frustrated than when tasked to assess something I love.
To say 2010’s action-RPG Nier was affecting to me might very well be a criminal understatement. It reinforced the sometimes dormant idea that games are ultimately made by people with ideas, thoughts, agendas, talents, and mistakes. It accomplished all this not by being very good, but by being very bold. A lot of the trends that video games followed in the years since Nier — like genocidal fathers and ludonarrative dissonance — were first heralded by Taro Yoko and Square Enix’s decade-old action-RPG. Its sequel, Nier Automata, tore off the blinders to many things the series was capable of, but very few people found it reasonable to go back to the original to experience even more of what had been there for years.
Nier Replicant ver.1.224787139 (which, for efficiency’s sake, I’ll just refer to Nier Replicant 1.5) is a remaster of Nier Replicant: the Japanese PS3 version of Nier that featured a younger protagonist than the 360 version, Nier Gestalt, as well as what was on both platforms for the western localization. If that delineation sent you for a spin already, let me simplify it by saying this is almost the exact same game from 2010. It’s mostly just a better looking, better playing version. It’s a definitive edition of a game over which wars have been fought trying to determine a definitive edition.
This puts me in an awkward place as a former Nier evangelist. I love the original game not just for what it accomplished, but for what it tried and failed to do during a generation where renown was inextricably tied to budget. Now Square Enix finally has a chance to show the world why the original game was a cult classic. There are parts the studio makes good on and parts it does not. Years later, I still love Nier, but I think now I love it like an adult. I’m ready to admit its flaws.
I don’t know how to come back to a thing that shaped a lot of who I am as a writer and look at it with a critical eye. It’s not that I worry about being objective; it’s that I wonder what revisiting an updated version will say about who I was then, as well as who I am now. I expected to realize that the game just was not as good as I remembered. As excited as I was to play Nier Replicant 1.5, I feared it would break something I cared about.
I like to think we both matured in fits and starts over the years. Though neither of us are the perfect versions of ourselves. Nier Replicant 1.5 is in most ways a better game than its originator, and in every other way a product of its time. Players will still find themselves running between the same two points in a haggard attempt at padding or revisiting the same dungeons to stretch time. It’s at times frustrating whenever it’s not annoying. But those flaws, prominent though they may be, are not what Nier is really about.
Nier is a game about self-destructive tragedy. Even if the characters don’t know it, every action they take pushes them a little further to their own existential demise either on micro or macro scales. As a 20-something that was utterly lost in life, I found this uniquely appealing. Ten years later, a pandemic surrounding me and a disease that will cut years of my life affecting my body, it’s hard to find 2010’s Nier exactly as charming in its revelry of unintended consequence.
I did not expect Nier Replicant 1.5 to eschew that. I did not expect it to offer a message of hope buried deep within the caverns of its own, original cynicism.
But it does. This updated remaster includes some new content that I’ll spare readers from detailing. It varies from notable to fascinating, but more importantly adds to the old release by changing the framing. The new content has things to say about Nier as a series — not in specific terms like making characters walk out of some magic portal for an MCU-style cameo, but tying the series together under a thematic banner.
Nier Replicant 1.5 makes the argument that, even if your circumstances are beyond your control, there is value and worth in trying to break the cycles that cause you to suffer. It’s messy, but it’s messy in the way the series has always been, and will likely go on being. In the opening of Nier: Automata, protagonist 2B wonders if aloud if she will ever have the opportunity to kill the conceptual God that cursed her to her fate. Nier Replicant 1.5 argues that, no matter how unfeasible that seems, it’s always worth the struggle of trying.
When I played the original Nier, I was still coming to terms with a friend’s suicide from years prior. It broke me in half — greatly affecting how I saw everything around me. I’m still picking up the pieces today. I don’t know, and cannot possibly know, if I would have fallen in love with the game Replicant 1.5 has become back then. But after a decade of knowing Nier in some definite form, I appreciate Replicant’s molding to make things a little fuzzier. Both experiences are valid for me in ways I am not sure I have proper verbiage for.
This is not to say Replicant 1.5 is now in some way perfect. It’s still clumsy. It remains scarred and parts of it are just as much of a repetitive mess as they were back then. But the game earnestly tries to be more than the barest expectations of a video game and that shines through its ugliest parts.
It is impossible for a remaster of Nier to affect me as much as the original release did, I think. It might be an unfair task to ask of any game to match another’s exact context. But I have spent many of the last few years examining why that is the case and, through playing Nier Replicant 1.5, I get the feeling the people that made it have wondered the same thing. They wanted to know what it was about Nier made people like me love it. They remastered the game hoping to serve them well.