Back in the far distant past people wore top hats and monocles, teens used phrases like “straight from the fridge daddy-o” unironically, and videogame companies designed their consoles to have backwards compatibility. Those days are long since passed (though perhaps ‘daddy-o’ is due a comeback). The huge companies who hoard franchise licenses like a dragon sleeping on a pile of gold have realised that remaking old favourites is far easier than making new favourites. As a result, backwards compatibility has become a bit of a dirty word for corporations that just want to sell you Skyrim with slightly better graphics over and over again until the heat death of the universe.
Most of the time these remakes are just a simple spit and polish on the graphics, but for older games—the ones that are really hard to play unless you’ve got a PS1 knocking around—there is a conscious decision to ‘streamline’ the process. A lot of older games, even classic ones, are borderline unplayable by modern standards: either impossibly hard (which was a legitimate technique to try to extend a game’s playtime) or full of incredibly bad voice acting and outdated gameplay mechanics, or even due to plot lines that are, let’s say, ‘problematic’ for modern sensibilities (Drakengard’s paedophile knight Leonard or Fallout II’s potential date rape spring to mind). As a result, although there is a built-in audience, profit-minded executives often feel that releasing the same game just won’t fly in the 21st century. So, often the shiny modern version has surprisingly little in common with its original classic form. The recent remaster of Final Fantasy 7 has taken this to a logical extreme by not only stripping out the central gameplay system (turn-based combat is so 20th century after all), but actively changing the plot, making it into a stealth sequel as much as a remake—but a sequel that only makes sense if you’ve played the original.
You can go back and forth on whether sanding off these edges is actually removing what made the games good in the first place. Certainly, there is a trend towards homogenisation in the AAA game industry at the moment, where even visual novels are getting crafting systems, which bodes ill for canonised classics. But what happens when the game in question is so outré, so goddamn weird, that the idea of sanding the edges off doesn’t work because the game is nothing but edges. Well then you get something like Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139. Nier was a game by Japanese auteur/insane person Yoko Taro that originally came out on PS3 in 2011. In the original Japanese version, it was about a young boy (the titular Nier) trying to find a cure for his terminally ill sister Yonah (mainly through hitting things with a sword) in a post-apocalyptic Earth where mankind has clambered back up from the brink to a peasant agrarian society. Nier’s single-minded fixation on his sister was deemed a little too incest-adjacent for western audiences so it was partially remade as Nier: Gestalt, where Nier was Yonah’s father. You might imagine that Nier: Replicant would just be a remake of the Japanese original, but you would be wrong as Taro seems to have decided to remake both games at the same time, with dream sequences where you play as Dad Nier dotted throughout the game. Does this metatextual decision make any sense at all? No of course not, but that’s Nier: Replicant all over.
Nier: Replicant only got this remaster because Nier: Automata, the 2017 sequel, was an unexpected smash hit. As a result, the frictionless combat (think Dynasty Warriors on roller skates) has been lifted wholesale and grafted into its older sibling. I’d never played the original Nier but by all accounts, the combat was as much fun to get to grips with as hitting yourself in the face with a brick. By comparison Nier: Replicant’s combat is entertaining in a shallow way, but has a tendency to feel weightless. Added to this is a tendency for enemies to have health bars larger than the GDP of some mid-sized countries, which drags the fights out and by the midway point combat can get a little stale. What the game has in spades, however, is sheer unpredictability. Both in gameplay and story it feels like absolutely anything can happen. A cutscene can end and suddenly it’s 1764 years in the future; or the game switches into an (incredibly well written) text-based adventure, or a CONTRA-style bullet hell shooter, or the camera angle shifts and the game becomes an isometric horror game set in a deliberate homage to Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion. It’s a wild ride with an absolutely bonkers storyline; Nier’s quest to save his sister deliberately evokes classics like Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest only to brutally and emotionally deconstruct them.
The game is not without flaws: there are only about 6 locations and most of the game is spent running back and forth between them, with fast travel only unlocked in the second half of the game. The endless side quests are pretty banal (frequently just bring this item to this location), which the game seems to deliberately mock you for completing. This kind of acid commentary on game design at the expense of player enjoyment is exactly in Yoko Taro’s wheelhouse but that doesn’t make it any more fun. Still, even with these provisos I can’t help but highly recommend Nier: Replicant; it’s a cracked little masterpiece that isn’t afraid to absolutely swing for the fences in ways that most games would never dare. The intense melodrama that Japanese games frequently tend towards is upped to borderline operatic levels here, and this reviewer isn’t ashamed to admit that he got a little misty eyed from time to time. There could not be a game less focus-grouped than Nier: Replicant so they’ll be plenty of people who bounce off its not infrequently tedious gameplay (“it gets amazing after the first ten hours!” is a cliché for a reason), but there is rich strange territory here to explore for anyone who can take it.
Available on PlayStation 4, Steam, Xbox One