Nier Replicant is a brilliant video game that I recommend with the most frustrating caveat in entertainment: “It gets good after 10 hours.”
Of course the game would move slowly by 2021 standards. Nier Replicant is a remake of a game from a decade ago, itself criticized by its harsher reviewers for outdated pacing and repetitive combat. It might look new on the surface, but this game’s skeleton shows its age.
If you can muscle through to the 10-hour mark, however, you’ll discover why this — at times plodding, often messy — cult game spawned the hit sequel Nier: Automata, a touring symphony, and a humongous expansion to, of all things, Final Fantasy 14, despite having nothing to do with Final Fantasy beyond a shared publisher and rabid fandoms.
The story defies concision, so let’s stick to the throughline: In 2049, a mysterious virus appears first in Shinjuku and then across the world, converting humans into either statues of salt or shadowy ghouls called Shades. Flash-forward 1,300 years, when a young man named Nier learns that his sister Yonah has been infected with a similarly mysterious and seemingly incurable virus.
Refusing fate, Nier quests across an Earth reclaimed by nature and populated with Shades, now ranging in size from “lap dog” to “cruise ship.” Nier believes that uncovering the mystery of these creatures — by slaughtering them — will grant him the lost ancient knowledge necessary to save Yonah.
You take on fetch quests and navigate various dungeons, killing bosses, collecting keys, and learning how the death of a space dragon caused the near-annihilation of the human race. Picture The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but gorier, raunchier, and loaded with enough existential dread to make a matinee of Annihilation sound like a fun way to kill a couple of hours.
After a few hours of table setting, establishing Nier Replicant as a standard action adventure, the game begins to warp into something stranger. Slowly, at first imperceptibly, the quests deviate across unexpected genres, such as shoot-’em-ups, Resident Evil-like horror, and Diablo clones.
Rather than recreate its inspirations on a one-to-one basis, Nier’s pastiche is closer to a hurried tour through the halls of video game history, winking and nodding with each new locale. Like Automata, Replicant’s adventure doubles as a critique and parody of its contemporaries. And like Automata, it features multiple endings, each new playthrough of the game revealing new information that calls into question the actions you took in the previous run.
(If you plan to see everything, read our guide to unlocking all endings before playing. Without certain tasks completed, some endings will be cut off permanently. That’s a bummer if, like me, you’ve already committed 30 hours and change and realize you forgot to buy some obscure, but important sword.)
If that sounds weird and dense, dear reader, I haven’t scratched the surface of the game’s lore. We have a top-secret government plan to split soul and body; a talking book named Grimoire Noir, who works more or less like Green Lantern’s ring, morphing crimson energy into bullets, spikes, and giant fists; and the lore of a largely forgotten series called Drakengard.
Don’t let any of this intimidate you. The slow intro affords newcomers time and context to get their sea legs. The early journey is minimal to the point of parody. One quest scraps the visuals altogether, converting the game into a text adventure in which you have no responsibility other than clicking through page after page of ellipses. For hours, you learn the backstory and terrain of this open world, taking long hikes back and forth and back again through deserts, forests, caverns, and abandoned factories.
Nier Replicant runs counter to most contemporary video game “wastelands,” which paradoxically brim with life. Despite the nuclear holocaust or hordes of zombies or rising sea levels in games like these, humans have survived, if not thrived, cobbling together entire towns, subcultures, and edgy fashion lines from the detritus of the Before Times. Nier Replicant’s post-apocalypse, by comparison, feels empty and banal, an open world largely empty of things to do and people to meet.
The vibe calls to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi of the mundane. In films like Stalker and Solaris, Tarkovsky would let shots run for minutes as characters did little more than trudge through a tunnel or float in an empty spacecraft. This pacing becomes meditative, transportive, and magnetic. Time in the movie and time in real life begin to align, and the two worlds blur together.
Even the action — slaughtering thousands of Shades with dozens of swords, daggers, and spears — tends towards mindlessness, something you do to spice up a long trip or to farm materials. Nier Replicant is unapologetically repetitious on a moment-to-moment level.
It also bets boldly that you will replay the game multiple times to see its true endings. I did. The game entranced me, like listening to Gregorian chants on a cross-country road trip … only with more sword fights.
Forcing me to walk the same empty world over and over and over and over and over and over and over again tricked my mind into seeking a fleck of novelty, to notice every tiny detail. I became familiar with the environment the way I’ve memorized the layout of my hometown, despite never having seen it on a map.
After I charted enough of the world to be a credentialed tour guide, I could spot all of the hints that this Earth is our Earth.
Time after time
Nier Replicant’s time frame is so distant from today that the world is nearly unrecognizable as our own. Not just in nature and architecture and communities, but also in the very evolution of life.
By the 10-hour mark, my compatriots are a talking book, a mutilated child with a Medusa-like curse, and a young half-demon who wears lingerie and carries a big sword. We meet shadow creatures, giant gelatinous sea creatures, and a bottomless cup of bored robots.
This weirdness serves a purpose. Many post-apocalyptic games feel like our world in cosplay — it’s everything we know and understand, just mutilated, decrepit, and more corrupt. The obvious metaphor of so much post-apocalyptic fiction is that the end of the world isn’t so different from the world of today.
But imagine if we stepped into a time machine and warped a thousand years beyond our own apocalypse. The planet (assuming anything’s left) would be incomprehensible, and inhuman by our current perception of “human.” And at its best, that’s what Nier’s weirdness accomplishes.
But at its worst, the weirdness can be mean-spirited and grating. One of your party members is a hypersexualized young woman who wears a negligee that goes unexplained for dozens of hours. And the eventual justification is a misstep, with the story lightly and poorly unpacking the character’s experience as intersex. The aforementioned talking book alternates between sounding like a voice-over from a BBC nature documentary and Stewie Griffin, calling women hussies and making dry jabs at Nier about his life choices, as if the book were swirling a glass of Suntory.
Nier Replicant also carries the burden of its predecessor’s popularity. I played Nier: Automata first, so playing Nier Replicant fresh in 2021 felt akin to reading a writer’s first draft. For a fan, this is a treat, getting to see how creators’ ideas evolve, to see the germs of concepts that will flourish in the finished product. We simply wouldn’t have Nier: Automata without the game that inspired Nier Replicant. But the remake, even with the polished visuals, refined score recording, and modernized combat, can’t conceal its aged and shaggy design.
With that burden of comparison, Nier Replicant has the obligation to serve two audiences. For longtime fans of the original Nier, this means the game is being preserved and celebrated. This release will be a masterpiece for them.
For fans who joined the series with Automata, Replicant may feel like an appetizer, feeding the craving for anything new, whether it’s an MMO expansion, a gachapon mobile game, or a fancy remake. They will find some surprises here, despite the nagging sense of déjà vu.
So I return to the caveats. If you’re a fan of the series, and you can respect the audacity of these decade-old ideas, Nier Replicant is the best appetizer yet for whatever main course Square Enix will inevitably serve in the future. But for newcomers or casual fans, the caveat stands: Nier Replicant is worth the time, but only if you have plenty of time to spend.
Nier Replicant will be released April 23 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.