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Nier Replicant hands-on preview: imperfect, but loaded with personality

Nier sword attack
(Image credit: Square Enix)

After 11 long years, Nier Replicant will soon be available in the West, this time playable on PS5, Xbox Series X and PC. This is excellent news if you were one of the 12 or so people waiting with bated breath for this particular version of Square Enix’s oddball action/RPG, a prequel to 2017's excellent NieR: Automata. For everyone else, Nier Replicant is shaping up to be a memorable and heartfelt game, albeit with essentially the same pros and cons as last time around.

For those who aren’t up on the minutiae of Square Enix releases, a game called Nier came out in 2010 for the PS3 and Xbox 360. In the West, this game cast you as a middle-aged man trying to find a cure for his sickly daughter, teaming up with a foul-mouthed woman, a talking book and a skeletal young sorcerer to do so. (It makes slightly more sense in context, but the weirdness is definitely part of Nier’s charm.) However, in Japan, the game was called “Nier Replicant,” and starred a teenage boy trying to find a cure for his sister instead. Beyond that, the story and gameplay were just about identical.

Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139.... (yes, that is really the game’s full name, and no, I will not be trying to write that out from memory) is a PC, PS4 and Xbox One remaster of the original Japanese game, released in Western territories for the first time. Square Enix provided Tom’s Guide with an early review copy of the game. While we can discuss only three areas from this much bigger game, these levels help set the tone for a strange, charming title.

nier replicant

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Junk Heap

The first level we can discuss is the Junk Heap: an abandoned weapons factory where the protagonist (named Nier by default) and one of his companions fight off a small army of robots while searching 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 don’t join him right away. As such, you get to know each one intimately before another one joins and changes the group dynamic. At this point in the story, Nier’s only companion is Grimoire Weiss: a talking, floating spellbook with an inflated opinion of himself, and a soft spot for the brave boy who awakened him.

Nier and Weiss banter constantly as they explore the Junk Heap. Listening to them discuss Nier’s situation, Weiss’s abilities and the original purpose of the factory feels genuinely entertaining. That’s a good thing, as it turns out, because exploring the Junk Heap itself is more 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 one decked out in brown and gray, and occasionally trigger a switch to unlock a distant door. For the most part, Nier Replicant is a game you’ll want to play for the characters rather than the level design.

The good news is that while exploring the Junk Heap, you’ll also get plenty of time with the game’s combat system. While Nier Replicant’s combat doesn’t exactly break new ground in the action/RPG genre, it works well enough to hold player interest for the game’s 30-40 hour run time.

You control Nier as he runs around the battlefield, stringing together regular and special attacks with a variety of swords and daggers. (You can switch weapons on-the-fly, although early on in the game, there’s not much reason to do so.) You can get behind enemies for more advantageous attacks, or dodge their blows, or jump up to perform aerial combos. Targeting can get a little wonky (locking onto enemies never feels as seamless or precise as it should), but melee combat generally works fine.

What’s more interesting is the game’s magic system, which lets you assign two different spells to two different shoulder buttons. Press a button, and you’ll launch a basic version of the spell. Hold the button down longer, however, and your spell will charge up, often with devastating effects. The trick is that more powerful spells consume more MP, which takes some time to recharge during battle. Since you can use magic and melee attacks at the same time, mastering the combat requires a fine balance between the two. It’s a lot to keep track of, but once you get into a groove, combat has an enjoyable rhythm.

The Junk Heap ends with a climactic boss fight against a huge robot called Defense System Geppetto. This is where some of Nier Replicant’s influences, such as bullet hell shooters and the Legend of Zelda series, come out in full force. Geppetto is an enormous, floating robot, and as such, Nier can’t attack it directly. Instead, Nier must either block, dodge or slice through Geppetto’s spherical projectiles, while waiting for infrequent opportunities to hack away at the robot’s hands when they slam down to attack. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Bongo Bongo from Ocarina of Time, and feels similarly satisfying to beat.

nier replicant

(Image credit: Square Enix)

The Aerie

The second area of the game we can discuss 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 take down a giant boss called Hook.

Like the fight against Geppetto, the in-battle banter is a highlight here. Kainé is one of the strangest female leads in a Japanese RPG in recent memory. She’s neither a demure healer nor a gallant swordswoman, but rather an angry, battle-crazed berserker, letting loose a string of shocking profanity every time she unsheathes her twin serrated swords. She fights in her underwear (as Nier and Weiss never grow tired of pointing out) and seems to have little use for either Nier or his book. She’s a hard character to like — and, as such, it’s all the more rewarding that she really starts to grow on you over time.

Hook is one of the more exciting fights in Nier Replicant, pitting Nier, Weiss and Kainé against a gargantuan glowing lizard, as they fight to keep their ground on small platforms, hundreds of feet in the air. During this multi-stage battle, Hook jumps from place to place in the Aerie, making melee, magic and platforming all keys to victory. This is what Nier Replicant does well: exciting, lengthy battles against impossibly large monsters.

nier replicant

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Northern Plains

The final area we can discuss is the Northern Plains in the second half of the game. Without spoiling any of Nier Replicant’s intriguing story, we can say that after a certain point, the action jumps ahead five years. When Nier reexplores old areas, the enemies have gotten a lot tougher — but then again, so has he.

The Northern Plains is one of Nier’s large outdoor areas, and like other elements of the game, it’s an imperfect execution of a great idea. In theory, these huge levels help Nier Replicant’s world feel big and interconnected. But in practice, the Northern Plains can feel a bit empty, with a lot of time between enemy encounters and only a handful of side quests to do along the way.

On the other hand, the Northern Plains is also an excellent place to try out the full range of Nier’s magic and combat abilities, both of which expand a lot after the first half. Magic is no longer just about hitting distant targets; now, Nier can throw up defensive barriers, create arcane doppelgangers or even summon a giant eldritch hand to pummel his foes.

Melee combat also has much more variety in the game’s second half, as you’re no longer restricted to one-handed swords and daggers. Now, you can also equip slow-and-heavy greatswords, or balanced spears. Since each weapon has different combos available, it’s worth experimenting. But on the other hand, specific enemies aren’t especially susceptible to one weapon over the other, so it mostly comes down to player preference. It’s another area where Nier Replicant offers some depth, but could have taken the idea further.

nier replicant

(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 encountered, and their banter alone carries the game a long way. At the same time, the world itself and a lot of the tasks you’re given, can feel repetitive.

Combat is also good, without ever quite crossing the barrier into “great.” There’s a lot of variety, and finding a playstyle that works for you can feel rewarding. But then again, the game’s difficulty curve is all over the place. Even rank-and-file enemies can take a long time to pummel into submission, without offering much XP as a reward.

If nothing else, Nier Replicant is different, and in a marketplace full of samey games, it deserves some recognition for that. Sure, it’s technically a remaster, but it’s a remaster of a game variant we haven’t seen on this side of the Pacific. If that sounds like a good match for you, the game will be out on April 23 and will cost $60. We’ll have a full review closer to release.