Major spoilers for the ending of Nier Replicant.
“Everyone has something to live for.”
Multiple endings are not uncommon in video games, but few titles in the medium utilize them half as well as Nier. After completing the game once, Nier’s New Game Plus starts you roughly 60% of the way through the story to redo the last batch of dungeons. This second playthrough, also called Route B, adds subtitles for any boss and enemy dialogue, translating lines that make the Shades considerably more sympathetic antagonists. Instead of ending on a touching scene of the protagonist Nier reuniting with Yonah, Route B ends on a bitter note as the “real” Yonah comforts the Shadowlord after an emotionally charged defeat.
Route B recontextualizes the Shadowlord from a basic video game villain holed up in his castle into a tragic figure pushed to his absolute emotional limits. Nier exclaiming that he will not show him any sympathy does not land nearly as badass the second time around, when all the Shadowlord can respond with is a pained, “But why!?” Focus is pulled from Nier’s struggle to rescue Yonah and lit onto the Shadowlord’s suffering. The point of Route B is to make audiences understand that there’s another side to every story while subverting gaming’s tendency to portray the protagonists as wholly good and the villains wholly bad.
More often than not, Route B’s unique dialogue reveals that the Shades just want to live in peace. Such a reinterpretation already goes beyond what is expected of a New Game Plus, but Nier pushes things just a bit further with Route C. In the game’s original 2010 release, Route C was simply an extension of Route B. The story continues for one more boss after defeating the Shadowlord and you are tasked with making a difficult decision: either kill Kainé – a character who’s developed considerably over the course of the story and found a reason to live – or sacrifice your life, erasing all traces of Nier from existence while permanently deleting your file.
Choosing to kill Kainé triggers Ending C, a relatively character-driven conclusion that ignores Nier’s narrative framing (going so far as to remove Yonah from the premise altogether) to emphasize the relationship between the story’s two leads. Nier plunges his sword through Kainé’s heart, kisses her goodbye, and promises that they will always be together as he holds the Lunar Tear he grew for her in the light of day. Kainé may be gone, but she is free from a pain that was eating her alive and died knowing she was loved. Ending C is an important reminder after Ending B that while Nier & Kainé’s actions are ultimately monstrous, neither one is a monster. They are people.
Where Endings A through C flesh out Nier’s stories and characters, Ending D specifically plays into your connection to Nier as the player. Video games are a unique medium in that they can take advantage of interactivity between art and audience. Video games are not passive and demand a deeper level of engagement by design. Nier’s arc is entirely dependent on your control. He can never save Yonah and doom humanity to a slow extinction if you do not play the game, after all. His successes and failures are just as much yours. That’s true of any video game, really.
This is not to say Ending D lacks narrative weight. Nier erasing himself from existence so Kainé can have a normal life obviously injects deeper pathos into the story, but it is not what makes Ending D special. Ending D is a proper commitment in the original Nier, one that fundamentally reshapes the game. You are asked four times if you really want to go through with erasing your data, entering your character’s name to formally complete the act – your very last act in Nier mirroring the first. After that, you can only sit back and watch as every page of Grimoire Weiss – your in-game menu – is deleted one by one.
You can never use your main character’s name for a file again and the only proof they ever existed is the addition of Kainé’s Lunar Tear to the title screen. By making you delete all your data, Ending D forces you to feel the magnitude of Nier’s sacrifice. Ending D goes beyond a sad goodbye to a character you have been playing as all game, it is a genuine sacrifice of all the effort you’ve put into Nier. The only way for Kainé to find peace is for you to let go of a video game you have put dozens of hours into. Getting to Ending D in Nier is a labor of love in & of itself, and to permanently lose everything you have earned is more impactful than a character death could ever be.
But that is what makes Ending D a beautiful sacrifice. Missable content and points of no return can feel unfriendly from a design perspective, but there’s merit in permanence – be that permanently losing a party member, your abilities, or over 50 hours of gameplay in an action RPG that forced you to collect every single weapon just to see Endings C and D. The original Nier springs a bold decision on players, challenging our relationship with save data. It is tempting to keep a completed file you’ve invested so much time into around, but will you really come back to it? Nier’s story makes it painfully clear that nothing lasts forever, even your saves.
Nier Replicant is a faithful remake that mostly improves its source material, but the game’s relationship with permanence is not nearly as bold as the original Nier. Befitting a remake, Replicant features a new finale set after Ending D. While there’s nothing wrong with Ending E in theory, it removes all meaningful consequences tied to Ending D. Completing Ending E restores your previously deleted file, turning a poignant examination of video game endings into a regular post-game. There’s value in how Ending E fleshes out Kainé’s character arc, but not enough to make up for the loss of actual loss.
Catharsis at the Expense of Permanence
If nothing else, the path towards Ending E is interesting and appropriately deceptive. Nier Replicant keeps it coy when it comes to Ending D. By all accounts, it is telegraphed as the remake’s proper ending. Your save data is deleted, the title screen changes, and you’re even thanked for playing. There’s nothing to indicate that is anything more to Replicant, but your next fresh file will naturally splinter into Ending E. What makes this especially noteworthy is that Ending E only triggers after roughly two hours of regular gameplay – just long enough to trick you into thinking there is nothing new to experience.
Ending E makes you repeat the first four setpieces (The Lost Shrine, Seafront, Junk Heap, and The Aerie), all while reteaching you tutorials and allowing you to take on side quests like nothing’s amiss. If you know what’s coming, this section of Ending E can be very difficult to appreciate. At its core, it’s all filler between Ending D and Ending E. Replaying just the opening hours does little but put distance between the two endings. Which in itself is important. You are not supposed to rush into Ending E from Ending D, it’s meant to be a surprise on your next intended playthrough of the game.
After defeating Hook at The Aerie for the second time, Nier calls out to Kainé in a dream sequence that pulls her from the brink of death. On a first playthrough, Kainé hallucinates Nier reaching out and grabbing her hand. On a post-Ending D playthrough, Nier will phase out of existence as soon as his hand touches Kainé’s. The game will then jump three years after Ending D, abruptly swapping control from young Nier to Kainé. While Ending E is flawed in execution, playing as Kainé feels like the natural next step in her arc. Regardless of your choice, Route C’s ending posits Nier and Kainé’s lives as equal – what better way to convey that than by making Kainé playable in a Nierless world?
Narratively, Ending E forges a deeper connective tissue between Nier Replicant and Nier: Automata. The Forest of Myth is revealed to be a supercomputer that’s been storing memories related to the Replicant system, essentially the very foundation of Nier and Kainé’s lives. The final dungeon takes place within The Divine Tree, previously responsible for the game’s text adventures, now a fully explorable environment. Inside, Kainè meets the Administrators (who greatly resemble Automata’s protagonists, 2B and 9S, down to their voice actors) and Replicant gradually starts to adopt Automata’s aesthetic – from the level design eventually resembling the Copied City & Tower to the UI changing for the final battle.
Ending E is a symbolic transition from Replicant to Automata, a stripping down of Nier’s fantastical elements in favor of explicit science-fiction, but at its core is Kainé’s desperation to remember Nier. As a Replicant, Kainé is not a true human, but Ending E is about her humanity. By conquering her worst memories in the Divine Tree’s server, Kainé can bring Nier back to life. The world may have forgotten him, but the Forest of Myth still remembers. Defeating the Administrators allows Kainé to recreate Nier the way he was when they first met, prompting you to input your original main character’s name one final time. In a reversal of Ending D, you are left to watch as Grimoire Weiss is restored page by page.
It is certainly a cathartic moment and in-character for Kainé, but Nier loses one of its most compelling qualities as a video game. Ending D was not just another ending in the original Nier, it was the ending – a final goodbye to everything from your data to your name. Ending E is a fundamental betrayal of that fact. In some respects, this almost feels intentional. A large focus of Kainé’s arc is her growing agency and choosing how to live her own life. She had no say in Nier’s sacrifice and will do anything to bring him back, whether he wants to come back or not (a fact evidenced by his disembodied voice urging Kainé to go back). Kainé’s simply returning the favor in the grand scheme of things.
And there’s a bittersweet beauty to reviving Nier. He’s not really her Nier, Replicants are a generation away from dying out due to their inability to reproduce, and humanity will still go extinct because of their actions. Kainé brought Nier back, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The world is doomed no matter what. That tinge of happiness coursing through Ending E only adds another layer of tragedy to the story when you stop to think about. The problem with Ending E is not that it’s bad – it’s not – it’s that it simply is not Nier’s best ending.
Throwing players into an endless loop where they can run through Endings D and E with no repercussions goes against the spirit of the original Nier. Ending D no longer carries its weight if you will always be able to restore your data. In fact, it’s downright expected you will. Ending D in Nier Replicant can not be a sacrifice when nothing is actually being sacrificed. Nothing lasts forever, something Nier reflects on all throughout. Video games can simulate the permanence of loss better than any artistic medium and Nier did so brilliantly. Choices in video games so often give players an out, but Nier did not until Replicant.
Anyone who wants the Ending D experience after a full playthrough of Nier Replicant can always just delete their file themselves, but that’s obviously not the same. There is a difference between a player deleting their data on their own accord and the game making you. Ending E is a creative conclusion that plays on player expectation in endearingly clever ways, but the original Ending D is masterful in how it incorporates interactivity. Deleting your file is ritualistic, right down to the typing of your name. There’s no in-game way of restoring your data or secret post-game lying in wait, you just have to commit.
Ending E removes an important part of Nier’s identity and one of the boldest moments in gaming. Ending D’s full weight is gone once you know that nothing is truly lost. Nier sacrificing himself is still sad, but losing your data becomes mere performance on the game’s part. Kainé holding Nier as a giant Lunar Tear blossoms around them is a poetic close to a story written in tragedy, but it does not hold a candle to someone making the conscious decision to give up all their gameplay progress for good.
Both Endings D and E will leave players reflecting on them for different reasons beyond the bleak implications they share for the main cast’s future. In the case of Ending E, it is an inspired way of following up Ending D that fleshes out Nier’s lore considerably. Playing through two hours of a fresh playthrough just to transition into a brand new ending is downright genius. The connections to Automata make for a richer world and Kainé’s added characterization bolster what was already one of the game’s best arcs. Ending E is a treat for anyone who’s fallen in love with the story – a cathartic epilogue after so much heartache.
On the other hand, Ending D blurs the line between avatar and player to the point where your sacrifice is no different from Nier’s. If you ever want to play the original game again, it will always have to be on a new file with a completely different character name. That’s simple, but significant. Nier Replicant turns its back on this permanence for better or worse. Some players will surely appreciate the fact they do not need to commit to Ending D in full, but Nier no longer sticks the landing with as much impact. Nier was a story about loss that ended with players experiencing the greatest loss possible in a video game. Nier Replicant is a story about loss that ends with players getting back everything they lost. Ending E is a thrill, but it’ll always exist in Ending D’s shadow.