Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Nier Replicant throughout.
Heroism is just a given when it comes to video games. It does not matter how many people or monsters the main character kills, their end goal is almost always heroic. Too often, video games throw enemies at the player without adding real nuance to the conflict. In some cases, this is borderline necessary. The Legend of Zelda is not going to benefit from Ganon’s minions begging for their lives as Link silently slices them down. But one-sided carnage is such an ingrained element of the medium that it begs examination. In a sense, it’s necessary to frame the player as absolutely heroic so as to justify the inherent role of violence in gaming. On the other hand, violence does not always need justification.
As an interactive medium, video games have the luxury of forcing a feeling into your hands. Most titles strive for pure entertainment, but smart developers who realize that gameplay is the story have been able to bridge an emotional gap between player and avatar. Take Final Fantasy VII, for instance. An early flashback features the main character Cloud recounting an encounter he had with the antagonist, Sephiroth — who joins the party for a single boss fight. Unlike other party members, you can not control Sephiroth. Cloud is also hopelessly inadequate at this point in the story. More often than not, Cloud will be knocked out immediately and you will be made to watch as Sephiroth dances around an enemy that easily broke you. While humiliating, this makes Cloud and Sephiroth’s rematch at the very end of FF7 all the more satisfying. Sephiroth is now hopeless against you, unable to actually kill Cloud.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time takes a similar approach towards heroic redemption. Hyrule in the first half of the story is a peaceful, idyllic land. Castle Town in particular is a lively market full of NPCs. Following the seven-year time skip after the first three dungeons, Hyrule becomes a dystopia where Castle Town is overrun with ReDeads (Zelda’s version of zombies). Not a word is said about how this happened or why. Navi and Link do not reflect on this change. You are just meant to take in the horror as you slowly realize just how much damage Ganondorf has done, and all because you pulled out the Master Sword. Just like with Final Fantasy 7, this tonal whiplash makes it more fulfilling when Link defeats Ganon and finally restores peace to Hyrule.
Nier takes after both Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time in this regard, but with one major caveat: you are not the hero and your actions are beyond redemption. Nier subverts traditional video game tropes, archetypes, and conventions — whether they be gameplay or narrative — by playing with perspective. One of Nier’s more unique qualities is how New Game Plus fleshes out the narrative. Nier’s story is told across three Routes labeled A, B, and C. Where Route C is mainly just an extension of B, Routes A and B are two sides of the same coin.
Route A is the standard RPG playthrough that hits all the right notes a video game might be expected to. The main villain kidnaps someone dear to the main character and does nothing but wait in their castle for the remainder of the plot. The main character is absolute in their sense of justice and the story ends on a happy note that highlights the hero’s victory. Enemies are ultimately framed as pure evil in spite of attempts to humanize them. Attentive players will be able to spot the tragedy within Nier’s narrative, but Route B forces audiences to confront their actions on a surprisingly visceral level.
Route B flips the story’s perspective so Shades – the protagonist Nier’s sworn enemies – now have subtitled dialogue translating their speech. What was gibberish in Route A becomes pathos in Route B. Bosses who looked like they were out for blood were just begging to be left in peace. Shades who acted like sudden aggressors in the final dungeon were only trying to protect their children from a genocidal maniac. Every one-liner that Nier throws out during the last battle is now countered by a suicidal Shadowlord succumbing to an emotional breakdown. Nothing is how it seems, but the only real key difference between Routes A and B is that enemies are given a voice.
This all ties into Nier’s subversion of video games, specifically RPGs. The good guy wasn’t so good, after all. His enemies were victims more than anything. Saving the damsel in distress is just a day in the life for Mario, but it has grave consequences for Nier. Getting a glimpse into the Shades’ constant terror turns your standard action RPG gameplay loop into casual mass murder. What makes this shift in perspective all the more significant is the fact that Nier himself looks and acts like a basic video game protagonist on the surface level. But really only in Replicant.
Although Nier was envisioned with a younger protagonist (as to reflect a staple of gaming), Square Enix determined that an older main character would better suit a western audience. Rather than scrapping their intended lead, the Nier development team split the game into two versions: Nier Replicant and Nier Gestalt. Gestalt released internationally and aged Nier up to 39 while making him Yonah’s father instead of her brother. Replicant, on the other hand, was a Japanese exclusive, which it remained until its 2021 remake – titled Nier Replicant ver. 1.22.
Nier is a subversive game by design. Archetypes and tropes need to be used for them to be subverted. Father Nier is a compelling character, but he is not the right lead for the kind of story Nier is telling. A parent pushing 40 who will do anything for his daughter is an aversion of classic video game storytelling. Brother Nier is designed to look and act like a traditional video game protagonist, only for the plot to highlight how twisted someone like Link or Cloud would need to be to embrace so much casual bloodshed. Nier Replicant 1.22 will be international audiences’ first time experiencing Brother Nier’s story, and while Father Nier will be missed, the clarity Replicant offers in regards to the game’s arcs & themes is an excellent trade-off.
“My sister is sick, and my only goal is to ensure that the two of us survive.”
Brother Nier’s arc is framed like a classic coming of age story that takes him from adolescence (age 16 in this case) into adulthood (21). The first half of the game – dubbed Part 1 – establishes who Nier is before putting him through the wringer. At his core, Nier is an impulsive do-gooder who does not second guess his actions and is resolute in everything he does. He carries himself with idealism at the start of the story that’s fitting for a JRPG lead, but tonally inappropriate for his world. Nier’s weathered voice at 16 and worn-out expressions do suggest this is a coping mechanism, however.
Nier is a deeply passionate character who’s quick to share his emotions, often to the point of looking absurd. He desperately exclaims that he’s friends with Kaine when they have just met. He forges a lifelong bond with Emil almost instantly for no real reason. Nier is the eager RPG hero welcoming new characters into his party without judgment. Kaine may dress in lingerie with her penis on display and Emil is a little skeleton boy, but Nier does not recognize their differences as bad or wrong like the rest of the world do. He simply sees friends.
Nier’s passion almost makes him seem foolish. His heart is in the right place, but he does not think things through. In a sense, this is what endears him to Kaine and Emil. Nier wears his heart on his sleeve and is not afraid to make his sense of justice known. Sometimes that’s killing dozens of Shades for the sake of an imaginary war. Other times it’s defending Kaine and Emil’s honor with every fiber of his being. Nier accepts Kaine and Emil for who they are. Kaine is a half-Shade outcast feared and reviled by The Aerie while Emil’s eyes are cursed to turn anyone he looks at to stone, forcing him to a life of solitude.
Not once does Nier feel contempt, disgust, or fear towards Kaine or Emil. He genuinely loves them both and puts his life on the line for them multiple times. Nier’s feelings for Kaine in particular are important, as they ultimately frame him as a hypocrite. The only real reason Nier is okay with Kaine being half-Shade is that she does not look like a Shade. It’s not a detail reflected on in the story proper, but it is one that makes Nier considerably more human. Specifically because Nier represents the typical hero, it’s important that the script pepper in character flaws in a subtle way.
To justify all the side quests he can take on, Nier is the type of person who will always stop to lend a helping hand. His fellow villagers pity him and he quickly earns a reputation as someone who will take on any job for the sake of his sister. Nier is motivated purely by Yonah at the end of the day, playing into simplistic character motivations common throughout the medium. Someone so driven by one thing will eventually resort to extreme measures to achieve their goals. Nier’s desire to take care of Yonah is admirable, but he fails in practice.
Nier is more concerned with killing Shades than spending time with his sister, and Yonah’s diary entries that appear as loading screens often highlight how Nier’s negligence is hurting her mood. Yonah is a lonely girl. She needs her brother at home, not in the Northern Plains caking himself in Shade blood — but Nier is young and his worldview is narrow. He lacks the emotional understanding a parent might have in such a situation. In his mind, killing Shades is taking care of Yonah.
Nier’s development into a man primarily sees him growing increasingly cynical over the course of the story. This is a thread that’s easiest seen through his relationship with Grimoire Weiss. Grimoire Weiss is a magical book who has existed since time immemorial (or so he thinks), and forges a pact with Nier early into the story. Weiss drains the blood of his enemies to power up magical spells called Sealed Verses, bestowing this power unto Nier per their pact. Yonah may be the most important person in Nier’s life, but Weiss is arguably the most important figure in his arc.
Gestalt depicts Nier and Weiss as equals with different worldviews. Where Father Nier clings onto hope for the sake of his daughter, Weiss is a realist who is quick to point out life’s harsh realities. Brother Nier’s lack of life experience ends up framing Weiss in a mentorship role. Their dynamic is not just two men sharing their life philosophies, but Grimoire Weiss influencing Nier’s childish outlook. What were ideological clashes in Gestalt turn into boyhood squabbles in Replicant. Nier wants to believe everything will always work out and everyone has good intentions, but Weiss is quick to remind him that this is not how life works. By Part 2, Nier is two pages shy of being just as jaded as Weiss.
The more of them he encounters, the deeper Nier’s hatred of Shades develops. He’s unabashedly violent, totally lacking in empathy toward those he deems “enemy.” Nier carries himself with a hostile energy and abides by a “kill on first sight” policy when it comes to Shades – which is just as much a reflection of an action RPG’s gameplay loop as it is one of the ugliest sides of his personality. When it comes down to it, Nier has the temperament and emotional maturity of a younger man, allowing him to serve as a stronger foil for characters like Jakob, Gideon, and the King of Facade when he is Yonah’s brother.
“It’s not easy for a pair of kids to live on their own.”
Jakob and Gideon are two brothers living out of the Junk Heap with their mother. The three of them run the store Two Brothers Weaponry, but their mother has been missing for a week by the time Nier runs into them. While Nier’s mother passed away from the Black Scrawl (the same disease afflicting Yonah), Jakob & Gideon’s mother abandoned them to be with her lover – dying while trying to escape the Junk Heap. Learning this prompts players with their first real choice in Nier: either tell Gideon the truth or lie that you could not find their mom.
Most choices in Nier are superficial in terms of outcome (true to the medium). No matter what you tell Gideon about his mother, Jakob will always learn the truth. The significance from making a choice in Nier stems from whether or not you – the player – feel you did the right thing. Is it better to have Gideon confront his mother’s harsh death at a young age, or to shield him from such dour news in a world that’s oppressive enough as is? The “right” choice depends entirely on how you choose to interpret your actions.
Roughly four years after the events of Part 1, Jakob dies while he and Gideon are pillaging for scrap in the Junk Heap. Although Gideon believes the Robots inside are responsible for his brother’s death, Jakob only loses his life because Gideon unknowingly destabilizes the first floor’s structure. Jakob is crushed to death by his own brother, but Gideon never recognizes the role he played here. Like Nier, Gideon’s hatred is rooted in ignorance. Nier refuses to see humanity in Shades and regularly butchers them without a second thought, but he has companions to pull him back from the physiological brink. Gideon confines himself to solitude and is mentally unstable by Part 2.
A fellow orphan, the King of Facade is forced to take on the massive responsibility of leading an entire people following his father’s death. Nier has been forced to take care of Yonah since a young age, which has taken a toll on him emotionally and mentally even before the start of the game. Both the King of Face and Nier are children who have had a uniquely adult responsibility pushed on them due to tragedy. Neither one is truly equipped to handle the position they are in, but they have no choice but to persist.
Come the end of Part 2, Nier and the King of Facade have been warped by revenge through their personal losses. Wolves kill the King of Facade’s wife on their wedding day and he becomes obsessed with wiping them out even at the cost of his culture’s strict set of rules. Yonah gets kidnapped midway through the story by the Shadowlord and Nier becomes obsessed with killing Shades on an even more drastic level. There’s an innate tragedy to Nier’s story that shines when he is a young man, especially since this notion is reflected in Gideon and the King of Facade’s personal arcs.
Nier is a child taking care of a child in a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to survive in. Shades stop Nier in his path every step of the way, in his eyes demanding that he cut them down. If you wait during the game’s first scripted Shade encounter, none of the Shades will attack Nier. They are passive and they do not draw first blood — you do, because that’s the nature of video games. It is only instinct that you cut down anything in your path, so Nier makes that bloodlust an explicit element of Nier’s character.
“The focus was on making the player feel like this epic story of a self-taught swordsman who wields sinister magical powers was happening to them.”
– Saki Ito, Development Director
Video games have the luxury of being able to develop their narrative and themes through gameplay. Combat in Nier is simplistic on a design level, but it says something meaningful about the nature of carnage common in the medium. Replicant 1.22 also goes to great lengths to turn action that was just “good enough” in 2010 into something genuinely gripping. A Development Director at Toylogic, Saki Ito was tasked with updating Nier’s combat for the remake – the intent to reimagine Replicant in the vein of Nier: Automata’s “high-quality, fast, and dynamic action.”
At the same time, Ito and his team were careful to respect the source material while updating Nier’s combat. Although Replicant’s revised mechanics share commonalities with Automata, they are very much their own beast. Focus is not just on chaining flashy combos, but instead on the unique interplay between swordplay and magic that defined Gestalt’s battle system. Every aspect of combat has been revised, but swordplay sees the greatest changes as far as control is concerned. Nier can inherently do more at any given moment in Replicant 1.22, sporting faster mobility with a wider attack pool.
Nier can only use One-Handed Swords before Part 2, but all three weapon types share the basics. One-Handed Swords can perform a 5 hit light combo, Two-Handed Swords hit 4 times in a wide range, and Spears narrow in their strikes for a 12 hit chain. Simple heavy attacks existed in Gestalt, but Replicant 1.22 extends them into full 3 hit combos for each weapon type. Like in most action games, heavy combos are slower in exchange for greater power but are the best means of breaking down a Shade’s defensives. Also new to the remake are aerial combos, albeit only for One-Handed Swords and Spears.
Light attacks can be strung into a 4 or 5 hit aerial combo for Spears and One-Handed Swords respectively, but work best when chained from a Launch Attack first. Jumping and then immediately using a heavy attack launches an enemy mid-air, giving you an opportunity to combo some light attacks or downward stab with another heavy attack. Individual light and heavy strikes can be held down for charge attacks which carry elemental affinities based on your weapon. Weapons also have a Weight stat, but it just barely affects attack speed in the remake.
Combat’s faster pace on a whole allows players to pull off smoother action in-game. Nier’s defensive maneuvers have been considerably rebalanced. Evading is nowhere near as stiff as it was in Gestalt and you can quickly chain attacks by dodge rolling from enemy to enemy. The inclusion of a lock-in function makes it easier to pull off Nier’s sidestep, a perfect dodge, if you evade just before an enemy’s attack connects. Similarly, the window for parrying has been shortened to give the mechanic more consistent use.
You can deflect most physical attacks by blocking right as you are hit. When timed correctly, this will give you an opportunity to follow up with a light or heavy counter-attack. Parrying ends up being the fastest way of dealing with heavily armored Shades late in the game. Rounding out Nier’s physical abilities are a lunge attack that can be triggered by attacking during a dodge roll and a Finisher technique which kills downed enemies if you simply interact with (not attack) their bodies. Most of Replicant 1.22’s mechanics are shared with Gestalt, but the remake’s revisions make for richer combat with a genuine level of depth. Likewise, the different varieties of sorcerers, armored warriors, and dynamic bosses make it fun to experiment against Shades.
Through his pact with Grimoire Weiss, Nier can make use of magical spells called Sealed Verses – which have been rebalanced to sport more fluidity in battle. Using a spell slows down combat, but not to the point where you can not still make reflex-based decisions, ensuring gameplay’s momentum never dips. Weiss also perpetually hovers around Nier’s shoulder in Replicant 1.22, whereas he only popped up for Sealed Verses and cutscenes in Gestalt.
There are a total of 8 Sealed Verses to choose from, raising the potential for unique and experimental combos. Dark Blast takes cues from third-person shooters and can be manually aimed from afar. Weiss shoots bursts of energy out at Shades and the attack can be charged to release several homing blasts at nearby enemies. Dark Phantasm spawns a doppelganger who chains attacks to and from surrounding Shades. Dark Hand spawns a gigantic fist that pummels enemies while Dark Lance fires a piercing shot straight into your target. Both Sealed Verses can be multiplied by charging them, pelting either a flurry of fists or lances at Shades.
The remaining set of Weiss’ Sealed Verses get a bit more creative in terms of implementation. Dark Whirlwind summons rotating blades around Nier’s body that do contact damage, shredding enemies you so much walk into. Dark Gluttony can absorb magic (which does a fair amount of damage to Nier at any level) and repel right spells back once charged up. Dark Wall lets you set a barrier or charge a makeshift shield over Nier’s body that blocks magic. Lastly, Dark Execution spawns spikes that skewer Shades from the ground up, leaving them prone and at your mercy.
Shades go so far as to bleed an excess amount of blood, coating Nier’s body if he kills enough in a short span of time. It is a morbid reminder that Shades are living beings too and that Nier’s enemies are experiencing identifiable pain as you rip and rend their bodies. Replicant uses its combat to comment on the one-sided violence inherent to JRPG protagonists. Nier does not care to see the other side’s perspective. Despite being so open-minded and kind otherwise, Nier has zero sympathy or patience for Shades, balking at and dismissing any semblance of recognizable sentience they may have. Shades have culture, children, and emotions – but Nier’s hatred will always blind him from that fact.
“The mailbox was empty today. I hope I get a letter from Nier tomorrow.”
– Yonah’s Diary, April 20th
One aspect of Nier’s character that’s better highlighted (and makes more sense) in Replicant than Gestalt is his neglect of Yonah. Brother Nier is a young man who does not have his priorities in check or uses his time wisely. He will do anything for Yonah, except actually sit down with her. While it is true Nier has to work to take care of his sister, he not only misinterprets killing Shades as actively beneficial (which it isn’t), he regularly gets distracted by side quests like any video game character would. In this case, it has negative consequences on Yonah’s mental wellbeing.
When Yonah gets sick early into the story, Nier treks out to Seafront and spends days trying to catch a Shaman Fish. This is despite the fact that Yonah is sicker and only getting worse. Nier is relieved to get home to her, but he is not nearly as apprehensive or concerned about time as he should be. Which makes sense, since he’s a 16 year old learning how to fish in a beautiful port town. It’s another reason Nier immediately gets sidetracked by a mandatory side quest. Nier is so interested in the lives of others over his sister, that if you refuse to do this side quest in Seafront, the story will send you right back after giving Yonah her fish.
Yonah is Nier’s burden and the dates in her diary paint an unfortunate timeline where Nier is sometimes gone for weeks. It is implied he sends Yonah letters every other day, but a later diary entry suggests that Nier eventually stops doing this. It’s not that Nier does not care about Yonah — it is abundantly clear he does — but it feels like he’d rather be anywhere else. The way Nier rationalizes things is that any odd job is ultimately money he can use to take care of Yonah. In practice, however, this is the same person who will gleefully apprentice under a fisherman in a multi-part side quest that spans five years, has no monetary reward, and periodically sees Nier spendings days (or even weeks) learning new fishing techniques.
There’s a mundane quality to quests that almost tie into the nature of older JRPG side activities. Completionists can expect tedious and repetitive – but really only completionists. Most quests are not only harmless, they are consistently very engaging from a story perspective. Some of the best dialogue in Replicant comes out during the side quests. Nier and Weiss share fantastic banter, particularly in Part 2, that shows off the depth of their dynamic. Sometimes their conversations are funny, other times philosophical. More than once, Weiss points out all the mindless work Nier brings onto him (which is really a dig at you).
Quests do a good job at showing Nier’s softer qualities, as well, keeping him likable in spite of his flaws. Nier may be a bloodthirsty maniac who is not always the best brother, but he’s a good guy to his fellow man and has all the time in the world. Doubly so once Yonah’s kidnapped. A Shade rampages through Nier’s Village halfway through the story, giving the Shadowlord an opportunity to whisk Yonah away. At its core, Yonah’s kidnapping is classic video game framing: the bad guy taking the princess away to his castle. In execution, Nier’s script plays into the raw emotion of a brother losing his sister after dedicating his entire life to her. It is the perfect way of making audiences hate the Shadowlord on an immediate surface level.
Yonah’s kidnapping triggers a five year time skip that brings fundamental changes all over the world. Tensions are high in every settlement, animals are starting to disappear due to overhunting from people & Shades, and the Shades themselves have even started wearing full suits of armor. Now 21, Nier is bitter and jaded. His optimism is gone, and while he is still amicable, a part of him clearly died going half a decade without Yonah. His answers to Weiss tend to be short, he carries himself with some degree of emotional detachment, and most of his passion now relates to his utter contempt towards Shades.
Nothing lasts forever, which is an especially important sentiment as Nier is set at the end of the world starring what may very well be the last generation of civilization. Nier clinging onto the hope that Yonah is still alive doesn’t carry the romance or mythical quality of Link rescuing Princess Zelda. It is just a sad reflection of an older brother who does not have anything left to live for other than what he’s already lost. It’s a profoundly human motivation that underscores Nier’s behavior shift into Part 2.
Structurally, the time skip happens because Nier is too weak to resolve the story during the first half. At just 16, Nier is an inexperienced swordsman who can not so much as wield a Spear. Losing Yonah hardens him and levels the playing field. By the time Nier is reintroduced, he’s become the ubermensch every video game main character is destined to eventually become. Literally nothing can or will stop him at this point. For any other game, the hero’s return is a moment of triumph. For Replicant, Nier’s post-time skip resolve only has damning consequences.
Nier’s character is a subversion of the classic RPG revenge arc. Where someone like Shulk from Xenoblade Chronicles learns to empathize, Nier holds onto his hate. He doesn’t understand that his actions are systematically wiping out humanity, but it is unlikely his behavior would change even if he did. Nier’s hatred of Shadekind is rooted in genuine bigotry — he is not interested in understanding or sympathizing, just killing them one by one. It’s a morbid character trait that feeds into Replicant’s gameplay loop. Any action RPG will have you slaughtering hundreds of enemies on end, but Nier confronts the idea that “monsters” are anything but — whether that be by coating you in their blood or translating their desperate cries for help.
“Spare the lives of the children! Please! I beg you!”
– An ordinary Shade
Nier’s big twist is twofold: not only are the Shades actually human beings, Nier is merely a shell created by the true humans. All “humans” in Nier are actually Replicants, synthetic bodies meant to host their respective Gestalt (Shade). The relationship between Replicant and Gestalt is tied to that of body and soul. Nier is the Shadowlord Replicant, while the Shadowlord is his Gestalt. Where the Shadowlord is the original Nier’s soul, Nier as audiences know him is a recreation of his body. Everyone you killed was just an ordinary human being. Humanizing Shades to the point they are literally human makes it so you can’t retroactively justify your actions. What Nier did was wrong and he was always coming at things without enough context to act – let alone seal mankind’s fate.
Knowing that the Shades are human puts even the most basic aspects of gameplay into a new light and adds an uncomfortable layer to combat without being egregious or distracting. Savvy players can actually catch Shades’ human qualities early by paying attention to item drops – they read books, carry baseball bats, and wear clothing. There is also an age hierarchy to Shades that makes certain encounters worse than others. Round Shades are babies, smaller Shades are children, and tall Shades are adults. There are multiple points in the story where you are forced to kill babies or children, never realizing this until Route B. Even your first encounter with Shades is against small children.
Most video games do not feature a day and night cycle to depict the passage of time, so Nier’s world is tidal locked. While this naturally causes complications for Replicants in their daily lives, Shades suffer on a massive scale because of this. The sun is lethal to Shades and they start burning in direct sunlight. This is reflected through the three weather types in-game – Sunny, Cloudy, and Overcast – where Shades desperately try to find shade and run out of direct light during combat. A Shade’s life is hostile as is, and it’s only made worse by Nier’s crusade. The only one capable of stopping Nier is the Shadowlord, but he does not share his counterpart’s bloodlust.
“I’m so sorry. I failed. Your brother failed.”
– The Shadowlord
The Shadowlord is introduced and depicted as a typical villain. He has no discernible dialogue in Route A, has a design that screams stereotypical evil, and he’s a dark mirror image of the main character – all classic antagonistic traits. In the same way Nier is a subversion of the video game hero, the Shadowlord is a subversion of the video game villain. He looks evil, but he’s a sad man who does not even want to fight you during the final battle. All the Shadowlord wants is to be reunited with his sister, just as Nier. Where Nier litters his path with Shades on his way to rescue Yonah, the Shadowlord does not personally kill anybody in the story.
The most violent thing he does is kidnap Nier’s Yonah, a situation which he interprets as reclaiming the body that is rightfully his sister’s. Just like Nier, the Shadowlord lacks perspective and the empathy to understand fully what he’s doing. For Nier, that’s wiping out the only real humans left while ignoring all evidence of their humanity. For the Shadowlord, it is “rescuing” his sister at the expense of ripping a scared little girl away from her only family. There are consequences to both Niers’ actions and their arcs shine an ugly light on heroism most games do not dwell on. Not everyone wants to be saved and there is more to your enemies than meets the eye.
The Shadowlord finally saves his sister after centuries of waiting. But he does not understand that this isn’t what his Yonah wants. Gestalt Yonah can hear her Replicant crying out for her brother and ends up killing herself as a result. Just as importantly, Yonah would still be sick and dying – subjected to a short life of agony. Nier grants his Yonah freedom like she wants, but at the cost of cutting off humanity’s future. She, too, will die soon, but this Yonah at least wants to live. It’s a nuanced, upsetting dilemma to linger on. Defeating the final boss should be fulfilling, but the Shadowlord’s death is framed as anything but. Nier even swallows what looks to be a brief flash of pity before cutting his Gestalt down.
There was never a true victory to be had for either Nier or the Shadowlord. Nier Replicant’s plot hits hardest the more experienced you are with the medium. The entire story is designed around challenging video game truisms and forcing audiences to reinterpret a “heroism” they often take for granted. The average game is not Nier and is not going to put the effort into showcasing the opposition as human. In the rare cases where this does occur, it’s often done with enough detachment where players won’t feel guilty over their actions.
You may not be the hero, but you are a hero. You may not be the villain, but you are a villain. It’s ultimately all a matter of perspective. Everyone believes they are the hero of their own story, but are you really the hero when your story ends with you closing the book on humanity for good? Nier is a hero to Yonah, to Kaine, and to Emil – but a villain to the Shadowlord, Shades, and the humans who will now suffer a slow but sure extinction. There’s nuance you can’t even begin to fathom to every situation, and that’s the statement Nier is trying to make when it comes to conflict.
Nier Replicant is not subversive for the sake of it, twisting video game conventions not only to make a statement but to develop a deeper layer of tragedy for the story. Nier is by all accounts the average hero, but he does not have the luxury of going up against faceless enemies. Shades are developed and nuanced antagonists who are not evil, they just are. Nier’s princess is kidnapped, but saving her comes at the cost of an innumerable amount of lives. Brother Nier is the average video game protagonist trapped in a game that isn’t taking sides.
Cloud killing Sephiroth and Link defeating Ganon are iconic video game moments dozens of hours in the making. Not only for their narrative build up, but how they play into player control. The art of a final boss fight is that the protagonist’s victory becomes yours – not so for Nier. There is no satisfaction in defeating the Shadowlord. No real joy in saving Yonah for anyone who stops to think about what’s next for a second. No real catharsis from killing the bad guys in New Game Plus.
It would be easy to say that Nier is trying to shame players, but that is not the case. Nier Replicant is trying to get audiences to think about games on a deeper level and to reconsider the medium’s most familiar cliches. Nier is a complex character, but he is not a wholly unsympathetic one. His hatred of Shades is cruel and upsetting, but it makes sense. Playing as Brother Nier for so long and watching him grow up into a man keeps him endearing even at his most violent.
Few games utilize the medium as elegantly as Nier, eliciting raw emotion through gameplay at almost every turn. Replicant 1.22 makes it easier to appreciate the RPG’s strongest qualities, from genius game design to a tragic story that would not work in any other medium. Nier preys on the interactivity unique to gaming, but always intelligently and with purpose. Nier himself is a brilliant subversion of the ideal hero, coming of age into anything but. Nier Replicant shows the world of difference a brother can make.