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Credit: Square Enix

The Week in Gaming: Hands on with NieR Replicant; Oculus news; Game of Thrones and more

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Apr 23, 2021, 10:43 AM EDT

Welcome to The Week in Gaming, the place where we pause each week to take a look at the video game news beats both big and small that you might be missing — while also taking a peek around the corner at what's ahead. Check in each Friday for news (and occasionally even views) on everything from sprawling RPGs to Metroidvania platformers to the latest in VR and free-to-play. We'll even throw in a good old-fashioned board game every now and then!

It’s hard to describe a Yoko Taro game. The best thing you can do is to play one for yourself. The newest chance to do just that arrives today with the release of NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, which for sanity’s sake (ours and yours both), we’ll just refer to without the numbers from here on out.

Taro and his team made what may be as close to perfect a game as there is with 2017’s Nier: Automata, a surprise franchise-making hit for Square Enix that sent a lot of fans on an admiring hunt to see what other awesome stuff might be lurking in Taro’s back catalog. Finding the original NieR, released in two similar-but-different forms for Japanese and western audiences for the PlayStation 3 in 2010, runs Automata fans the very real risk of coming away disappointed  — not because there’s not a great game lurking behind its clunky mechanics and fuzzy visuals, but because those very things frustrate the wildly ambitious ideas underneath it all.

A healthy NSFW warning for some serious potty-mouthing in the remaster’s cinematic trailer:

Square Enix on YouTube

NieR Replicant, today’s HD remaster for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC (via Steam), shatters those frustrations in every way. Calling it a “remaster” is a slight injustice, though Replicant preserves — while lightly embellishing —the content from the 2010 Japanese original. But a game that felt halting and at times underdeveloped on the PS3 positively sings in 2021 on the PS4 (the version we’ve been playing through).

Taking strong inspiration from Taro’s fruitful partnership with Platinum Games for NieR: Automata, Square Enix and remaster developer Toylogic have transformed Replicant’s combat into a fluid, satisfyingly smash-y delight, while eradicating countless quality-of-life issues that stunted players’ immersion with the original. Game saves take literally less than a second; the HD-remastered graphics enliven the original story with new personality, clarity, and heart; and the new, fully-voiced main cast helps Taro’s bittersweet tale of displaced souls seeking salvation come to life in a way the 2010 game hinted at — but never could achieve.

Credit: Square Enix

That all sounds like a lot to unpack without breaking down and at least attempting to describe the game you’re actually in for. NieR Replicant is an action-focused JRPG that hands you a moderately sizable open world to explore, with its several spokes anchored by a deceptively medieval hub village. In many ways, it takes the classic 3D questing and hack-and-slash combat of a game like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and gradually deconstructs its tried-and-true formula of story progression to subvert most of your familiar expectations about how a conventional action-RPG hero’s fantasy quest is supposed to unfold.

You play as a young, choose-your-name hero (one who simply went by “Nier” in the 2010 original). You’re the older brother to Yonah, a sweet and frail girl who’s been infected with a mysterious and (perhaps) supernatural disease called the Black Scrawl. Western players of the PS3 NieR will remember the protagonist as Yonah’s father (Japanese audiences were the only players treated to the big-brother version), but Replicant commits to the brother-sister story dynamic, with a few knowing Easter egg callouts for the “father” version, for this new remaster. In all versions, your whole purpose becomes finding a cure for Yonah’s desperately incurable disease, and of course that takes you across a Zelda-style overworld of far-flung and dangerous places.

Credit: Square Enix

Along the way, you’ll take on the makings of a proper RPG party. Floating over your shoulder is the omnipresent, Navi-like Grimoire Weiss, a sentient white book with a pridefully snide, yet not-unkind air of condescension whose voice lines are deliciously delivered by actor Liam O’Brien. Weiss provides a trove of powerful magic attacks, while warrior Kainé — a young woman with a tragic past and perhaps even bleaker future — helps bolster your melee mettle.

Then there’s Emil, an incredibly unfortunate boy whose eventual, grinning moon-masked form may as well serve as the unofficial mascot for the whole NieR franchise. Like most of the other characters, Emil’s backstory is too rich and involved to explore here — but he’s the heart of the series, and it’s safe to say he’s seen a lot; yet somehow finds a way to always keep the flame of optimism alive. Emil has a variety of combat tricks up his sleeve, but his hovering ranged attacks form the bread-and-butter support you’ll come to rely on as the game swings toward its later stages...and some epic robot battles.

One of Taro’s signature gifts is the way he takes a wrecking ball to time-honored gaming tropes (think Zelda again) while never disrespecting them. Replicant follows a pretty old-school formula of questing, traversal, backtracking, leveling up, and working your way toward key story moments that — in each of the five unique endings — serve up points of no return. But Taro toys with that familiar structure, switching up genres on a whim to shift from swinging-camera open-world battles to isometric cutaway exploration to top-down, arcade-style, bullet-hell sci-fi shootouts. All of that and more eventually found its way into NieR: Automata as well, but Toylogic executes each genre style so fluidly here that Automata fans will have no trouble making an easy transition as they delve deeper into Replicant.

Credit: Square Enix

NieR: Automata remains superior to Replicant (and to most video games) in every way, but make no mistake: whichever game you finish first, you’ll inevitably find yourself dying to seek out and play the other. With this new remaster, NieR Replicant will reward that impulse in immensely satisfying ways. Composer Keiichi Okabe's incredible musical score (and singer Emi Evans’ crystal-haunting voice) links the series’ thematic connections across the two titles; the gargantuan time skips that frame the series’ deeper sci-fi history (and root it in our present-day techno-world) begin to pay off in ways that induce endless “aha!” moments of recognition; and Taro’s uniquely empathetic way of exploring tragedy will have you wishing more RPGs could grow some conviction and follow their stories to unhappy endings — if that’s where their stories should lead.

Most of all, NieR Replicant is finally fun to actually play. Longtime fans who’ve hung with Taro from his days as the creative mind behind the Drakengard series (from which NieR is technically a spinoff) can finally stop using the older NieR’s intangibles (the music, the story, the Taro-esque tragedy of it all) to justify the PS3 game’s shortcomings. So long as you keep your level reasonably high, Replicant isn’t a tough challenge, and you’re unlikely to see the “Game Over” screen more than a small handful of times.

But the moment-by-moment battles present Zelda-like strategic challenges, the big bosses are dig-in-and-fight conflagrations that finally feel as epic as they look, and there’s a tangible satisfaction in the way your ever-strengthening protagonist eventually grows to shrug off foes — aka “Shades” — that formerly felt like threats. And trust us on this one: Though the story (and your hero’s powers) take a slow several hours to finally open wide, Replicant shares with Automata the awesome hook of becoming more addictive, in a recursive way that has to be experienced firsthand, the longer you play. With five separate endings that reveal more of the true story on each truncated playthrough, “beating” the game is just the beginning — and by the time you’ve cleared the first ending, you’ll definitely want to keep going until you’ve experienced it all.

Credit: Square Enix

Playing through these past two NieR titles — 2017’s Automata and now this hugely-enhanced version of Replicant — you get the sense that Taro’s always been ahead of his time when it comes to envisioning what a video game can be. While we can’t wait for Square Enix to announce that there’s a new NieR installment on the way for next-gen consoles, Replicant has us convinced that a similarly thorough reworking of Taro’s earlier games — especially Drakengard 3 — would be a huge gift to video game history.

Like Replicant, Drakengard 3 has the soft R-rated vibe of a rambunctious and morally fluid ensemble; a wild, magic-tinged sci-fi fantasy story; and a killer narrative antagonism between its two main characters that reveals a deeper affection that bonds them as the game nears its end. It also has a tragically complicated hero with a flower growing from her eye; a cursed, trash-mouthed hard case whose only salvation is a fratricidally ignoble death.

Like the original NieR, though, it’s also seriously hampered by its budget and its technology — constraints that appear to have been swept away with NieR: Automata’s breakout, 5.5 million unit-selling success. Taro’s a video game auteur who’s finally earned the bankable credibility to go wherever his next whim takes him, and we’re thrilled that it’s led to a much-deserved second lease on life for the original NieR. But whether it’s remakes or brand-new games, we’ve never been more excited to see where Taro’s creative gift for finding grace in dark dystopia might take the NieR franchise — a success story not even Square Enix could’ve seen coming — as it forges toward a bright future.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… releases today for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Spare parts

- All’s well that ends well. After surprising players by announcing it would end support for the PlayStation Store titles for PS3, PS Vita, and PSP games this year, Sony has reversed course in response to vehement fan feedback and decided to keep its PS3 and PS Vita support going…though the older PSP is still on the digital chopping block.

Sony Interactive Entertainment president and CEO Jim Ryan responded to fans this week in a blog post, confessing that “it’s clear that we made the wrong decision here” in announcing PS3 and Vita games would no longer be featured at the PlayStation Store. “We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future,” Ryan stated, “so I’m glad we were able to find a solution to continue operations.”

As for PSP games, get them while you can: “PSP commerce functionality will retire on July 2, 2021 as planned,” added Ryan.

- This one hadn’t made a blip on our radar since Amazon originally announced it in 2019, so it wasn’t super-surprising this week when the retail giant indicated its game publishing division is no longer working on a planned Lord of the Rings open-world MMO. Bloomberg reports that the canceled project resulted from a business dispute with gaming giant Tencent, which acquired the studio developing the game for Amazon after it was initially revealed. Amazon isn’t exactly abandoning Middle-Earth, though: It’s still lavishing insane money on its long-developing LOTR series for Amazon Prime.

- ICYMI: Oculus unveiled the details this week for its upcoming VR remake of Resident Evil 4, while dishing out tons more info on upcoming games for the Quest and Rift family of headsets including a VR update of Star Wars Pinball, new content for The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, and much more. Check out the Oculus Gaming Showcase landing page for all the latest on the games we’ll soon be playing on the new Quest 2.

- A trio of games that keep making this year's short awards lists have just made one more: Ghost of Tsushima, The Last of Us Part II,and Hades have all scored six nominations apiece for this year’s Game Developers Choice Awards, via VGC. Valve’s VR adventure Half-Life: Alyx came away with five nominations, with all the above titles making the coveted Game of the Year list along with Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The winners will be revealed at a July 21 awards ceremony, which takes place during this year’s GDC event slated to run from July 19 to July 23.

 

Square Enix on YouTube

- What can we say? — it’s a NieR kind of week. As part of the marketing overdrive to promote today’s launch of NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, Square Enix commissioned Finnish artist Juho Könkkölä to create origami versions of the game’s main characters — and we’re pretty sure it took longer to make these detailed little NieR paper tributes than it’ll take most players to finish the game. Each crafted from a single piece of paper, your weapon-wielding protagonist and Emil in his skeletal form come to life in the video clip above, which we only wish would’ve included a behind-the-scenes look at how the whole NieR-igami process...unfolded.

 

Credit: Asmodee Digital

- Though the HBO series may be gone, players have been settling back into the Westeros groove since A Game of Thrones: The Board Game Digital Edition went live last fall. Now Asmodee Digital is bolstering the content lineup for the strategic negotiation and deception game with a new DLC expansion titled A Dance with Dragons, and the stakes are about to rise a lot higher.

A Dance with Dragons ups the ante in Westeros’ wicked world of shifting loyalties, with a new gameplay setup that “pits players at each other's throats from the beginning,” according to Asmodee and developer Dire Wolf Digital. The add-on comes with 64 new character cards that shift players’ previous lineups in each of the game’s Houses, while pushing players to “explore new strategies and cunning tactics” in a political dance that’s all about negotiation and deception — just the way a Game of Thrones adventure should be.

Inspired by George R. R. Martin’s fifth novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons heightens the game’s brewing conflict following “a shift in the balance of power,” as the Baratheons are forced northward from a ravaging war, while the Greyjoys maraud on the ocean waves and the Lannisters seem to be safely ensconced at King’s Landing. Available now, capture the new A Dance with Dragons DLC as a standalone download for PC, Android, MacOS, and iOS.