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Gamer’s History of “Nier:” The Improbable Fall and Rise of a Franchise

Some video games have complex histories that aren’t really all that complicated when you break them down. “Duke Nukem Forever” spent over a decade in development but basically just changed hands from developer-to-developer time after time. “Secret of Mana” was originally supposed to be a Nintendo PlayStation game from when Sony and Nintendo were forming a potential partnership for a CD based console. Then Nintendo pulled the plug on the idea and the game had to get drastically reduced. And then there’s “Nier.”

When “Nier” was released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 back in April of 2010, the only immediate thing it succeeded in was getting very mixed reviews and causing its developer, Cavia, to go under. Cavia was soon bought by another company and “Nier” was destined to be just another title in the languishing genre of Japanese RPG’s at the time. If this were any other game, this would probably be the starting and end of the story, but “Nier” was destined not to be like any other game.

A lot of things came together in an odd way to make “Nier” become relevant again and critically reassessed as one of the most original and impactful stories in the video game medium. Part of this ties into the game’s odd history, which will only become odder the further along it goes.

To understand “Nier’s” origin is to understand its director and writer, Yoko Taro. The first game he directed was 2003’s “Drakengard”. The gameplay has a number of similarities to the “Dynasty Warrior” series in terms of the hundreds of enemies that you kill on the battlefield, though featuring a more complex story with political themes and the examination of the motivation behind violence and conflict.

Depending on how the story unfolds for you and your acquisition of various weapons, you can unlock up to 5 endings within the game. The fifth ending, otherwise known as “Ending E,” was considered a nan-canonical “joke.” In said conclusion, the player character Caim and his dragon partner Angelus are engaged in battle with the Queen-Beast, also known as the Grotesquerie Queen. The power unleashed in their clash causes a shift to happen in dimension and time, throwing the two into modern Tokyo, circa 2003. From there, Caim and Angelus succeed in defeating the giant Queen, but are subsequently killed by a missile strike from a fighter jet.

Something about this throwaway ending apparently stuck with Taro, making him see it as more than just a tacked-on joke. He began to develop a full story behind the events that would take place following this intrusion of otherworldly beings into Earth. The mere presence of these beings and the particles that make them up, brought something different into the world as the inhabitants knew it. The particles of the heroic dragon introduced magic, while those of the Grotesquerie Queen brought disease. And so began the backstory that would later become “Nier”, complete with a published companion book, “Grimoire: Nier” that details the events through fictional articles, journals, and short stories.

So while all of this stuff made “Nier” stand-out, it wasn’t well-known at the time of release that this was all tied together and part of an overarching universe. In fact, it’s actually even more complicated because there were two versions of the game that got released, “Nier: Gestalt” for the Xbox 360 and “Nier: Replicant” for the PS3. Both stories are essentially the same, but with a different main character. In “Replicant” you play as a young teenager named Nier, who attempts to take care of his younger sister, Yohna. In “Gestalt” you play as a middle-aged man named Nier, who attempts to take care of his young daughter Yohna.

The story plays nearly identically either way but because it was thought that the North American market would respond better to the father/daughter dynamic, that’s the only version received internationally. In everywhere but Japan, the version of “Nier” people are playing, whether on the Xbox 360 or the PS3 is effectively, “Nier: Gestalt,” renamed to simply, “Nier.” But if you care about which game is considered canon for the age of the character and his relationship to Yohna, it’s “Replicant.”

Got all that? So what made the game eventually become a cult favorite and warrant an eventual sequel? Well, one could easily argue it was because of the music. One thing that was universally praised about the title was its soundtrack. The music of “Nier” was, and still is, incredible in its scope and power. Composer Keiichi Okabe created lavish themes that ran the gamut from hopeful and inspiring to loomingly dreadful and eerie. A lot of the credit for this also has to be given to lyricist and singer, Emi Evans.

Evans devised a lyrical style that is essentially a combination of different linguistical sounds, put together to make what could be described as a new language in general. The intent was to create a kind of futuristic tongue that would’ve resulted from the blending and assimilation of languages over time. The effect can make the vocals sound familiar and comforting when used in a softer tone, yet strange and disquieting when used in a darker atmosphere.

The soundtrack did a lot to keep the game discussed amongst ardent gamers, reviewers, and YouTubers. It may have even inspired people to actually revisit and complete the game, which is where a renewed interest in its story began. Upcoming is a partial spoiler alert that doesn’t give away the story so much as it does some unique mechanics of how the story unfolds, and the gut-punch of an effect they have.

When you beat “Nier” you have the option of starting a New Game Plus. Upon entering this mode, you quickly start to find out that new story segments have been introduced that show the world from the perspective of the enemies you’ve been killing. But now you get to hear their voices and thoughts, finding out just how sentient they’ve been the entire time.

Additionally, completing more playthroughs will eventually lead you to a decision involving a unique form of sacrifice. In order to obtain the final ending, an event takes place that deletes all of your current save files for the game. Your trophy and achievement data remain untouched, but any “Nier” save files will be deleted except for a small kernel of data that remembers you chose this option, and prevents you from using the same file/character name in the future.

Between the mechanics surrounding the ending, the game’s lineage, and the exceptional musical compositions, the legend of “Nier” continued to grow. In time, the game turned into a cult classic, and a critical darling in hindsight. Creator Yoko Taro and producer Yosuke Saito still had plans for the game as a series, but that wasn’t enough to bring the developer, Cavia, back from its buy out, nor were sales strong enough to warrant a sequel. The world building continued then in the form of the book “Grimoire Nier” and a Drama CD, which contains audio tracks describing situations that happen before and after the events you playthrough.

Yoko Taro wearing mask – Photo by Axem Titanium – used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

And while another game wasn’t in the cards at the time, Taro was still active in the industry. Because he had avid supporters of his writing style and storytelling, he’d established a number of favorable connections amongst colleagues he worked with and other people in the gaming industry who enjoyed his work. This helped reunite Taro with some of the former Cavia team at Access Games to create “Drakengard 3” in 2013. On a quick side-note, it’s worth mentioning that a “Drakengard 2″ was released in 2005, but Yoko Taro was barely involved in the project and its impact on the series in general is negligible.

Reviews for the third “Drakgengard” title were once again, mixed. However, the belatedly growing positive fan reception and cult status of “Nier” was swaying the minds at Square-Enix, who had published the previous titles in the series. So, despite the poor sales and initial critical reaction to the last two titles in the “Drakengard” universe, a sequel to Nier was greenlit.

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To call this unexpected is an understatement. At the time, video game fans had been clamoring for years for things like a “Final Fantasy VII” remake, another sequel to “Chrono Trigger,” or the long-awaited “Kingdom Hearts III.” And yet a sequel to “Nier” gets confirmed and set for release before any of those other fan demands. So yeah, when the sequel, “Nier: Automata” was announced at E3 of 2015, it was a massive surprise.

But just to prove what a creative madman Yoko Taro is, the story of “Nier” was still ongoing in the most ridiculous way you could imagine for a video game. In 2014, while “Nier: Automata” was in its planning and early development stages, Taro was creating a stage play called “YoRHa” that would effectively act as a prologue to the upcoming game. The play premiered in October of that year, went through a total of three versions, and produced a spin-off play about the male members of YoRHa.

As for the development of the game itself, there were concerns about how “Nier” handled and played. A lot of critiques regarding the game focused on the uneven combat mechanics and overall feeling of how the character of Nier moved and controlled. Square-Enix wanted a sequel that had a better, faster, action experience to it. At the time, one of the biggest names in the industry for that kind of style, was PlatinumGames. Some of their past projects included the “Bayonetta” series, “Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance,” and “Transformers: Devastation,” all of which were praised for their intense and fluid combat.

Little did Yoko Taro or Square-Enix know at the time, that many members of the staff at PlatinumGames were huge fans of “Nier” and would’ve loved to have worked on a sequel even before they were approached to do so. And with Taro onboard as the game’s director and writer, the pieces were in place to craft the follow-up that the world would end up not knowing it wanted.

When “Nier: Automata” was released in early 2017, reviews were very strong. The game was praised for virtually everything the original “Nier” did correctly, with additional praise given for all the things it had improved upon. Where the controls the first time around felt clunky and stiff, now they were dynamic and responsive. The unremarkable graphics from before were punched up to give life to a beautiful world with detailed protagonists and enemies alike.

The return of Emi Evans and Keiichi Okabe for the soundtrack once again gave power and nuance to a musical score that was just as fresh and breathtaking as before. In many ways the music was even more robust with additional vocalists brought in to sing songs in multiple different real languages, in addition to Evans’ futuristic tongue.

The game’s main character, the female android, 2B, became popular across the internet for her strength, gothic inspired costume, and sex appeal. Cosplay and fanart was shared across social media and 2B’s English voice actress Kira Buckland received praise, recognition, and notoriety for bringing the character to life. There’s a reason why 2B is seen throughout her Twitter feed 4 years after the game’s release and despite all the projects she’s done since.

Like its predecessor, “Nier: Automata” delves into heavy philosophical themes about violence, purpose, and existence. Part of this is hinted at in the protagonist’s name. 2B is the model designation of the android you primarily play as, but it’s also a play on the phrase, “To be,” as in, “to be, or not to be.” As you play through the game, you come across characters with names like, Engels, Kierkegaard, Pascal… all names associated with philosophy.

The first Nier dealt with similar themes at times, but it was mostly about the different sides to violent conflicts and the effects they have on the world. “Automata” though is more focused on why conflict occurs and beyond that, our reasons for existence. There’s still plenty of cross-over between both games in terms of deeper meanings on things and the nature of violence, but “Automata” was able to present these ideas in a more aesthetically pleasing and accessible package.

Nier: Automata” would go on to sell over 5.5 million copies as of early 2021, revitalizing not only Yoko Taro’s career, but saving Platinumgames. Some of the key members of the company admitted after the fact, that due to some lackluster sales and critical drubbings over their last two titles, “Nier: Automata” was basically a make-or-break point for them. It’s funny in that sense. The first “Nier” was the death knell for its developer, while “Nier: Automata” was a savior.

Its success also allowed for some supplemental material in the form of novels, novellas, and guidebooks to be released in English for the first time in the series history. Two guidebooks that function as strategy guides/lore backstory were released in addition to three paperback novels. One works as a novelization of the game, another is a collection of short stories from across the timeline, and the third is a novelization of the spin-off, male androids of YoRHa play. There is currently no official English release of the original musical play.

Because of renewed interest in the series itself, thanks to the sequel’s success, a remaster of “Nier: Replicant” was commissioned and announced in 2020. For players outside of Japan, this would be the first time they’d have an English translated and localized version of “Replicant” since again, international markets only received the “Gestalt” edition with the father version of the protagonist.

The hope for the remaster would be to bring the game’s combat mechanics, graphics, and character models, more in-step with what players of “Nier: Automata” might expect. To that end, Takashi Taura from Platinumgames was hired on to supervise the combat upgrades. Additionally, most of the English voice actors were brought back to rerecord old dialogue, and contribute new lines to make the game fully voiced. The soundtrack was also rearranged and rerecorded with Keiichi Okabe and Emi Evans returning yet again.

With the remaster’s release date of April 23rd, 2021, it marks the most recent release in the Drakengard/Nier saga. There is a mobile game entitled “Nier: Reincarnation” that is currently exclusive to Japan, released in February of 2021 but there are plans to translate it for international release as of the time of this writing.

It’s been a long time since the first “Drakengard” game was released in 2003. Clearly, no one involved in the game at the time would’ve expected for things to progress and evolve in the way that it did. Here we are, nearly two decades later, discussing a series that by all rights, never should’ve continued based on initial reception and sales.

Nier” is a success story unlike any other. Even other random successes like the “Dark Souls” series didn’t have this kind of luck and support. There are other games in the history of the medium that have also had strong, original stories, but are now lost to time.

With the release of the remaster of “Nier: Replicant,” now’s the perfect opportunity to dive headfirst into title with its dramatic themes and intricate characters. Hopefully this essay of sorts, helps bring you up to speed on everything you need to know about the franchise. A history as complicated as “Nier’s” can be confusing yet fascinating. And even if it wasn’t intended that way, it wouldn’t be surprising if it turns out that’s exactly how Yoko Taro prefers it to be.

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