Making Nier New Again
When Nier: Automata was released in 2017, it was a surprise success for publisher Square Enix and developer PlatinumGames, selling over 5 million copies. The action/RPG fascinated players with its thought-provoking story, interesting boss battles, and unconventional design. However, back in 2010, its predecessor – simply called Nier – set the stage. The original Nier wasn’t the most polished or impressive in the gameplay department, but it struck an emotional chord and became a cult hit.
People who missed that first entry are getting a new opportunity to see it at its best. Nier Replicant ver. 1.22474487139, which hits on April 23, is a re-release of the original with an array of interesting updates. We sat down with series creator Yoko Taro, producer Yosuke Saito, composer Keiichi Okabe, and Replicant’s development director Saki Ito to reflect on the game and their approach to bringing it back for a new generation.
Replicant Versus Gestalt
Originally, two versions of Nier were released in Japan: Replicant for PS3, and Gestalt for Xbox 360. This will be North America’s first time experiencing Replicant. The difference? In Replicant, you play as an older brother trying to save his little sister rather than a father searching for a cure for his young daughter.
Yoko Taro (via his Zoom video stand-in, a Kermit the Frog puppet) says this impacts very little in terms of the story, and it was more of a marketing idea. “Whenever there is the same title being released on multiple platforms, people tend to compare the technical aspects of it, like framerate and graphics,” he explains. “In order to bring out a complete difference because they’re on different platforms, you might as well just use different characters, so that it will take their attention away from technical aspects and they’ll pay more attention to the more obvious difference of the characters.”
Producer Yosuke Saito confirms that the team struggled with the game’s marketing, which led to the two versions, but he thinks the bigger challenge was developing on multiple platforms. “It took quite a long time, somewhere upwards of a year to a year and a half,” he recalls. “We didn't see very much development in production, so that was definitely something that sticks in my mind. For a year and a half, we [just] had the Hansel and Gretel boss. And while we were working on this, I would hear Mr. Okabe’s voice in that BGM track and I kept listening to that.”
“Vocals aside, I think it is a very good song,” adds composer Keiichi Okabe, laughing.
When we asked Taro how he came up with his ideas for Nier, he said he’s giving us a different answer than what he’s told other members of the media. “I was actually quite tired with the production of games,” he says. “I thought, ‘This might be the last piece of work that I might create in video game media.’ And if I were to make this my last title, I wanted to do something that’s quite normal – a regular action/RPG.”
Taro says his mind went to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for inspiration, but when he consulted with Saito, Saito turned it down, saying he wanted “something unusual.”
“With doing a standard RPG with Square Enix, we have Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy,” Saito explains. “So my feedback to Mr. Yoko was, ‘Well,I don't think we can win against something like that.’”
Saito says this made them come up with the idea to go all-in on the action and focus on that aspect, but it proved more difficult than the team expected. “So in the pre-production phase, we were talking about having this be more action-oriented and less story-driven,” he says. “We wanted it to be more about gameplay … but when we looked at how it was coming along, I didn't feel confident that something that is just pure action would capture the hearts of those in the worldwide market. That's why we changed directions from there and leaned back into a more story-driven RPG”
Taro also didn’t think the gameplay could hook people by “just going into a dungeon and killing characters,” so he focused on the narrative to make it stand out. “Thinking about the story, I also wanted to go with something very traditional,” says Taro, who looked to Shonen Jump manga like Bleach and Hunter x Hunter for inspiration. “Those were quite twisted in their own right,” he says. “I feel like Nier [matched that].”
The team also wanted something a little lighter than what fans experienced with the dark and disturbing Drakengard games, which the Nier series is a spin-off of. “I was executive producer on Drakengard, and that was quite a story when it came out,” Saito says. “When we were thinking of our next installment called Nier, it was like, ‘Okay, maybe we should try something more happy.’ People might not see the happy aspect of Nier Replicant/Gestalt, but we feel it's a happy title.”
The Weight Of Words
While Nier focused on the power of words and their meaning, Taro had an ulterior motive for the theme. “I’m sorry if this breaks the illusion, but using words doesn’t require much effort and graphical depiction. It actually saves on resource allocation. We did our best to make a very appealing game and tried to incorporate the element of words and the weight they carry, but again, the start of it all was just trying to save some pennies.”
Nier’s cast featured the kind-yet-troubled Emil, hot-tempered Kaine, and egotistical talking book Grimoire Weiss. Kaine’s and Grimoire Weiss’ banter became a highlight for fans. Taro says he made it a point to have random, non-meaningful conversations to give players a breather from the chaos of battle. “In an RPG, you have many times where you’re trying to defeat this particular enemy and you’ve got these very strong emotions like, ‘I hate him.’ [I incorporated banter] as a way to relieve that stress.”
While Nier had an interesting cast, Yoko Taro’s favorite character isn’t from the main party members. “Fyra, the princess of the Facade Kingdom is one of my favorite characters,” he says. Taro thinks the whole part where the player enters Facade and learns about the kingdom in the desert is one of the game’s more memorable moments. He even toyed with casting Fyra and the King of Facade as the story’s protagonists, but as he wrote more, he realized they didn’t function the best in that role. "I'm sure people will understand what I mean by that as they play the game in that area,” he says.
Replicant’s development director Saki Ito was a fan of the original game and actually went back to play it before starting work on Replicant ver. 1.22474487139. “Parts still really stick out to me,” he says. “Some of them being the very difficult decisions that I had to make. Just being able to go through with [the choices] and owning that experience of making it my story was something very memorable to me.” Without spoiling anything, he says a particular ending that involves a certain headstrong character remains his favorite.
It's an unexpected but fascinating battle that both Saito and Okabe love the most, but they find it memorable for much different reasons. Before we go further, we are warning that these next two paragraphs contain some *spoilers* from the original Nier.
Saito really loves the characters of Devola and Popola, so a big highlight for him was seeing how their roles transformed later in the game. “I’m sorry I’m kind of spoiling this; but when you fight them, and Popola was so nice up to that point and she just suddenly goes berserk - that’s my favorite part.”
Okabe agrees that it’s a powerful scene, and had a huge personal investment in how it played out: “It’s actually the same scene for me, but my memorable moment for that scene was with the twins singing and dancing to the song and attacking you as they dance. I had the song made ahead of time, and so the motion capture was actually done in sync to match with the timing of the music; it was part of the cinematic presentation. But the camera was pulled back so far that it really didn't show the effort that was put into trying to match everything. The effect was so lost and I was so shocked. I reached out to Yoko-san, telling him, ‘I don't think we achieved the effect we were going for.’ To which he responded, ‘Oh, well. You won't know until you do something, haha.’ That's what I remember.”
Creating The Sound
Nier’s soundtrack stands as one of the most memorable parts of the experience, but composer Keiichi Okabe had to approach it in an unconventional way. “With the original title 10 years ago – and this is very unusual in the case of game music because a lot of the times the game will already be built to a certain extent and then the composer jumps into the project. But when I joined the project, they were still in a sort of prototype phase,” he explains. “I was going into it without really being able to see what's going on and what's going into the game.”
Okabe says he would compose songs based on the production team giving him just a few adjectives to describe what type of song they were looking for and kept building upon them based on feedback. “I didn't have a strong image or a vision of what I wanted to make at the very beginning,” he says, “but then I watched the game take shape and expanded my imagination based on what I saw being built.”
The biggest challenge for Okabe came from a request by Taro. “One of the directives that Mr. Yoko provided was to include some kind of voice with every single music track,” he says. “So, we would have those vocal songs where we feature Emi Evans, and we would also have a chorus or a choir singing. Then we also have songs like “Bluebird” where we're using the element of voice as more of a percussive or in a sound effect kind of way. With recording vocals, compared to instrumentals, it is a bit more challenging as it does require multiple takes of recording. Plus, we had lyrics, albeit it was a made-up language (a.k.a. the chaos language). The process of developing these pieces was just time-consuming, and not to mention the cost aspect of it is also a challenge that we had to face.”
However, in the end, Okabe thinks the extra difficulties paid off and are a big part of what made people latch onto Nier’s soundtrack and hold it in such high regard. “I think what makes it stand out is just the vocal parts and [Emi Evans’] voice is very memorable. The songs in Nier, because we have vocals - and such unique vocals - that come in and out of the track, I think that helps with making an impression on the players.”
Because all the tracks are so integral to the story and gameplay, Okabe still can’t pick a favorite track. “That's a question that I'm always stumped on because the [songs] all have different roles that they play in the game, and they each have their sort of moment that's appropriate for the different pieces,” he says. “I don't want to specify one single song because it might cause people to think, ‘Oh, this song has a special meaning to the overall game,’ and so I'm afraid I'm unable to pick one single song.”
Saito isn’t quite as shy to announce a favorite, adding, “I do not have that worry, so I'm going to unabashedly let you know again that I loved Devola and Popola, and my favorite song is "Song of the Ancients.”
Okabe is quick to say he loves that song, too: “Again, it fulfills its purpose and I’m very satisfied by the way it’s used. I will not deliberately say this is my personal favorite song, but it’s a wonderful song.”
Making The Old Feel New
With the original Nier’s 10th anniversary approaching, Saito said Square Enix wanted to celebrate the milestone, and that sparked the idea to release an updated version of the game. “On top of that, we were coming out of the console lifecycle that games on the PlayStation 3 would no longer be playable, so to speak,” he says. “[The discussion] was fairly casual when we thought about making an updated version of this game, but when we actually jumped into the project, there's a lot of items that we did update and replace, so it did become quite the upgrade.”
While having a new edition to commemorate the cult hit’s 10-year anniversary seemed like a great idea, not everyone was immediately on board. Taro was on the fence about the entire project, fearing the game would get compared unfairly to Automata. “I was actually against doing a remaster or a version update of [the original Nier] because it is a very old game, and the story will probably come across as old if people play it in this modern day,” he says. “However, working with [developer] Toylogic and seeing how they were able to get the quality really high, I feel that we were able to create a place where people who played this game before can get together for a reunion. As for new players, I have no idea how they’re going to react to this.”
Nier wasn’t super successful when it initially released, but Saito feels confident in giving it another chance to shine. “We were able to glean a lot of knowledge on building a good game [from Automata],” he says. “It's been 10 years, but we didn't waste those 10 years. We do feel that we were able to achieve a fairly good standard in how we made [Replicant]. Plus, we had some young members of the staff that helped with the Replicant project and they did a good job on it. I do feel confident, especially with the success of Automata, and that we were able to carry over that into the version update for Replicant.”
The Big Changes
One of the things from the original Ito did want to improve for Replicant was the action, using Automata as a reference and target goal. “We did change some of the action elements,” he confirms. “Some of the more recognizable changes would be the movement speed, as well as the variation of the moves.”
You can now lock-on to targets, and the team altered the way enemies move and react to players. “A lot of the times, I looked at it and thought to myself, ‘I didn’t expect to change this much of the game,” he says. “But because the resolution has become higher, there were more elements that stuck out that I felt required some touch-ups so that it would look good on screen.”
Saito was impressed by Ito’s work, especially in how his team improved the action and remapped the controls. “Their ideas [for] magic, improving accuracy on the homing element, and how Grimoire Weiss is now available to you as you're moving around in the field … They really wanted to take reference from Automata and that was really well done."
Toylogic didn’t stop at the combat, though. Enhancements were also made to the environments and character faces alongside more subtle improvements in character positioning and camera movements. “We also wanted to make Grimoire Weiss more prominent to make sure that he is recognized as the protagonist’s buddy and have that connection with the character,” Ito says. In addition, extra dungeons and new story content were also included.
Fans can also expect to hear some variations in the music. Okabe says he tried to keep in mind how he feels when something that’s beloved to him gets remade or updated when he created the new arrangements for Replicant. “Rather than trying to change the impression that the music was giving off, I wanted to make sure that we're not taking away from the original and make the rearrangements in line with what the players would be familiar with,” he says.
When deciding how to approach the rearrangements, a piece of feedback from Yoko Taro on the original Nier stuck with him about the songs being on the shorter side. “I bolstered and extended them in the game while retaining the good elements of the original,” Okabe explains. “I still added a new element, maybe incorporating it into a different zone of the same field to bring a refreshing feeling. I hope people enjoy that sort of newness but it still feels kind of familiar.”
Over a decade later, people who haven’t played Nier can finally see what made it so special and how the series managed to live on after its original studio, Cavia, shuttered. “We hope people will [play] this and recognize, ‘This is how it all started; this is what Nier is about,” Ito says. “We updated it so that people can now play it very comfortably and very smoothly while still having that nostalgic feeling that this was a game that existed in the past.”
For more on Nier Replicant, you can check out our recent hands-on preview here.