Editor’s note: This review covers NieR Re[in]carnation up to Ver. 1.6.1, Chapter 11. The game is continually being updated, and elements of this review may change over time.
Memories are what make us human. We attach thoughts and feelings to events that happened in the past, whether good or bad. But over time, memories are distorted. As things change, and as people change, those memories never stay the same. And sometimes, we obfuscate them or forget parts of them, deliberately or otherwise. And losing grasp of those memories can trap us into a cycle — as we struggle to remember the past, the people we loved, or the people we didn’t, we can feel oppressed, overwhelmed, and scrambling for the truth.
I think that’s why NieR Re[in]carnation focuses so much on rebuilding memories in an attempt to break or feel free. NieR Replicant and NieR: Automata sometimes feel claustrophobic through their atmosphere, and both games use repressed memories, lies, and hidden truths as plot points. But these aspects are magnified and bleed from every facet of NieR Re[in]carnation, which makes everything about the game feel oppressive. And I mean that in a good way, sort of.
Every moment is designed to make you contemplate, feel unsure, or deliberately take things slow, right from the black and grey title screen with chimes that echoed through my phone speaker and made me shudder. The way the lighting pierces through every scene to overwhelm the colour felt overbearing. The black and white characters clashing against a mellow orange sunset or an insipid purple sky is discomforting. The music hums and feeds on the discomfort as the narration slowly rasps away. What I’m trying to get at is that NieR Re[in]carnation, more than any other NieR game, prides itself on its atmosphere.
I can’t stress enough just how gorgeous this game looks and sounds. I’ve already mentioned the use of colours, but the contrast between the 3D visuals of The Cage and the 2D-esque storybook weapon stories is breathtaking. While there’s not much visual variety in each section of The Cage, the open skies that swallow up the empty space and the towering walls make you feel both claustrophobic and exposed. Like there’s no way out. The 2D sections are perhaps even more beautiful, and it’s almost like watching shadow puppets reenact hollow memories of a past you’ve forgotten about.
However, these visuals come at a cost. NieR Re[in]carnation is an incredibly demanding game, and it eats away at your phone’s battery very quickly. It also runs smoothly on only the most up-to-date phones. While my phone is way above the base requirements, the game chugs incredibly slowly during The Cage sections and combat in later chapters, no matter the performance settings. Early in the release cycle, many users also reported crashes on Android, and despite multiple updates, some (including myself) are still occasionally booted out of the game. At least I get to listen to that incredible title theme every time.
I have to talk about the music more because it’s a NieR game and because Keiichi Okabe and MONACA are back. But also because the music is outstanding. NieR Re[in]carnation‘s music ups the claustrophobia and unnerving ambiance displayed in other NieR games’ soundtracks tenfold. The game even knows how good it is because it tells you to play with the sound on. Okabe said he wanted the music to capture the nostalgic feel that Re[in]carnation is going for, and it absolutely does, in the way you might look back on memories that you’ve dissociated with but need to revisit, whether they’re bittersweet, heartfelt, or traumatic. Each note sounds like it’s rippling through time like a lost memory, with some songs evoking desperation, as though you’re clamouring to get those memories back.
And this is precisely what NieR Re[in]carnation is about: regaining memories. You control a young girl who wakes up in The Cage, guided by Mama, a surrogate figure who helps you collect and rebuild memories to reveal why you’re here. It’s hard to judge the story right now because it isn’t quite finished, and it feels like the end is a long way off, even. I love the way the story is presented, and the localisation is on par with the console games, but I don’t always find myself connecting with the words, particularly with the main story.
In reality, the character and weapon stories are much more interesting than the main scenario, and the episodic nature of these lends to the pick-up-and-play element of gacha games. It’s a NieR game, so it’s a given that some of these characters have really been through it. Whether these stories bloom into messages of hope or love, as Automata or Replicant‘s do, remains to be seen. Still, these characters, some morally objectionable, are surrounded by tales that play with your emotions. It’s probably a good thing the game is structured into short chapters so I can spread the melancholy out.
You can probably tell there’s a lot I love about NieR Re[in]carnation, as up until now, I’ve been almost exclusively showering praise on it. But I’ve got a pretty big problem with the game — I don’t enjoy playing it.
Before I jump into my issues, I think if you like NieR, you’ll get something out of NieR Re[in]carnation. The atmosphere is perfect, the writing and localisation ooze melancholia, and the music is ethereal and unnerving, yet it’s all wrapped up in a gacha overflowing with systems and mechanics in an overbearing manner. I can at least laugh about this a little bit, though. Yoko Taro is on record saying that this game is linked to Replicant and Automata so that “…Square Enix can make money through gacha.” Make of that what you will, but NieR Re[in]carnation is painfully aware of what it is. Mama teases you for trying to access the menu before the tutorial. Character story progression is gated by levelling characters. And there is always so much to do. Too much, even, with multiple events running at the same time and new chapters being added very rapidly, which makes it very difficult to keep up.
Let’s go into the most basic part of a gacha; rolling for characters. The gacha rate seems extremely low here. It took me over 100 pulls to get one four-star character, and by this point, I already had plenty of levelled three-star characters that I’d used a lot of in-game currency on. I haven’t felt compelled to shell out money just yet, but that’s because the game dishes out the currency used to roll for characters pretty frequently just by progressing the story. And hey, I got A2 and 9S eventually, so perhaps I should be satisfied with what I’ve got?
Combat is incredibly basic, but given the nature of the game, that isn’t surprising. Your party of three auto-attack, and each one has three skills that gradually fill up for you to unleash on your foes. There’s no real strategy to it — just take in weapons and characters with elemental advantages and stat bonuses, and use the skills when they pop. It’s designed this way so you can literally tap away at the screen monotonously so that you can unlock stuff to upgrade everything you have. At least moves look flashy, but it gets dull quickly.
There’s an overwhelming number of things to level up and ways to grind. If you’re familiar with gacha games, this is all probably normal. Still, NieR Re[in]carnation does a pretty poor job of explaining all of the various mechanics, just opting for a few text boxes for a selection of things. The number of mechanics is overwhelming and overbearing. Levelling characters requires upgrades and money, which the game showers upon you up until a certain point. Money becomes very tight later on in the current game, even after grinding and selling old weapons, so you have to do more of both of those things to get anywhere. It’s mind-numbing.
Just the sheer amount of stuff a character can equip is also pretty confusing. Characters can equip multiple weapons, one Companion each to provide support effects, and a Memoir each to boost stats. Each of these can be upgraded individually by buying materials with various currencies. Sure, there are many ways you can grind these out, but with Dark Memory Quests, dailies, Events, and character stories, it’s uncomfortably ensnaring. You’re thrown a lot of this very early on too, so I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone gets scared off. Or hooked, even.
It’s a bit ironic to me that NieR Re[in]carnation is a game about memories, about being trapped, and about trying to break free, but that it’s a gacha game. All of those overwhelming, overbearing elements that loop you into a grind are all surrounding a beautiful game that presents a world of isolation and oppression. It’s a package of things I love about NieR, chained to another package of things I really dislike. It feels deliberate, but in a way, that’s more frustrating and overbearing than in Replicant and Automata.
Yet it all sounds basically perfect for a Yoko Taro game, doesn’t it? Maybe this is a faultless encapsulation of the NieR experience, and my grievances are exactly what the developers are going for.