With the release of NieR: Automata, many players are about to enter the bizarro world of NieR, a 2010 action-RPG from the crazy minds of Yoko Taro and Yosuke Saito, for the first time. Although Automata is not a direct continuation of NieR‘s plot, having some familiarity with the story of the first game, as well as its root series, Drakengard, may help new players to understand and enjoy it more. This article will break down the most important elements of the world, plot, and characters from the two series. Be mindful that spoilers are included herein.
NieR, released in Japan on Xbox 360 as NieR: Gestalt and on PS3 as NieR: Replicant, takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where all memories of our civilization have been forgotten, and the remnants of mankind reside in and around the ruins of cities. Barely fending off extinction, the people of this world face constant attacks by ghostly Shades as well as an epidemic of a fatal disease called the Black Scrawl. Nier, the title character, is a hunter and mercenary trying to finding a cure for his daughter (or sister, depending on the version of the game) Yonah.
Along the way, he receives help from a ragtag bunch of supporting characters. First, he encounters Grimoire Weiss, a centuries-old, sarcastic, floating book with the ability to harness Sealed Verses and Words, NieR’s system of magic. Weiss—German for “white”—has a darker counterpart in the Grimoire Noir—French for “black”—a tome whose defeat is said to end the Black Scrawl once and for all. Next is Kaine, an exile from the mountainside village of Aerie who is partially possessed by a Shade. She has the mouth of a sailor and wears only a thin layer of skimpy underwear. The last team member is Emil, a young boy from a seaside manor whose sight has the ability to turn anything he looks upon to stone. After discovering that he and his sister were created in an underground lab to be ultimate weapons, he fuses with his sister to become the creepy, smiling monstrosity you’ve likely seen in any promotional material for the game.
Together they hack and slash their way through a desolate world, completing MMORPG-style fetch quests for townspeople, fishing, and gardening. They navigate old robotics factories, dreamscapes, Resident Evil-esque manors, and ruined hotels retooled as ancient shrines. They make their way through diverse gameplay styles including twin-stick shooter, dungeon crawler, survival horror, and even text adventure. Critics were initially split on the execution of these various gameplay changes, so it’s uncertain if Automata’s dev team will play up the genre shifts or tone them down for the sequel.
Eventually Nier’s party challenges the Grimoire Noir and saves the day.
Except, not really. Grimoire Noir shows up with the real Big Bad, the Shadowlord, who kidnaps Yonah and unleashes a massive Shade that nearly destroys Nier’s village. They eventually seal it within the basement of the library, but Emil is forced to petrify Kaine so she can use her stone body to prevent it from escaping. From here, the game skips five years into the future, at which point things really start to get real.
What Led to NieR: Drakengard
Before that, however, let’s rewind and look at how we got here. How did the world get to be so bad in NieR? For that answer, we have to look back at Drakengard, a PS2 hack-and-slash game that combines the horde-based ground combat of the Dynasty Warriors series with the aerial battles of Ace Combat. The first game stars a young man named Caim, the prince of an obliterated kingdom locked in a holy war between the factions of the Union and the Empire. His main goals are to maintain the Seals of Midgard from destruction, therefore preventing the world from falling into chaos, and to protect his sister, a goddess responsible for one of the Seals.
On the brink of death, Caim encounters a red dragon named Angelus who is also on her last legs. Together they make a Pact, a magical bond between man and beast that ties their souls together, restores their health, and enhances both of their abilities; however, it also costs Caim his ability to speak. The duo spread wrath and destruction across the world throughout the course of the game, teaming up with their own band of misfits.
One of Drakengard’s key features was that meeting certain conditions in battles could unlock new characters and side stories. By following certain narrative threads, players could unlock five wildly different endings. Oddly enough, Drakengard’s canonical ending is also its strangest: in it, Caim and Angelus follow the final boss through a chaos portal … and into modern-day Tokyo. In this ending, both of them are shot down by fighter jets.
In the wake of this catastrophe, the otherworldly material from the corpses of the dragon and final boss spread a disease called White Chlorination Syndrome among Earth’s inhabitants, which causes the afflicted to either be brainwashed or turned to salt. It is a disease rooted in the soul, so human researchers found a way to separate the soul from the body and leave a soulless body inside the shell until such a time that the White Chlorination Syndrome naturally died out on its own. The separated souls were called “Gestalts” while the shell beings were labeled “Replicants.”
Unfortunately for the remaining humans, the Replicants started gaining sentience of their own. As their sentience took root, the Gestalts’ sentience diminished until they became feral. This, in turn, had an adverse effect on their Replicant bodies: a relapse defect that took the form of the Black Scrawl.
NieR‘s Three Endings
This is where NieR picks up, nearly a century and a half after the implementation of Project Gestalt. The relapsed Gestalts have taken the form of Shades. All of the main cast are, in fact, Replicants. Two androids, Devola and Popola, who serve as the game’s quest givers, put the events of the game in motion in secret. Grimoire Noir is not an evil force, but a program intended to return the Gestalts to their bodies. Grimoire Weiss is not an ancient artifact, but an index to decode Noir’s program and execute the commands. The Shadowlord is not some larger-than-life villain of the void, but the Gestalt of Nier himself, who only kidnapped Yonah to return her Gestalt to its body.
All of these revelations come from Ending A, after Nier has cut down five boss Shades, Devola and Popola, and his own Gestalt. He and Replicant Yonah, having been freed from her Gestalt possessor, face a new day together. Which is all well and good, except that this is not the canonical ending, nor the most objectively truthful one. I won’t spoil the revelations of the second playthrough, as it only provides supplementary information for some of the cast that doesn’t affect the outcome. I fully recommend playing the game yourself, if only to experience the emotional impact that the second playthrough offers its standalone narrative.
The third playthrough of NieR is the most important for Automata, however. At the end of this run, Nier strikes down the Shadowlord as usual, but at this point Kaine fully relapses and becomes a Shade. Nier first subdues her, then faces a difficult choice: he can either kill her and free her that way, or make the ultimate sacrifice by trading his own existence for hers. This decision would be difficult enough to make for a player, but the developers went a step further to give it some gravitas. If you choose to trade your existence for Kaine’s, the game will delete all of your saved data, thereby eliminating every trace of Nier’s existence, even to his own daughter.
It asks you four times if you’re really willing to go through with it, and then makes you type in your character’s name just to be sure. It’s a clever way to force the player to care: no matter how attached you are to the plot and characters, are you really willing to throw away everything you’ve done? In this ending, Kaine and Yonah survive together, and Emil (who previously launched a suicide attack) rolls away into the desert as a disembodied, but still living, head. Everyone else—Nier, Devola, Popola, the Shadowlord, and both Grimoires—is dead.
NieR: Automata progresses from this ending. That being said, despite being a sequel, it is not a continuation of the events in NieR. Instead, it takes place further in the future, after Earth has been invaded by beings from another world. The remnants of humanity, if you can even call it that, have escaped to the Moon, launching android assault forces to wage a proxy war on the planet for them. The game will follow the adventures of the androids 2B, 9S, and A2. The artistic design appears to be similar to NieR, though with a more cyberpunk and dieselpunk bent.
Emil will reprise his role, but in the interim between games he has lost his memory and now operates a shop to assist the androids. Devola and Popola will also return as android Resistance fighters, though they are likely not the same as the characters from NieR with the same name but instead new models or descendants. It will also contain some references to characters and events from Drakengard 3, which is chronologically the first game in the series, but those will only be flavoring and not crucial to the plot.
Drakengard and NieR are both amazing series built on their strong plots and perverse characters. They ask large thematic questions about the relationships between creators and their creations, the way that cultural identity provides life meaning, and how words or the lack thereof shape our conceptions of memory. They are gritty and gory, but also have a dark humor and nothing but respect for their characters. Both franchises are worth diving into. Drakengard has three main series games while NieR only has itself and Automata, but a number of novels and manga have been spawned to fill in the gaps between titles. Now, with Platinum Games’ seal of quality and Yoko Taro’s brilliant scenarios, NieR: Automata looks set to be a modern classic like its predecessor.