In the four years following the release of NieR Automata, Yoko Taro’s auteur creation has become a household name, at least in those of Adult Video Game Players. Despite being a sequel to a game relatively few people played at release, NieR Automata’s seductive character designs and forlorn music drew curious players in, and then trapped them into a spider’s web of emotionally gutting narrative threads, told with katana-sharp writing to boot. Its surprise success, several magnitudes times its original, gave Yoko Taro a new fanbase to play with and turned eyes onto NieR‘s future and past both.
Many reading this article sure have already blasted through the NieR Replicant remaster that finally came out in April, already back to their fugue state, craving for more of that signature Taro sauce to guzzle down.
Maybe you forgot, but an original NieR mobile game is just around the corner for English release, and after spending time with its English pre-release... We sure do wish handheld consoles were still a thing.
Some who pre-registered for Nier Re[in]carnartion have been lucky to get early access to the game, though our very own Alicia gave the lowdown on why this mobage is a more significant piece of art than just something to eat your time with. Truly everything you’d want from a Yoko Taro directed NieR game’s here, albeit at a bite-size scale.
As soon as one fires up the app, they’re greeted by lush, carefully arranged, moody sounds by Keiichi Monaka and the Monaca team that immediately clue to player, ‘yes this is actually a NieR game :)’.
You’ll begin cycling through some of the most beautiful three-dimensional imagery anyone’s ever dared to conjure up inside a mobile video game. Soulful, poetically scripted vignettes with a human touch the likes of we’ve never seen in any other made-for-cell-phone experience unfold themselves as you control a young girl making her way through a prison called ‘the cage’. You even have a Kyuubey-like figure named Mama lovingly fomenting fear inside you along the way.
Back to my point, however… If you can experience all this on your iPhone as is, why would you need a handheld console?
My wish to have seen NieR Re[in]carnation on something like a PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS stem from two broad categories: First, what we’ve lost in the vanishing of handheld consoles as we knew them; and second, this NieR title ultimately being, very well executed mind you, a capital M G Mobile Game as we know them to be. It has a roulette system for weapons and summons, daily log-in incentives, clicking around a chunky UI to manipulate a convoluted upgrading system, gameplay so simple it’s nearly entirely automated, and of course, micro-purchases, the hallmarks of gatcha are here.
NieR Re[in]carnation does a better job than most in keeping these elements from infecting every aspect of the game, but nothing halts atmospheric build right in its tracks like ‘Limited time summon, buy gems now!’ Just makes that little bit harder to sip it all in.
NieR Re[in]carnation’s existence as a gatcha game alone doesn’t explain all the lost potential. Even if the newest NieR was a full-fledged game, but just on phones, the lack of buttons and dedicated hardware also keeps it from being an ideal version of itself!
The touch-controls are decent enough, but there is no denying that an analog stick or two are preferable to jamming your thumbs into the cracks of your phones. Buttons would allow for a wider range of gameplay options, opposed to what’s essentially a simplified MMO point-and-click battle system.
I happily admit to the game looking and sounding great on phones already (provided you’ve got a pair of wireless headphones that sound better than your garden-variety AirPods), but this and then some could have been achieved much more comfortably with dedicated hardware on a modern handheld console.
This brings us to the elephant-in-the-room-shaped thought experiment: What if Nier Re[in]carnation was released on the Nintendo Switch. Indeed, many people prefer to use their Switch in handheld mode, and Nintendo Switch Lites are, technically speaking, handheld consoles.
However, indie games and the like aside, people expect mainline Nintendo Switch games to be (last-gen) console-level experiences. Re[in]carnation with its gatcha elements and too-streamlined gameplay would likely be considered shoddy by Switch standards. However, it’s because the game is confined to phones that results in it having those ‘Mobile Game’ qualities, despite the music and art direction exceeding 99% of the fare you’d find on the Google Play Store.
If proper handheld consoles weren’t made obsolete by smartphones, we could have had smaller-scale gaming experiences still potentially memorable and dear to our hearts. The stark disparity between what’s so excellent about our newest NieR entry and what holds it back from being more makes that loss self-evident.