Fast, fluid and flashy, the combat system in NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… is something special.
That’s a testament to the incredible work of Development Director Saki Ito and his team at Toylogic Inc, who – with support and advice from Takahisa Taura of PlatinumGames Inc. – have worked tireless to elevate the action of the beloved 2010 action RPG to a whole new level.
We recently had a chance to speak to Mr. Ito about how he and the team approached the combat system for this new and improved version of the game, and the challenges they faced in updating a classic.
Why change the combat system at all?
The first question fans might have is: why change the combat system at all? The original game already had interesting battles, which blurred genres with a mix of melee and shooter gameplay. Why not leave the game as it was originally built?
The short answer is because NieR:Automata exists. That game saw enormous success, in part thanks to its rewarding combat system. Developed in collaboration with PlatinumGames Inc., it was responsive, skill-based and oh-so-satisfying – and the team wanted to capture that feeling in the updated NieR Replicant.
Ito says: “We wanted to allow players who discovered the NieR series through NieR:Automata to get as much enjoyment out of playing this first game. It was important to let those people enjoy this original setting in the same way they did Automata – with high-quality, fast, and dynamic action in three dimensions.”
That said, NieR Replicant is a distinctly different game to NieR:Automata, and simply replicating the combat-style of 2B and Co. wouldn’t match the game’s style, story or characters. While the team wanted it to capture that essential feeling of fun and fluidity, they realised it had to stay true to the world and spirit of the original game.
As Ito explains: “I felt that we needed to build a new feel to the controls – something that was unique to this modern version of NieR Replicant.”
Getting priorities straight
With a general idea of what they wanted the combat to be, the team started to drill down to determine their specific priorities for the updated system. To do that, they had to take a deep look at the characters.
In NieR Replicant, story and gameplay are intertwined. The combat doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it has to say something about the characters you’re controlling and their situation.
For the team, that meant capturing the unique personality of the protagonist – and the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in.
“The first thing we did was to set down the images of the protagonist and the Grimoire Weiss; the two characters who would be doing the heavy lifting in battle,” says Ito.
“We looked at the defining characteristics of these two characters and thought about what features we should incorporate into their actions to meet both my expectations towards this new Replicant, and those of series fans.”
Throughout the adventure, the characters battle against Shades, and the protagonist has no love lost for these shadowy entities – the team wanted to capture that feeling in gamers.
“The focus was on making the player feel like this epic story of a self-taught swordsman who wields sinister magical powers was happening to them.
“Rather than merely guiding the protagonist, we wanted players to feel like they were actively involved in cutting through the hordes of shades to protect someone dear to them.”
This character-led approach to combat would be an intense focus for the team throughout the entire development process… and one that required an enormous amount of effort and iteration to feel just right.
“We worked ourselves to exhaustion to create that feeling that the player is instinctually and directly in control of the intense action,” laughs Ito. “The combat gives a sense of speed and power… with that hatred towards the Shades occasionally boiling over.”
Taking notes from NieR:Automata
Ito and the development team had a clear vision for the combat in NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, so now it was time to start making it. First, came a little research.
Ito says, “I can’t talk about combat without referencing our wonderful predecessor, NieR:Automata.
“Since that game let the player enjoy such brilliant fast, free flowing action in multiple dimensions, we felt that it was essential to make this new version of Replicant feel similarly satisfying.
“We took time to look over and analyse the game’s design, with amazing help and co-operation from Mr. Taura and the team at Platinum. It’s largely thanks to them that we were able to make the combat in NieR Replicant so dynamic and exciting!”
Getting the details right
With the lessons of NieR:Automata taken on board, the team started building the combat system. They knew how they wanted fighting to feel, but achieving that required time, effort and extraordinary attention to detail.
Ito says: “One of the big things we had to get right was how to get as much variation to the different attacks as possible – and how to make them so that the player wants to use each one differently.”
As the team built the different combat moves, they worked hard to make each one to make them both flow together and feel unique. This was a very technical task, which required constant testing and revision.
“We made it so that the nature of the player’s attacks varies as much as possible depending on the input made and the situation in battle,” explains Ito. “That doesn’t just involve adding more motion data, but also adjusting the basic parameters such as acceleration, deceleration and number of hits et cetera. to make sure that each move has its own different and unique feel to the next one – even if only by a little.
“Of course, it was also important to give the different attacks their own characteristics and thus create the innate expectation that they will be more useful in some situations than others.”
Respecting the past
Although the team was committed to updating the combat for a modern age, the development team didn’t want to wave goodbye to the past either. While not a major sales success, the original NIER release was utterly beloved by those who played it, and the team felt that it was important to respect that.
“We made a lot of effort to properly reproduce the spirit of peoples romanticised memories of the original game,” says Ito. “We aimed to deliver the core essence of the first NieR to modern players in as close a form to the original as possible.”
“To do that, I looked over all the subtle details of the gameplay, from the action to the cameras, visuals and the script, and compared them to my own rose-tinted recollections of these elements. That helped us decide how best to tweak and adjust each of these things.”
The final battle system is a compelling fusion of new and nostalgia. The DNA of the original battle system runs through the very core of the experience, but everything is snappier and far more satisfying.
It’s simultaneously a new and improved version of what came before – something that fans of the original game should adore.
What’s more, while they amped up the combat, the team were very careful not to disturb the parts of the game that didn’t need alteration.
Ito says: “The original NieR had many elements, such as the story and the cut scenes, that still have a strong appeal and stand up today. For those elements we strived to leave things close to the original version as possible, and I think that has imbued the game with a ‘new but nostalgic’ feeling.”
While the combat design was progressing well, it also wasn’t without challenges. As fights got faster and flashier, problems began to emerge – particularly with enemy AI.
Ito explains: “One of the biggest challenges we faced was having to adjust the actions of the enemies to fit with what the player does.
“If the player’s movements becomes showier and more extreme, without the enemy behaviour and reactions fitting in with that, it starts to feel like the player is dancing rings around them in a self-satisfied way. It lacks the satisfaction of trading blows with the enemy or landing a solid strike.
Unfortunately, the enemies were directly controlled by the old programming from the original NIER, and it was very difficult to analyse and change their behaviour. More than once we found ourselves spending days staring at swathes of unfamiliar code to work it all out.”
Luckily for the project, there was some NIER expertise already in the development team.
“The main programmer on the development team actually participated in the development of the original NieR game 11 years ago, creating the minor enemies,” says Ito. “His own memories of the project were quite vague by this point, but thanks to what he did remember, we were able to skip a number of steps that we would otherwise have had to take to investigate and unpick the original construction.
“Even so, there were still many enemies that he was not involved with putting together, and we had to continue our dull – but essential – investigations into 11 year-old code throughout the whole of the project.”
This work was tiring and tiresome for the team, but necessary. They were ultimately able to find solutions and ensure that enemies can put up a fight.
Of course, according to Mr. Ito, that wasn’t the biggest challenge the team faced:
“Our biggest challenge was raising the quality of the action to a level that satisfied Mr. Taura from PlatinumGames!” he laughs.
There are many awesome things about the NieR Replicant combat system – too many to list here. Ito is also reluctant to point them out, preferring players to discover them through the game.
“We made countless changes to the original game’s combat, but I feel it would be a bit egotistical on the development team’s part to want the players to pay attention to it,”
“…to be honest I do want people to notice them though,” he chuckles.
More than anything though, he wants people to experience this classic RPG in a modern way, when NieR Replicant launches on April 23. As he says:
“I hope players can sit down, relax and experience that same awesome story that moved me 11 years ago right through to the end.”
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