Towards the finale of Nier: Replicant ver.1.22474487139… (published by Square Enix, developed by Toylogic), an automated voice emerges from a bird bath in a garden atop the Shadowlord’s castle.. It asks our protagonists several questions which must be answered correctly to gain access to the remainder of the villain’s lair. The most pertinent of which is: How can humanity survive in the midst of the Black Scrawl — a fatal disease wiping out the population on Nier’s fictional rendering of earth, some thousand years from now. The answer? By separating body from soul.
There is an explanation to this, and while it’s interesting and puts a bow on a certain element of mystery in the narrative, it’s ultimately unimportant and not really what the game itself is terribly interested in. The true substance of this idea — separating one’s body from one’s soul — is something that Nier digs into from the very beginning, throughout its various routes and endings, with both its main and supporting cast.
The protagonist of Replicant, Nier, lives in a small village alongside his sickly younger sister, Yonah. Yonah often worries about her older brother, writing him letters the player can find in their mailbox, attempting to make him dinner in an optional quest, and even asking to accompany him, on occasion. She is the only family he has left, and curing her of her affliction — the aforementioned fatal virus — and saving her once she is kidnapped are his chief most goals. As Nier travels around the area surrounding his village in search of a cure, he encounters new allies that make up the game’s traveling party: Grimoire Weiss, an old and suitably cranky, sentient book; Kaine, a lone warrior; and Emil, a young boy.
Foul-mouthed and clad in lingerie and dress heels, Kaine possesses great strength and acrobatic ability while also, somehow, being capable of magic use. Kaine is like a character from a Heavymetal Magazine cover by way of a 15-year-old boy’s notebook. She is demonstrably the most popular character in Nier, and yet, none of the above actually speaks to why she’s so entirely deserving of that popularity.
Young, sensitive, and seemingly always well-humored, Emil is a well-off boy living in a manor that appears to be solely inhabited by his butler and himself. The group meets him when they visit the estate looking for a Sealed Verse — the MacGuffin pertinent to this stretch of the game. Emil is frail and unable to fight, but his eyes are covered in bandages as well; he has a power that lets him petrify anyone or any thing he lays eyes on, like Medusa of Greek myth. Naturally, this causes Emil great distress, but no one seems to really pick up on that. Until the group leaves, that is.
Ultimately, the object they sought is acquired, and the party says their goodbyes (for the time being) in front of Emil’s manor. It’s here that one of the game’s most touching and memorable scenes unfolds. Kaine — for all her vulgarity, her pension for violence — speaks to Emil with great empathy. She tells him his eyes are nothing to be ashamed of, but rather a vital part of him. In turn, she explains that her body is possessed by an evil spirit. But her body, Emil’s eyes; there is a reason for these afflictions they have. They don’t need to be bound by them.
In the beginning of the second play-through of the game, we get a detailed account of Kaine’s origins. Kaine is in a deep sleep, reliving the most tragic day of her life as a dream. She remembers being bullied for being different. We learn that she’s an intersex woman. Rejected by the villagers, both young and old, she is a leper and an orphan, with no one to care for her. Except for “grandma.” The kindly old woman takes Kaine in, looks after her, and instills both empathy (and vulgarity) within her. They live together, share meals, work; Kaine attempts to draw a portrait of her surrogate parent in crayon. While Grandma finds it amusing and Kaine herself is embarrassed, Grandma also loves it all the same. And as Grandma grows old, Kaine shifts from protected to protector. Her grandmother is the most important thing in her life. And then she’s gone.
Shades — the same kind of evil presence that Kaine is possessed by now — attack the village, killing the locals and destroying homes. Kaine watches as her grandmother is crushed, the attacking shade mocks her pain, turning its violence to her next. Beaten and broken, missing limbs,with the only person to ever love her gone, Kaine is ready to give up. That is, until another shade offers her a chance at recovery and revenge that she simply can’t deny - in exchange for her body as a vessel, it’ll grant her the ability to do battle with shades. Kaine is worse off now than ever before; now she is a monster of sorts, something she struggles with in every waking moment.
The game conveys all of this to us as a small visual novel, the prose being nothing short of stirring, harrowing even. It so greatly contextualizes everything we know of Kaine and everything we’ll see going forward. Her anger, her self-loathing, her loneliness, and her empathy for those we might easily other.
We also learn more about Emil. Emil, as it happens, was a child subjected to inhumane experiments to create the ultimate, living weapon. His twin sister, Halua, was part of the same program and turned into a monstrosity Nier and the party fight before Emil takes her power into himself, transforming him from a boy into his now iconic skeleton form.
After a fight late in the game, Emil sacrifices himself, thanking his friends for their kindness and company. On death’s door, Emil dreams of Halua. He remembers their teacher, kind to them despite the circumstances. He remembers celebrating their birthday, Halua giving him a cookie and him drawing Halua a portrait of herself in crayon, like Kaine did for her grandmother before. He remembers his sister, her kindness, and hears her voice. And he awakens.
In the fourth of the game’s five endings — ending D — Nier sacrifices himself so that Kaine can live and be free of the shade that possesses her. The cost is that he and all memory of him will be gone, erased from the world. But the void left in Nier’s absence still hurts - despite his memory being wiped from their concious.
His sister saved, she notices the Lunar Tear that Kaine carries. It’s a kind of flower, something she learned about from her brother during the game’s opening hours, even if she doesn’t realize that now. His actions, how he’s affected their lives; these things remain felt even if not specifically remembered.
In the fifth and final, true ending, Kaine is three years removed from ending D and unable to shake the feeling that something — someone — is missing. She reunites with her allies, their collective memories of Niert proving strong enough to defeat a new threat and restore him to life. It’s a harrowing and heartwarming conclusion. Perhaps it’s a bit of wish-fulfillment, but it’s also a perfect capstone to what the game has been saying and reaffirming from its opening hours onward.
What we see in Nier’s individual stories, its greater plot, and even many of its vignettes and side quests, is how small actions can have a great and lasting effect on our peers. The body is only so valuable in how it informs our identity, the content of our soul; it is not a final statement on who we are or how we’ll be remembered. It is not a determinant of our worth. Drawing someone a picture, writing them a letter, showing them even the smallest kindness: these things create memories and it’s those memories that add up to who we really are. These things give us residence in the hearts and minds of each other. And by looking in at them, we reaffirm who we are ourselves.
After a boss fight early in the game, Kaine is ready to throw it all away, again, but a young Nier says that Kaine’s life has meaning and a purpose. That she has a reason to live. She is no monster, regardless of what she thinks on the contrary. Nier’s kindness in this crucial moment is an unforgettable, everlasting affirmation to these truths. As Kaine is to Emil. As her grandma was to her before. As we all are to someone we know. ⬜️
Special thanks to Andrea Shearon for being generous enough to edit this piece. You can (and should) follow her on twitter @Maajora.