header is screenshot from Games as Service
The Spectre of Gacha Oblivion
Kazuma Hashimoto

On June 28, 2021 Yoko Taro was asked about NieR Re[in]carnation and how it ties into the greater lore of the Nier universe in an interview with IGN. His response was simple. 

“It is linked so Square Enix can make money through gacha.”

While Taro is mostly hands-off regarding the development of Nier Re[in]carnation, his response evokes that sense of cynicism found throughout the narrative of the Nier series. A sort of realistic outlook that the Nier franchise has garnered enough of a reputation to warrant the creation of a profit-driven mobile entry. A resignation that, if the title does not make enough profit, the story will simply end unfinished and incomplete.

Nier Re[in]carnation is Square Enix’s most recent attempt to turn the Nier brand into a profitable gacha title, and for the most part it has succeeded. Gacha games are mobile titles focused on the acquisition of characters, or even things like playing cards, through a digital gambling system that leans on the use of currency, paid or freely obtained through play. Nier Re[in]carnation was listed in a Square Enix financial report as generating profit for the developer and publisher alongside the likes of War of the Visions: Final Fantasy Brave Exvius and Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia—mobile versions of self-contained or entirely original Final Fantasy stories that rely on frequent updates and gacha mechanics like limited time character or weapon banners as part of their core foundation.

This structure isn’t new to Square Enix. Some of their longest running titles still maintain a strong and dedicated player base despite having been released in 2017, as is the case with the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest mobile spin-offs.. However, Nier Re[in]carnation is a sizable step forward for Square Enix’s mobile division, with its glossy production on par with AA or even AAA titles. And as of August 2021, shortly after its global release two months earlier, worldwide downloads for Nier Re[in]carnation have surpassed 15 million and show no sign of stopping.

I am twenty of those 15 million downloads. That is approximately how many times I uninstalled and re-downloaded Nier Re[in]carnation before I finally started an account. If you are unfamiliar with gacha games you might be wondering why. Why would I spend roughly five hours re-downloading the game? The answer is simple:

It’s because of the gacha mechanic.

In games which use gacha systems, players spend real and imaginary currency earned through time spent in the game to “roll” for random drops containing characters, weapons, and other kinds of limited time obtainable objects. Nier Re[in]carnation tells its story through small chapters that elaborate on events that have occurred through various points of the game’s timeline. Players write weapon stories through plot progression and discover intricate and deeply personal details about their current roster of characters. But some of these finer details are locked behind the gacha mechanic, along with higher rarity characters and weapons necessary for progression. And I wanted to start with an advantage or a character I liked.

During the beta, I rolled Dimos, a clockwork soldier dedicated to the protection of a sickly Prince vying for the peace of his nation and people, and with that character came a unique weapon and even an elaboration on his backstory found when tapping on the profile of this higher rarity version. Nier Re[in]carnation works through character attachment, and it does a hell of a job. I was immediately invested in Dimos and his relationship with Rion, the Prince in question, through their interconnected stories and what their weapons had to say about their individual relationships with one another. The narrative makes it easy to become attached to these characters and those who (much like myself) have a compulsion to acquire their favorite characters will find it even harder to resist rolling for these characters to simply learn more about them. This is what makes Nier Re[in]carnation function so well as a gacha title. It's character design and narrative work together harmoniously to pull players into a finely crafted experience. Detailed 3D graphics accompany a haunting score, with short vignettes accompanied by a level of voice acting you could find in Nier Replicant and Automata. It is unlike anything I have experienced thus far in its production value in presentation, perhaps only rivaled by another popular gacha-driven title, Genshin Impact.

Genshin Impact’s developer miHoYo revealed in its GDC 2021 talk that the team carefully considered character designs and based them around what they believed would be most appealing to players. Square Enix, and other companies that have dipped into character focused gacha games likely follow the same route. What’s different about Nier Re[in]carnation, however, is its clear focus on its main narrative and weapon stories.. After all, that is largely what has attracted people to the Nier franchise.

While Nier Replicant had remained something of a cult-classic for those who had picked it up upon its initial release for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Nier: Automata propelled the franchise into mainstream success. A large portion of praise revolved around its storyline, which was told through several playthroughs of the game. Nier Re[in]carnation doesn’t feature the same level of “replayability,” but it, too, requires players to grind in the game and spend exorbitant amounts of time with it in order to progress its insular stories. Additionally, its global release is currently inundated with a constant barrage of new material, with events pushed through week after week, each with its own unique character variant and story. Characters from Nier Replicant and Nier: Automata have even appeared in Re[in]carnation, with a special story accompanying these events alongside newly designed versions of fan favorites like Kaine and 2B.

If you miss out on event participation, or on obtaining the character or weapon you desire through the limited time gacha banner, then you’ll have to wait for it to return. Gacha games rely on this feeling of FOMO to generate profit—a persistent desire to want more, or to feel left behind if you aren’t able to obtain what you want. Nier Re[in]carnation exists as a reminder of just how profit-driven the “games as service” and mobile market is, not just for Square Enix, but the industry at large. It is the most recent of many recognizable IPs shifting to this business model. Gacha, as a system, is inherently driven by capital with the lifespans of games determined purely by the revenue it is capable of generating.

While these gacha based mobile titles are finding new ways to evolve and grow into fully fledged experiences, their model leans into a “pay to play” ethos that goes beyond a one time purchase. While some would argue that a majority of these titles are “free to play,” with optional microtransactions available only to those willing to open their wallets, it is impossible to deny that at least within Nier Re[in]carnation (and other games that have preceded), the design centers around making higher rarity characters simply more powerful or more valuable than their freely obtainable counterparts. It isn’t just something that pervades mechanics, but also potentially locks some of the most poignant narrative content behind a paywall with the potential to disappear, along with the rest of the game, entirely..

One day, Nier Re[in]carnation will be shut down, like many of the mobile games that have come before it. Star Ocean: Anamnesis, another Square Enix mobile title, was short-lived in the North American and European markets, shutting down just months after its release. Its Japanese client is also no longer active, but an offline version of the title is still available for players who'd like to look at the characters they obtained during their brief time with the game. In a way, that version is a sordid reminder of how transitory and volatile the lifespans of these games can be. While offline modes are becoming more commonplace, it is merely a “better than nothing” alternative to crystalize a player’s experience with something they potentially sunk hundreds of hours, or even hundreds of dollars into.

What will become of Nier Re[in]carnation once its servers shut down? Will it feature an offline mode that allows players to view the stories they’ve collected and gathered over its lifespan? Or will it simply come to a sudden halt, with these narratives and characters lost to time and preserved only through fan curated webpages. That’s the gamble with gacha games, and to an extent, all “games as service” titles. One day these games will simply stop functioning, with their servers shut down to make way for another attempt to capitalize on brand recognition, attractive character design, or nostalgia.

And how does this inform the narrative of Nier Re[in]carnation at large, with the specter of the game just outright ceasing to exist at the drop of a dime always hanging over it? It almost feels hopeless in the way that all Nier narratives do—a sort of fruitless endeavor to make the most of the time we have, even though we know the end is looming somewhere out of sight.


Kazuma Hashimoto is a half-Japanese trans man and translator who sometimes moonlights as a media critic. You can find him on his Twitter at JusticeKazzy_ where he uses his platform to talk about LGBT+ rights in Japan and Japanese politics.