Scarlet Nexus makes a solid first impression. The game’s opening minutes go out of their way to convey the idea that the adventure to follow, though one that will rely on anime tropes, is trying to set itself apart from the crowd in several ways, and with combat that’s instantly fun and world-building that immediately pulls you in, Scarlet Nexus is certainly successful in convincing you that it’s got some unusual charms up its sleeve. As the game progresses, while those two elements – the combat and the world – remain consistently compelling, everything else around them fades away into mediocrity. The result? A decent, enjoyable game, but one that fails to live up to its exciting potential.
Bandai Namco’s newest action RPG is set in a futuristic cyberpunk setting, or “brainpunk”, as the developers like to call it. Technology based on powers arising out of the human brain have dragged the world kicking and screaming into the future, with superpowered people with all sorts of extrasensory abilities found everywhere. With that, however, comes trouble, as it often does with any kind of progress. Here, it comes in the form of the Others, weird and twisted monsters born under mysterious circumstances that descend from the sky to literally eat human brains. And standing against them is the OSF, the Other Suppression Force, an elite group of soldiers who use their brain powers to protect the world from the threat of these monsters.
"Scarlet Nexus is decent, enjoyable game, but one that fails to live up to its exciting potential. "
Scarlet Nexus’ dual protagonists, Kasane and Yuito, are both cadets in the OSF who’ve just become new soldiers after completing their training, and the story… it goes places. Conspiracies, battling against oppressive forces, civil uprisings, large-scale conflicts between warring nations, time travel, and of course, the fight against them Others themselves are all pieces of the puzzle here, and sure enough, you can’t fault Scarlet Nexus for being ambitious. But the narrative’s qualities largely exist on a very superficial level- though fun at times in a very stupid kind of way, by and large, Scarlet Nexus’ storytelling is rough and uneven.
The vast majority of characters in the game’s massive cast are anime tropes in both visual design and personality, and though the game certainly makes an attempt to flesh out the backstories of each of these characters, I largely found myself disconnected from most of them. Other than the two protagonists, I didn’t really care much for most of the characters, and was wavering between indifference and being annoyed.
Meanwhile, the writing is also far from perfect. Plot holes and narrative inconsistencies are a dime a dozen, and from characters behaving in ways that make no sense in context of what’s going on in the plot to plot twists and revelations seemingly coming out of nowhere at times, Scarlet Nexus’ story keeps stumbling over itself. And with Yuito and Kasane each having a separate campaign of their own, that’s something that gets old quickly. Though it’s fun to play through the story after finishing it one character and then seeing it from the perspective of the other, the fact that Scarlet Nexus almost seems to be willfully tripping over itself in the narrative department can be quite frustrating at times. The fact that there’s some overlap at times across the two campaigns, especially in the earlier stages, doesn’t do it any favours.
"The narrative’s qualities largely exist on a very superficial level- though fun at times in a very stupid kind of way, by and large, Scarlet Nexus’ storytelling is rough and uneven."
Again, it’s not that the story is bad– if you don’t think about it too much (or at all, at times), it can be an enjoyable plot, but given the rich nature of the game’s world and the inherent potential of its fascinating setting and the themes it touches on but never really fully embraces, I can’t help but feel like in being little more than mindless fun, Scarlet Nexus’ story does a disservice to the potential of its premise. Thankfully, its world-building is consistently solid, and from interesting lore that is thankfully strong enough to withstand clumsy exposition to consistently imaginative art design, the cyberpunk world of Scarlet Nexus kept me engaged for the entirety of the experience.
As good as the world-building is, what really stands out in Scarlet Nexus is the combat, which feels like the one aspect of the experience that does all it could have with the game’s premise and setting. Combat in Scarlet Nexus is a mixture of melee combat and using extrasensory abilities, and from the very first second to the very last, it’s fast, frantic, kinetic, and brilliantly flashy. Melee attacks feel punchy and satisfying, and combined with perfect dodges, aerial combat, and other things, it offers a surprising balance of superficial style and deceptive complexity even in its most fundamental stages.
Of course, psychokinesis is an equally important pillar of the combat. The more you land melee hits, the more you fill up your psychokinesis gauge, and the more, in turn, you’re able to lift objects around you with your mind and hurl them at your enemies. From cars, bicycles, vending machines, and benches to even trains, trucks, electric poles, and so much more, you’re going to be hurling all sorts of objects and debris at enemies, and it never gets old. Smart design choices also make it all feel like it’s reliant on skill rather than just pure button mashing. Combining melee and psychokinesis is crucial, of course, as is trying to find moments during combat where you can take the couple of seconds that are needed to lift objects with your mind. Meanwhile, psychokinesis and melee attacks can both also be followed up with, well, follow-up attacks, which deal more damage than regular strikes, and chaining these together to take out foes can feel incredibly satisfying. Watching your brainpunk superhero flit around the battlefield and alternate between fast and furious melee attacks and devastating psychokinetic abilities is exactly as empowering as you’d expect.
"Combat in Scarlet Nexus is a mixture of melee combat and using extrasensory abilities, and from the very first second to the very last, it’s fast, frantic, kinetic, and brilliantly flashy."
But there’s so much more to combat in Scarlet Nexus. You’re also more often than not accompanied by party members, who each have their own unique abilities too. Using the Struggle Arms System, or SAS, you can “borrow” their abilities and infuse them with your own. Borrow electrokinesis or pyrokinesis to give your attacks an elemental edge, borrow teleportation to teleport to enemies that are too fast to be hit with ordinary attacks, borrow hypervelocity to slow time to a crawl and move about the battlefield like you’re the Flash. As you progress, you can also activate SAS with multiple party members at a time, and I had an absolute blast synergizing with my party members and experiment with different combinations of SAS.
Each of these abilities run on timers and cooldowns, but they’re pretty liberal timers and cooldowns, which means Scarlet Nexus is always encouraging you to go all out with them. The SAS abilities also grow stronger as you strengthen your bonds with the cast. Every time you level up your bond with a character, you unlock an additional tier of their SAS abilities, making them even more useful in combat. It’s a solid way of harmonizing two disparate gameplay mechanics, and even though the characters and their stories were never interesting enough to make me care about strengthening my bonds with them, the fact that I could unlock more SAS tiers always kept me going.
And the more you play, the more layered combat becomes. Brain drive is a meter that automatically fills up during combat, and activates by itself when it hits max level, giving you a boost in health, offence, and defence, along with a zany new temporary skin. Brain field is a rage mode of sorts, which takes you into an extrasensory dimension where you’re blessed with incredibly hard-hitting attacks and abilities- though the more you stay here, the more you’re putting yourself at risk, and in a cool risk-reward mechanic, have to decide yourself when to turn it off. Meanwhile, the skill tree is full of meaningful upgrades and unlocks, from adding more combos and attacks to make the immediate action even more slick to passive boosts that cater more to long-term progression. Throughout its runtime, Scarlet Nexus ensures that combat always keeps you on your toes, and though there are issues at times with the camera and repetitive enemy design and a few other things, but by and large, Bandai Namco have crafted an incredible combat system here.
"The more you play, the more layered combat becomes."
Outside of the combat though, Scarlet Nexus’ gameplay falters just as its story does. Level design is extremely linear and restrictive, and though there’s some scope for rudimentary exploration, for the most part you’re moving through what is essentially a set of hallways and arenas interspersed with save points. It’s archaic design that would have felt out of place in a game even a decade ago. Meanwhile, the side content’s quality is abysmal. Side quests are inane drivel without any personality that almost feel procedural, and the game does nothing to make you even remotely interested in engaging with them.
Scarlet Nexus lives and dies by its combat, which is a good thing, because the combat is great. It’s fast, frantic, consistently enjoyable, grows progressively more complex, and feels surprisingly strategic on a very fundamental level. But in most other ways, the game fails to live up to its potential, most notably in how it fails to do justice to a good setting and solid world-building with uninteresting characters, a mindless narrative, and deeply flawed storytelling. If you’re looking for engaging combat, I’ll recommend Scarlet Nexus in a heartbeat- but be prepared to be lukewarm on nearly every other aspect of the game.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
An excellent combat system that grows increasingly more complex and layered as the game progresses; An interesting setting brought to life by solid world-building.
Mindless narrative and disappointing storytelling; Uninteresting characters; Poor level design; Abysmal side content.