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access_time June 25, 2021 at 6:00 AM in Reviews by David Poole

Review | Scarlet Nexus

Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of anime style gamed cranked out by Bandai Namco. Sometimes, you’ll get a quick project based on a licensed property, but every once in a while, you’ll get something original. Scarlet Nexus is the newest title to represent the latter set of projects, offering an action RPG that just might defy your expectations. Even after playing the Scarlet Nexus demo, I can definitely say that I wasn’t prepared for what the final product would deliver. After spending a lot of time with the game, I can now confidently say that it quickly jumps up to one of my favorite experiences this year. Color me surprised.

Scarlet Nexus tells two sides of one narrative from the eyes of protagonists Yuito Sumeragi and Kasane Randall. Both characters possessing the power of psychokinesis, they join the OSF, aka the Other Suppression Force, each with their own goals in mind. Their overall objective is to protect the world of New Himuka from the threat of brain eating creatures known as the Others, utilizing their abilities to do so. As they carry out their mission, revelations start to unravel and things don’t appear the way they seem. While their stories start out as different paths, they’ll eventually intertwine into one story where the stakes become a fight for their future. It’s a somewhat complex plot, but one that’s easy to follow while it manages to throw new information at every turn.

I will say that after experiencing both stories, I found Kasane to have the more interesting plot. While I did like Yuito’s story, there was a more emotional connection with Kasane that resonated with me. Even seeing the various bond episodes with her just felt more genuine with me. Both sides do have their darker moments too, which caught me a little off guard, but they worked well with the plot. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t have lighter moments to balance it out. One of my favorite moments is a team bonding episode involving a retro arcade game, really showcasing all the different personalities. It really works well to balance the game while offering two perspectives with roughly 30 hours of content each.

We won’t get into spoilers, but you can expect plenty of unpredictable twists throughout the narrative. Things won’t always follow a general path, and you’ll start to question who is truly a friend or foe. Despite this, the way it handles the idea of trust is a little inconsistent. Forming bonds with your fellow OSF members is one of the major progression features in the game. While some characters make sense to bond with, others don’t immediately make sense due to where they stand during the plot. One particular alliance feels a little unusual considering the context, but thankfully it still provides a really cool character. It also helps that most of the ally characters have fantastic stories to flesh them out.

The main reason why the bonds are important is due to the psychic link known as the Struggle Arms System, aka SAS. Utilizing this system allows a protagonist to temporarily borrow abilities from their allies. While their main ability lies in psychokinesis, they can take advantage of other abilities like teleportation, super speed, invincibility, or even electrically charged attacks. You can even customize your SAS menu to fit your needs. As you form stronger bonds with your comrades, you’ll strengthen these abilities and even unlock Combo and Assault Visions. These allow players to bring in an ally for a powerful attack, either manually or by chance. Having these abilities deepens the combat, allowing for players to perform some truly epic displays of power and finesse.

The combat in general is interesting, as it starts out deceptively simple. Yuito will have his sword attacks with limited range while Kasane will use her mid-range kunai. You’ll start by mixing up weapon attack combos with psychokinesis, following up by launching objects at foes. Using weapon attacks will charge your psychokinesis meter, so it’s best to balance your attacks wisely. You’ll even have special objects to utilize for unique interactions in combat. Do well, and you’ll break the enemy defenses and be able to activate a finishing Brain Crush move. Over time, combat gradually evolves and gets deeper as you gain more allies, strengthen your bonds, and even upgrade your Brain Map. The way Scarlet Nexus introduces these elements works at a great pace, rarely feeling overwhelming. Compared to the demo, which introduces most of these systems all at once, it makes for a more natural progression.

As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience and level up, providing Brain Points for the previously mentioned Brain Map. It’s here that you’ll be able to unlock enhancements for your character, providing various upgrades of varying value. These upgrades can be something simple like a damage increase, or even the ability to activate multiple SAS powers simultaneously. Even though it makes progression rewarding, I will say that some abilities should be reallocated. While you’re free to take whichever path you want on the Brain Map, I wish some abilities were available earlier. It’s a minor issue, but it did start to develop issues with certain quests later on, needing to unlock a skill to properly fulfill the quest.

Eventually, you’ll gain access to Brain Drive and Brain Field, which elevate your abilities to even greater heights. Brain Drive increases your speed, attack power and SAS cooldowns, acting sort of like a second stage activation. This of course leaves Brain Field to be the final stage, which increases your power tenfold, but also poses the most risk. Brain Field temporarily transports everyone to your own realm, removing SAS while giving you a limited time to demolish your enemies. Your attacks will typically stun opponents, often making fights a breeze, but the danger lies in taking too much time. Over time, your protagonist will suffer headaches, leaving them open for attacks. If you end up running the Brain Field timer out, then it’s game over. It’s a cool set of systems that make you feel like a powerhouse in combat, really adding that extra oomph.

Outside of combat, you’ll often find yourself exploring various settings, including civilian cities and combat zones. You’ll pick up data in various nooks and crannies, as well as consumable and collectible items. Exploring civilian areas does offer additional quests, which mostly come down to eliminating Others in specific ways. These quests can be a bit of a chore in some cases, though it’s mostly due to lacking explanation. The main confusion stems from activating Brain Crush, which surprisingly doesn’t nullify the kill method. It took some time to realize this, but once I figured it out, it made things a lot more straightforward. It also helps to not have AI party members out, as they can ruin the quest with a simple attack.

Aside from the various areas you’ll explore, you’ll spend a lot of time in a hideout hub. This recreational area develops over time as you bond with your allies, giving additional character moments. It’s here where you’ll initiate bond episodes, which digs deeper into the aspirations and personalities of each ally. Bond episodes are mostly cutscenes, but they’ll occasionally require a bit more interaction, including some combat. Outside of bond episodes, you can give personal gifts to teammates to help improve your bonds as well. These gifts will start to decorate your hideout and make it feel more like a personal space for your team. This helps to add to their charm, showing off more of their hobbies like Kyoka’s love for fortune-telling, or Luka’s desire to build his strength with workout equipment.

While I definitely had my share of favorite characters, it must be said how exemplary the English voice performances are. Each character had a distinct voice that worked well for their personality while also displaying fantastic emotional range. Chris Hackney does a great job as Yuito, though I found Erica Mendez’s performance as Kasane to more effectively strike a chord with me. The development of her character is felt not only through her story, but also through her voice, as she opens up more with her bonds. Megan Taylor Harvey also delivers some emotional performances as Hanabi while Chris Patton does excellent work with Kagero’s moods. Overall, it’s a strong cast that works well together, and makes each character that much better.

The music also helps to set the mood, using a variety of slower and more thought provoking pieces, as well as more energetic beats. Composer Hayata Takeda makes use of pianos, synthesizers, guitars and drums to set the tone. It really helps to show off the aesthetic of each setting as well. The main theme by the Oral Cigarettes, “Dream in Drive,” is also a solid rock addition to the game. If you’re a fan of electronica music, then you’ll likely enjoy the rhythmic vibes of Scarlet Nexus.

One element that really stands out for Scarlet Nexus is the visuals. While the main characters utilize anime style cel shading, the rest of the game has a very different look. It’s a more illustrative style that provides a lot of detail up close, but also makes for a cool look from far away. As building details fade in the distance, the environment starts to look more like a manga background. There’s a really cool Japanese aesthetic that feels inspired by science fiction classics like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, but also delves a bit into the surreal. This is especially the case with the more organic environments, which also lends itself to the design of the Others. Honestly, some of the Other designs are just gnarly, really making them feel appropriately alien in this world.

This style carries over in the presentation too, though things start to get more convoluted here. The pause menu has a lot to navigate, but covers tons of valuable information. I found myself often checking the menus during quests, but there’s even “Brain Messages” to check occasionally that provide more details, or even access to certain bond episodes. There’s also the equipment page, where you can equip various weapons and accessories, and even customize your appearance. Outside of the menus, the game uses a mix of full cutscenes and animated images, which put me off at first. Over time, I grew used to it and felt the more animated scenes were used to amplify the bigger moments. It works well for the presentation of the story, making dialogue and actions feel more distinct. I’m usually one for consistency, but sometimes a game manages to make inconsistency work.

While there are a lot of things I really enjoyed about Scarlet Nexus, there were still some additional issues I had with it. While playing on PS5 and Xbox Series X had incredibly fast load times, saving took much longer than I expected. When it comes to the overall pace of the game, it’s like a sandwich. Things start slow, then they pick up in the middle, only for longer story missions to slow things down again towards the end. It’s not a big deal in the beginning while you learn the fundamentals, but it’s much more noticeable later on. Later missions start to feel like they go on forever, and you just wonder when you’ll reach the end. Even some of the chapter names are misleading, suggesting a conclusion much sooner than the real thing.

Overall, I feel like Scarlet Nexus is a game that can easily be judged by its cover. In an industry where there are tons of generic anime action games, it’s hard to pick out the right ones. Hopefully people give this one a chance, because the fantastic combat and the visual style make it something truly special. While it does have some pacing problems and some unrealistic alliances, the incredibly unique story manages to entangle you in a web of intrigue. I found myself wanting to see how everything ends, fighting my way to reach that goal. I’m glad I gave it my time, because I found myself enjoying the majority of it. I may even check out the anime tie-in just to spend more time with these wonderful characters. If you’re looking for your next big action game, you’d be in your right mind to check this one out.

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10

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