Go back and look at just about any list of “Most Anticipated Games of 2021” and chances are you won’t find Scarlet Nexus on many of them. But that has its advantages, because Bandai Namco’s little anime brawler is absolutely more fun than I was banking on.
Let me be upfront: Scarlet Nexus probably won’t win any Game of the Year awards. And if you’re not a fan of anime, or many of Bandai’s anime JRPGs (particularly the Tales series), then Scarlet Nexus will do precisely nothing to change your mind. There’s no heavy fan service here, but it is unabashedly a straight up shonen adventure based around one of two psychic platoons.
Which platoon you play depends on a choice you make from the outset. The game gives you a choice of two characters: Kasane, a no-nonsense, hard-nosed member of the Randall family that manufactures weapons; or Yuito, a son of the powerful Sumeragi family that founded the city of New Himuka.
Those backstories naturally get woven into the fabric of Scarlet Nexus story as you weave through the chapters. But as in the playable demo, and the three-hour preview I had earlier this year, Yuito and Kasane start from the same position. The game begins with either (along with Naomi or Nagi, your closest companions) character entering the Other Suppression Force (OSF) for the first time.
The OSF is one of two armies in New Himuka. The regular standing army looks after civilians and general law and order. But when the flowerpots in heels — yes, that’s an actual enemy — attack, the OSF and their legions of psychics, filled to the brim with anti-aging drugs. (It’s never explained why everyone needs to look like they’re 12, but it gives the experience almost a Attack on Titan vibe.) After an initial tutorial, Yuito/Kasane get assigned to one of two squads. Having played through the initial chapter in my preview, I wanted to see how a longer playthrough panned out from Yuito’s perspective.
The cast of characters you’ll spend most of the time with have different powers, although there are some brief crossovers where you’ll play with the same teammates. But what helps to mix it up is that Kasane and Yuito are diametrically opposed as fighters. Yuito is a traditional close-quarters brawler, using slashing combos and aerial launches peppered in with the occasional shipping container Force Thrown into the mix to keep things going. Kasane prefers to hang back, launching a flurry of purple hued knives to do her damage. She’s capable of aerial combos as well. But given her speciality is hanging back, it’s natural that her playstyle involves more backward dashes and putting cars between you and whatever roided plantpot that happens to be in your line of sight.
It’s still not really quite clear to me why Bandai enlisted Masakazu Yamashiro, the artist behind all the enemy designs, for Scarlet Nexus. The general aesthetic of the game is described as “brain punk”, but it’s really better thought of as cyberpunk crossed with the Tales series. And that makes for some amazing landscapes, visual effects, costume designs and a killer stylised look. It’s especially effective in the city, with holographic street signs and high contrast buildings offering a nice backdrop against what soul remains of the obviously Neo Tokyo inspiration.
The enemies, though, never really bridge that gap from bizarre to genuinely frightening. The developers said the idea was to trigger both “familiarity and foreignness“. But instead of inspiring Uzumaki level horror, it just feels like you’re waging war against the outdoor section of Bunnings.
The environments are rather nice when you have the odd chance to stop. A construction site with its abandoned scaffolding seems wholly uneventful, until you stop to see the blaze of the sun hidden behind an atmosphere warped into something approaching an oil slick.
The difference in detail between enemy and character models and the background is especially eye-catching: if Scarlet Nexus is any indication of where the next-gen is properly headed, we’re in for some hot-shit looking anime games over the next few years. If anything though, I wish there was more animation. Most of the story is told through this mix of cutaways, where you’ll have a still image in the centre and two slightly animated portraits. There’s the odd fully animated cutscene for major moments, but it would have been nice if Scarlet Nexus went full Naruto Shippuden Ninja Storm.
It takes about 9 to 10 hours before the game actually unlocks all of the combat systems, but fundamentally you’ll be approaching each fight with the same core approach. Your X attack is your basic slash/ranged jab, while Y is a slightly slower AOE strike that restores large chunks of your psychokinesis gauge.
Psychokinesis is the same between Kasane and Yuito, and you combo them into fights in the same way (by holding down RT). What changes really depends on how you want to customise either character. As you level up you’ll get brain points, which can be invested into one of five categories. Two of those won’t be unlocked in the first few hours, and both characters will have slightly different unlocks that suit their natural attack patterns.
Once you’ve got the basic attack combos and general thrust of combat, the next step is incorporating your teammates. You’ll eventually be able to have four teammates riding along with Yuito/Kasane, and each has a special power that’s particularly effective against different enemies.
You’ll unlock extra powers within that, too, as you spend more time alongside them. In between chapters you’ll retreat to a hideout, where you can exchange random junk for more valuable gifts and presents that — in classic JRPG style — improve your relationship with your teammates. Stronger bonds lead to cooler powers and occasional bonuses, like teammates jumping in the way to mitigate damage, bonus combo attacks, faster cooldowns, and more.
And that’s only half of it. Remember how I said 2 of the upgrade trees don’t unlock until a few hours in? Those are Brain Drive and Brain Field, which you can think of as Super Saiyan and Super Saiyan 2. Brain Drive triggers automatically as soon as the radiator-like grill icon on your HUD fills up, giving you faster movement, attack and psychokinesis activations.
Brain Field is a whole other drama. It’s limited by a relatively short timer — 30 seconds at first — with a huge caveat. You can activate the Brain Field as soon as the metre is filled, but you also have to manually deactivate it — because if you don’t, your character will quite literally go insane and the game will end:
Deploying it for long periods of time is disruptive and damaging to the brain. Losing control of the brain will lead to game over. Press LS + RS to disable the brain field before it leads to your death.
Well, shit. OK Bandai.
It’s worth adding that you don’t really want to jokingly just watch your character’s brain explode, because Scarlet Nexus isn’t that generous with its save points. You’ll go back to the beginning of a boss fight if you die, even if you’ve triggered the second or third phase. Deaths in regular combat go back to your last save point. There’s some autosaves, but most of the time you’ll revert back to a yellow “archivist” that looks like they were dragged out of Death Stranding. (Visiting them automatically heals you and your party, while also serving as a mobile vendor, so you’ll always visit them when you can.) Being dragged back 5 or so minutes because you screwed up a fight is decidedly archaic, though.
The game’s pretty generous with levelling — about 15 hours of gameplay is enough to almost hit level 30, and you get more brain points per level as the game goes on so you’re not starved of upgrade choices. But what I really want to see is how the main story unfolds from the different perspectives. The demo and preview already teased the different ways Yuito and Kasane interact with each other, and the OSF soldiers drawn into their orbit. I won’t say much more because it’ll wander heavily into spoiler territory, only to say there are some classic, well-worn shonen/big government tropes here.
The plot has inexplicably enormous holes, and there’s nothing especially revolutionary about the characters, the city or the combat themselves. But there’s no part of my 15 hours, which isn’t enough to see the end of the first campaign, that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. It runs like an absolute treat on the Xbox Series X, and if you have a choice between next-gen consoles or a PC that can’t quite run the game at 4K, I’d choose the consoles every time.
My hope for Scarlet Nexus was a game wedged atwixt a ton of anime sequences with some classic tropes and a cool aesthetic that I could happily enjoy with a drink. I got that. What I wasn’t expecting was an action-adventure that I’d straight up enjoy, at least not to the degree that I have. It’s not perfect, and it’s still anime as all hell. But if the demo and footage of Scarlet Nexus earlier this year had you grinning from ear to ear, then rest easy. You’ll have a blast.