It’s the dawn of a new console generation, and new IPs are quick to establish themselves to herald the coming of this new era of gaming. Scarlet Nexus makes big promises of being a sweeping action RPG, set to a urban street-wear aesthetic and 90s inspired anime. But can Bandai Namco Studios deliver?
The hopes of a truly next gen action RPG are sadly not met, as Scarlet Nexus has also been released on last generation consoles. Upon closer inspection, it seems that this was always a game built for last generation specifications and limitations. Even more egregious is the excessive cost cutting done to deliver something that feels cheap.
Just how does Scarlet Nexus disappoint gamers? Between a blur of terrible decisions and woefully poor story-telling, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where all the issues originated. Probably one of the biggest crimes committed by Scarlet Nexus is that it has the audacity to call itself an “action RPG,” when it is actually just a regular boring action game.
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Windows PC, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Release Date: June 25th, 2021
Price: $59.99 USD
Scarlet Nexus often feels more like a licensed anime tie-in than an original game concept. There is an anime that is going to coincide with the game, but which spurred the creation of the other is unknown. What’s unfortunate is how soulless and sloppily designed the game turned out.
From the unbelievably low budget cutscenes that are comprised of still 3D models that snap into poses between frames, to the complete disregard for a worthwhile ability tree and recycled areas; Scarlet Nexus never rises above feeling like a cheap write-off from Bandai Namco.
There is a decent premise to work from in this concept, and the art direction is very strong. There are moments where there is a glimmer of enjoyment when the game leaves players to their own devices, and enough progress is made to allow flexibility in the gameplay. It’s too bad that gamers will have to wade through hours of poorly directed cheap cutscenes, and constant tutorial prompts.
Scarlet Nexus is about a futuristic military army of psychic soldiers, who protect the city from inter-dimensional creatures known as Others. The psychic children who make up this army are known as the Other Suppression Force (OSF), and have their abilities boosted from drugs. This has the side affect of making them appear much more youthful than they actually are.
Most of the OSF party members’ age range between their 30s, to as late as being in their 60s. Between the plot points involving time travel, the city’s neural network, and how almost every character has an ulterior motive; keeping track of the story becomes a chore.
Some characters are not what they appear to be; and some questionable writing that leans heavily on misunderstandings or miscommunication makes the plot more of a comedy of errors than a sci-fi thriller with a horror twist. It doesn’t help that most of the story’s presentation is lacking any flair or style, and that one of the two playable protagonists is a wet blanket.
Scarlet Nexus has a story divided by two perspectives. Playing one side shows the other in a different light, but only playing as Kasane is enjoyable. Yuito has no personality and ranks high as far as generic anime high-school boys go. He’s like a silent protagonist who talks; everything he says amounts to nothing, and he always does what he’s told.
Yuito’s gameplay is also inferior to Kasane; his blade’s reach feels much shorter than it looks. Even though he can use telekinesis to swing it around and sheathe it, the sword always feels like it isn’t long enough. Fighting against Kasane as Yuito is a great example of this, as she is able to connect hits against him at a further range than he can.
Both protagonists have the same super power, so it’s extra confusing how the designers failed to fully take advantage of the possibilities of a psychic swordsman. Kasane’s combat abilities feel much more natural for a psychic soldier; carrying knives like a telekinetic kunoichi, and capable of attacking groups of threats that surround her.
Using a bunch of small knives makes so much more sense for an OSF officer than a single blade. Yuito’s melee make him feel like a half-assed Tales of party member, than a capable psychic soldier of the future. Outside of the basics of melee fighting, both protagonists function the same, and have similar Brain Maps- Scarlet Nexus‘ version of a skill tree.
The only differences between either character’s Brain Maps is that some of the layout is slightly different. No matter what, both Kasane and Yuito will learn the same moves, only at different times. This was a missed opportunity to make either character more unique, and add more value to the game by offering more of a substantial difference in play styles.
The Brain Map itself is extremely poorly implemented as far as skill trees go. About half of the abilities learned are wasted on very basic functions like rebounding from getting hit. Being able to double jump and air-dodge are simple mobility operations that only serve to waste experience points, because the designers had to pad out the skill tree to make it look more impressive than it actually is.
There are other examples of Scarlet Nexus creating its own problems and solutions to give the illusion of depth. The quick-item use skill merely cuts the animation to use consumables to make the action faster, and allowing players to restore HP while evading.
The useful and logical abilities on the Brain Map are things like the combo extensions, extra equip slots or passive upgrades like gauge boosts. Half of the tree won’t be available until much later as the story progresses, and it’s not viable to specialize in any particular attribute.
Despite the incoherent implantation of the Brain Map, it’s combat where Scarlet Nexus trips up and lands flat on its face, into a puddle of acrid urine. There may be some gamers who may excuse Scarlet Nexus‘ sloppy combat because it’s marketing itself as a “action RPG”. Do not be fooled.
This is a mission-based action game with tacked on character-building elements meant to dupe RPG and action fans. There is no role-playing of any kind, and most of the action feels very automated; as if it was designed to make you look skilled as opposed to having to be skilled.
While fighting, it feels more like activating animation cycles than executing moves. The skill ceiling is quite low, since so many of the battle mechanics are very specific. Conditions have no flexibility, and no matter how good of a gamer you are, there really isn’t a way to be creative when fighting the Others. It feels more like something from a Tales of RPG than the likes of Nier Automata or Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Foes must be dispatched in very specific ways, and not doing what the game demands will often mean that the enemy will be invincible until those requirements are met. This also applies to using party member abilities who grant various kinds of boons or buffs.
The battles will often look amazing thanks to the artists’ use of Unreal Engine 4. Yuito and Kasane can fling various objects at their opponents, and mini cutscene animations will play out when activating party member abilities.
This all makes skirmishes play out like a fight scene in an anime. For a moment, it can be easy to be tricked into believing that the gameplay is almost fun, due to how flashy and slick the visuals look.
The structure of Scarlet Nexus is very rigid in all regards. The story unfolds in linear style missions set in the same handful of locations that are picked from a menu. Anyone expecting any kind of open world or hub to explore will be disappointed. The closest thing to a Kamurocho-style hub is the one street that leads to a shrine, and the barracks for the OSF.
The setting may look really cool and stylish thanks to the art direction, but it never feels real or immersive. There’s nothing to interact with or activities to partake in; just NPCs who may or may not have a very boringly designed side objective which abides by 2000s era MMORPG rules.
The most “RPG” aspect is that the protagonists can social link with party members and offer them gifts. Leveling up their link will expand their utility in battle, which is far more useful than anything that the Brain Tree has to offer. It’s too bad there is no way to fail during these bonding moments. The correct gift is always the only available option, and there are no negative outcomes to any choices.
Most of the time while running through the corridors of Scarlet Nexus, it becomes hard to care about anything. The facade of the visuals fail to disguise the fact that the environments were designed only to be fought in, and have no logical bearing on the world at large.
It kind of plays like a PlayStation 2 action game that was not good enough to be remembered; like Chaos Legion or Bujingai: The Forsaken City… Remember those?
If you don’t fall asleep from the boring gameplay, you’ll be in awe of the amazing art direction. The augmented reality aesthetic is pushed hard in this alternate future. The cityscape is dense with holographic advertisements that are constantly fighting for attention. Even mundane city accouterments like pylons and signs are projections that fizzle and glow, giving the artificiality of the future a depressing vibe.
The harsh criticism on the media in the story of Scarlet Nexus is especially relatable for anyone alive in the 2020s. Narrative twisting journalists operate by cowardly sending camera drones to cover anything and everything. Characters will even talk to them, and these fake news reporters will set events in motion that will have viewers curse their existence. Even in video games, they seem so punchable.
Character models are impressively detailed and meticulously modeled. It’s a shame that they spend so much time barely moving in cutscenes. The few scenes where the developers were allowed to show more than one expression depict a wide range of fluid gestures and nuance.
The design of the Others is truly inspired. Most of the time players might be stupefied by their unusual and nightmarish presence. They are surreal mixes of animalistic behavior, and some industrial mechanisms. Their uncanny movements and inhuman sounds make an impression for sure.
Scarlet Nexus definitely pushed visuals hard, and when playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, the poor console can barely keep up when the heroes go into their Devil Trigger states. The copious amounts of effects on screen, party members, enemies, and physics for random objects rarely allows the frame rate to stay stable for long. Load times are also quite lengthy, and are felt hard when retrying a failed battle.
Aside from the rousing song from the anime opening, most of the music in Scarlet Nexus fades into the background. Most of the motifs used to set the mood are the typical J-rock and grunge styles.
This is common with anime games with youthful protagonists who get caught up with high-school drama. It’s a flavor that feels old hat for a premise that is more imaginative than what is usually attempted by a big Japanese developer and publisher.
Scarlet Nexus had potential for being a quality action RPG, but all of the basics were not prioritized. The story is presented with no flair at all, and scenes go on so long and become utterly boring that there is no guilt felt when skipping cutscenes. The action and character building don’t live up to the promise that the stylish visuals would suggest; barely requiring technical mastery of the game’s inner workings.
Maybe the anime will deliver on the story aspect of Scarlet Nexus, because this game fails to immerse gamers into the drama. The gameplay is subpar when compared to recent similar action RPGs on the market, and towards games from four generations ago.
Scarlet Nexus was reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro using a review code provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.