SCARLET NEXUS review: Ties that bind

by Lars
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SCARLET NEXUS is a new IP from BANDAI NAMCO with tons of potential. It oozes confidence and charm, delivering fast-paced combat and vivid visuals in spades. But potential isn’t everything – I had lots of that, and I ended up moaning about games on the internet all the time. There’s tons of reasons to play SCARLET NEXUS, but how does all that hype stand up now the game’s out in the wild?

For the most part, BANDAI NAMCO have absolutely delivered with this one. It has a level of polish and style approaching Persona 5‘s slick aesthetic. For most of its playtime, SCARLET NEXUS is a rollercoaster ride through exciting, challenging battles, dramatic storytelling, and lots of (good) anime trope box-ticking.

Scarlet Nexus taxi being flung

Combat is a whirlwind of chaos that more or less sees your chosen character ascend to psychic godhood by the end. At the very beginning, options are limited – you’ll have your weapon strikes and the versatile psychokinesis ability. Yuito gets up close and personal with a sword, while Kasane can attack from a distance with knives. Eventually you’ll be able to copy the powers of your teammates, adding pyrokinesis, invisibility and item duplication to your arsenal amongst others.

Battles just flow. There’s no other way to say it. Even without much conscious effort, you can wreak absolute havoc. Launching bits of scenery at your foes stays satisfying throughout the game’s entire runtime, mixed up with your borrowed powers and special environmental objects. Fifteen hours in, I was still seeing new combat animations, ramping up the combat’s intensity to actual anime fight scene levels at times.

Scarlet Nexus cutscene

Using your power costs energy – that power can be restored by getting physical attacks in, so battles are a dance. Unload a bunch of psychokinetic attacks, then amp yourself up with SAS and charge into the fray until you can follow up with even more psychokinesis. It’s a simple system but it works really well, making sure you never rely too much on one strategy. Enemies follow this philosophy too – they each have their own behaviours and while they don’t have specific weaknesses, you will need to adapt your tactics regularly to overcome the tough ones.

Battles in SCARLET NEXUS have a couple of extra layers to them that unlock as you play – there’s the Brain Drive, which amps your damage and reduces psychokinetic launch time. This can be upgraded to restore your health and boost experience gained. A little later on, you’ll gain access to the Brain Field, a visually spectacular mechanic which makes you balance extreme damage output with the threat of dying horribly.

Your SAS abilities are all on meters, too – in my opinion they’re a touch too generous with these. With a few exceptions, the powers stay active for quite a long time, and recharge in a matter of moments. While it’s great to have that constant level of flexibility, it definitely created a few situations where I just found an effective combo and played that to death (Duplication and the Psychokinesis double up is a deadly mix). While the game certainly allows experimentation with different combinations, it doesn’t exactly encourage it.

Scarlet Nexus attack

Bonding with your teammates extends the SAS gauges even further. Again, like Persona 5 – or, more recently, Yakuza: Like A Dragon – your friendships extend beyond the game’s main story and fight sequences. You can purchase gifts for your team or find them by exploring the world. A really cool touch is that your party members will actually decorate your hideout with the things that you give them, even playing with them from time to time.

For my first fifteen hours in SCARLET NEXUS‘ vibrant JRPG world I was in love. The story is incredibly strong and the gameplay stays fresh and engaging for a surprisingly long time. The dynamic between Yuito and Kasane is fantastic no matter which side you’re following, two teams of good people somehow on opposing sides. But then the game has to inevitably start tying off loose threads and making its way to the conclusion. These final hurdles are where the game starts to stumble – the story, whilst still emotionally impactful, becomes a bland mess of deus ex machinas.

Scarlet Nexus artwork

There’s a ton of “THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP!” motifs that, while expected in the genre, are kind of overcooked by the end. The last few levels simply hurl hordes of aggravating enemies in your path against gorgeous backgrounds, and what looks like a really intense, promising boss battle fizzles out in an incredibly lazy way. The joy of SCARLET NEXUS’ combat is what drives it through some almost entirely linear and nondescript level design, and when that starts to peter out, the game just stalls.

While the graphics and artwork are gorgeous – this is probably the best looking anime game ever made – none of that ingenuity makes its way to the levels themselves. They’re mostly linear affairs, sometimes with short detours which reward you with items. Despite the huge array of powers available, you’ll only be able to use a select few in a way that impact the environment. Teleporting through the odd thin fence, or speeding over a conveyer belt. There are no puzzles, no connection to the world around you – it’s all just a procession of different arenas to fight in.

Scarlet Nexus artwork

SCARLET NEXUS‘ combat is fantastic when you’re fighting hordes of Others. Coming up against other psionic-powered humans is fun too – having to watch out for the very same tactics you can use to overpower your foes is a nice switch of perspective. In my opinion, this game just really struggles when it comes to big conclusions. You’ll fight plenty of oversized Others, but they get recycled enough to become part of the routine. The one time it seems like SCARLET NEXUS is going to do something dramatically different, it chickens out and literally runs away from the problem.

For me, it was my connection to some of the characters that carried those final hours. I wanted to see Hanabi step out of Yuito’s shadow. I wanted to know more about Kagero’s mysterious life and his intentions when all was said and done. Seeing the conclusion of all those character arcs was way more rewarding than the story itself – in a way, that’s probably just as good, but the gameplay of SCARLET NEXUS’ conclusion is spotty at best.

SCARLET NEXUS overall thoughts

SCARLET NEXUS is a fantastic experience. The combat is fresh and intuitive, the world it builds throughout your journey is interesting and multi-faceted. It has all the potential to be an IP that lasts for years to come, if BANDAI NAMCO learn from what they’ve done here and grow it even further. It’s stylish, satisfying, and extremely replayable thanks to the dual protagonist narrative/new game plus options.

It struggles to stick the landing, that much is true. Some of the gameplay loses its shine by the final hours, due to an oversaturation of battle arenas and lack of opportunity to make use of your massive array of powers to grand effect. But SCARLET NEXUS has a ton of heart, imagination and polish – it’s a real gem, with a very bright future (hopefully). If you have even the slightest interest in anime or JRPGs, don’t let this one pass you by.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to buy SCARLET NEXUS, you can check it out on Steam here. Why not read more of our gaming reviews here?

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