Anime, and anime games, are a medium that I’ve been reluctant to dive into. Not without trying, as every so often I trip head first into a gem that enthrals me so much that I feel the explicit need to become a cute anime cat girl. Scarlet Nexus, by BANDAI NAMCO Studios, is one such gem, not just because it fulfils my cat girl needs but because it’s so close to being really, really good. What’s astonishing about Scarlet Nexus is the difference in quality between gameplay and story, with the latter being the loose brick in the wall.
This wobbly wall of a narrative begins with you selecting which side of the story you’d like to see first, Kasane’s or Yuito’s. The initial premise has you being inducted into the Other Suppression Force (OSF), a military institution that uses super-powered individuals to defend Earth from absurd monstrosities known as Others. Throughout the first act you’ll be introduced to the massive cast of characters, their abilities and the major factions at play. After this, the plot goes into overdrive and flings nearly every sci-fi concept at you in immediate succession to the point of being overwrought. Each of them is worthy of a full anime arc but are tossed aside so quickly that it’s difficult to grasp what is actually going on. The biggest detriment, to not only the plot but Scarlet Nexus itself is the fact that the story spends most of its time explaining itself in long, drawn out dialogue sequences.
Most of the dialogue in one of your roughly 25-hour journeys is delivered to you through animation stills and talking heads (think Metal Gear codec calls). These windows in time try their best to convey action but land flat on their face with a massive overreliance on exposition-heavy dialogue. Experiencing the story, characters and lore effectively becomes a test of enduring lengthy chats where nothing happens, and it absolutely destroys the pacing of the story the longer the game goes on. What’s staggering is, what little full-motion animation there is, is unabashedly beautiful, particularly in combat. So the inconsistency of the animation becomes jarring when you’re tasked to engage with crucial story beats that have little to no energy in them outside of your investment in the characters.
JRPGs always pivot around a wide cast of characters, and Scarlet Nexus plays to this strength well. Getting to know your team, giving them gifts and bonding with them is arguably more important to the journey than the story. They’re an archetypal bunch for sure, but it’s nonetheless pleasing to see characters like Shiden, Kyoko and Tsugumi (best girl, don’t @ me) grow across the story, becoming more confident in their abilities and in Kasane’s case, her leadership.
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All up, fostering these character stories is a time consuming yet rewarding process. I like how the hideout becomes more personable over time but more so how new combat tools are locked behind these relationships. Subtle character changes can be seen in the encouragement and positivity your team gives you in combat. Entwining the story into tangible gameplay outcomes should always be praised and it’s at its best here.
Dazzling in its spectacle, combat is an ecstasy-fuelled colourful combustion in this third-person character-action game. Things like weaponising environmental hazards to your advantage, using your own team’s abilities to problem solve, and the core mechanic of hurling objects at your enemies are all part of the slick flow of combat. The latter makes good use of a builder-spender mechanic that involves flinging debris at enemies then slapping them to acquire mana back, allowing you to yeet even more conveniently placed clutter. More techniques unlock as your character levels, and they effortlessly slide into combat without ever overcomplicating things. It elicits this feeling like you’re commanding a squad through a deadly dance, with each new ability you acquire becoming just another step in the dance. Your squad mate’s abilities further add a layer of experimentation and choice when approaching combat situations until you have this massive Swiss army knife of options to conquer your foes.
Enemies also have an eccentric diversity to them in how they upgrade, shift elements and weak points as the game progresses. It constantly keeps you on your toes as they usually have a specific way to quickly dispatch them, although it’s rarely imposed on you. This makes combat a liberating experience that provides gratification through mastering the mechanics and executing enemies in a flashy manner but is never so restrictive that it becomes formulaic. Breaking an enemy’s stamina bar allows you to perform a Brain Crush, a lavishly animated execution that frankly never gets old. Ironically, most of the satisfaction comes from the fluidity of the animation. As I said, the story may be limited in applying animation, but when it’s used, it is awe-inspiring and I wish that work was demonstrated more throughout.
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A lot of your time (when you’re not stuck chatting) in Scarlet Nexus will be bouncing between locations, fighting enemies and returning to your hideout. The locations themselves are a set of decently different corridors with their aesthetic building the world well enough. It’s a sort of post-apocalypse surveillance state vibe, with half-built cities, advertisement-laden buildings and destroyed subway tunnels. When it finally breaks away from this style there are some wonderfully abstract places you go that I shall not mention for spoiler reasons.
Lastly, there are a fair amount of endearing quirks to love in Scarlet Nexus too. Most of these come from the Bond missions that deviate in tone from the dour, oppressively conspiratorial plot. On a smaller scale, things like enemy names are inexplicably silly like Barrista Santa or Brawn Yawn. There’s also an entire section in the game that takes place in an oversized house, and for some absolutely disgusting reason the soundtrack fucking slaps. It’s also worth noting that Scarlet Nexus is well polished too – zero bugs, crashes, frame drops – nothing. Not anything to write home about, but in the age of AAA early access games, praise where it is due.
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Personally, I find Scarlet Nexus as an oddity when it comes to ‘scoring’ a game. Its narrative presentation issues are so overt and may act as a barrier for those that love the combat but not the story. This is what makes it difficult to score. Combat is the driving force of the game and is some of the best character-driven action I’ve played in a while. Unfortunately it’s crammed between engaging with the character stories and being overwhelmed by the narrative in long monotonous sequences. Scarlet Nexus could’ve been a landmark game, and I don’t say it out of disparagement but optimism, as it’s made me optimistic for what comes next. And hey, Scarlet Nexus got me invested enough that maybe I’ll give more anime games a shot…with the condition I can RP as a cat girl.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher
- BANDAI NAMCO Studios
- BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- June 25, 2021