Full Disclosure: A review code for Scarlet Nexus on PS5 was provided by Bandai Namco.
If you prefer, you can listen to this article by hitting play below.
Scarlet Nexus is the latest title in the wildly prolific, almost whorish, Action JRPG genre. It aimed to take high-flying action from the likes of Astral Chain, smoosh it together with a deep story, and inject ever-growing numerical values and pickups to seal the deal. It was an intriguing concept supported by a fairly successful demo – but does the full game hold up?
Pick Your Poison
You play as either Yuito Sumeragi or Kasane Randall. Who you pick will determine which slightly different perspective you will experience – inner monologues and all. Scarlet Nexus puts a huge emphasis on its supposed detailed story, deep lore and intricate world-building, so going into the details risks heavy spoilers. The story starts rather hammy and simple, but eventually escalates into apocalyptic melodrama with a side serving of temporal manipulation.
Unfortunately, the story is pretty awful overall, and the differences between the lengthy campaigns were not enough to encourage multiple playthroughs. Every character is a shallow one-note generic anime-archetype whose only defining feature is their equally uninspired character design. You can get to know them through a mechanic called Bond Episodes, but these did little to improve their standing with me, and served mostly as an unnatural, shoehorned bit of filler that also links to your combat ability (more on that later).
The characters being naff extends to their dialogue and interactions which is almost universally awful. It is rare to find a conversation that doesn’t come across as painfully unnatural. People simply don’t talk like this, which is made worse by the overabundance of exposition that plagues the whole game. Add to this a penchant for constantly repeated and rephrasing the same basic plot points, sometimes a handful of times back-to-back, and I was exhausted with its plot long before its wholly unsatisfying conclusion decided to stumble into view.
Tone? What Tone?
Scarlet Nexus has a terrible habit of introducing story elements and drama and dropping them off a cliff once it no longer serves its purpose without ever addressing why. The tone is also all over the place and destroys any sense of tension the game has at key points in the story’s progression. Imagine a world where a group of assassins just tried to murder you and all your friends. Now meet up with those assassins in a coffee shop seconds later to discuss how you can best nab a lass at the pub. It’s so comically tone-deaf, and it happens multiple times.
The story isn’t completely irredeemable, however. There are some strong moments and scenes that are well-acted and powerful. The game also lightly touches on some really interesting concepts such as governmental big brothering, transhumanism, classism, ableism, racism and censorship to name a few. Unfortunately, these handfuls of strong moments are undermined by the mire that is the rest of the plot.
Scarlet Nexus is thankfully saved, somewhat, by its rather interesting combat system that expands and grows throughout the game. You control either Yuito or Kasane, and you have a few teammates backing you up. You have a basic suite of attacks, including aerial manoeuvres and everything is fast, fluid and responsive. Things get interesting when you factor in Psychokinesis, which both main characters can use. This allows you to yeet nearby objects at enemies mid-combo to deal massive damage. Certain objects can also be manipulated more heavily, such as surfing on a piece of metal, mentally controlling a bus or just using a chandelier as a make-shift Beyblade.
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
Your team aren’t just pottering around either. Using the SAS, you can borrow their unique powers to augment your own. These have a limited duration and fairly long cooldowns but offer inventive ways to dispatch your enemies. Arashi can slow downtime, allowing you to do insane damage whilst enemies are defenceless. Shiden can imbue your weapon with electricity to increase damage and exploit elemental weaknesses. This also plays into the status system. If you douse an enemy in oil, running in with a flaming sword is very effective, for example. Some enemies also require certain skills to overcome, for example, using clairvoyance to see an invisible enemy.
As you get to know characters, their powers increase, and you unlock new skills to use on the fly. Knock an enemy down and someone might jump in for a catastrophic finishing move. Instead of borrowing someone’s powers, you could burn their meter to unleash a powerful attack – heck, you could even do this multiple times over multiple characters to create new combos. It’s fun to play with and even has super states like Brain Drive and Brain Field which add a bit of flair. The Brain Map also lets you spend points to unlock new passive and active skills to further extend your combo duration. It’s not massively deep, but Scarlet Nexus was throwing new stuff at me 17 hours into my playtime.
Unfortunately, everything else suffers. Enemy variety is incredibly low. You will fight the same enemies, or slight variations of those enemies, throughout the entire game. You will fight enemies you see in the tutorial in the final chapter of the game. It became incredibly tedious after just a handful of hours. It gets to the point where Scarlet Nexus just starts throwing the same enemy at you over, and over again, in the same encounter, and by the time the credits rolled, I was bored out of my mind.
Boss fights are better and are certainly spectacles, but fall into three categories. You have your big, spongey monster dude, 1v1 human fights, or 4v4 human fights. The monsters are the best of the bunch, but get recycled far too often and have way too much health – especially at the end. Both variations of human fights are terrible. They aren’t difficult but require you to do very specific things far too many times to win. It’s both repetitive and time-consuming.
This lack of variety extends to the environments and locations you will be visiting. You will see the same areas a handful of times and even go through a neon-infused variant of each zone during the final chapter. Not only are you fighting the same enemies repeatedly, but you are doing it in the same arenas over, and over again. Most areas lack unique features or gimmicks, so the tediousness sets in pretty quickly. You can explore each area for extra consumables and materials for crafting, but I stopped doing this after a dozen or so hours because I wasn’t engaged enough. This had no impact on my ability to craft and I was decked out in the best gear for the final fight regardless.
Equally pointless are the side quests, which are nothing but filler nonsense. These are almost exclusively “go here, kill that in a certain way.” These reward outdated weapons and crafting materials you mostly don’t need. It feels unfinished. That feeling carries to New Game+ as well, as the game does not scale in this mode, so you are just murdering level 1 enemies, at level 60, wishing they’d put a bit more thought into it all. It at least shortens the second playthrough considerably.
Visually Scarlet Nexus is a mixed bag. Despite the generic ensemble of anime tropes, characters look great and nail the anime art style. Animations are also incredibly flashy and add real spectacle to the combat, keeping things visually interesting even if it’s mechanically bland by the end. Enemy designs are also bonkers with sentient flower pots with stiletto heels and murderous jack-in-the-boxes making up part of the roster. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more. Everything else, however, is bad. Environments look dull and incredibly drab, having none of the stylistic qualities of their inhabitants. The draw distance is also abysmal, with enemies just popping into view when you get disturbingly close to them.
Cutscenes are probably the most egregious aspect of the visual design, however, as they barely exist. Most cutscenes are super cheap looking panels with flappy mouthed heads. Most action scenes are done in a low budget, stop motion kind of way, and it kills the aesthetic. What few fully animated cutscenes Scarlet Nexus has are painfully short and usually involve someone running for a bit before transitioning into panels again. It at least sounds good, with a soundtrack that hits all the right notes and voice acting that meanders around passable.
Scarlet Nexus is not good enough to recommend. It starts well, gets stronger for a few hours then nose dives in quality incredibly quickly. The game’s story is not good enough to justify the 40-50 hours it takes to fully complete, and the gameplay, whilst interesting, is not strong enough to carry a game of this length. Throw in cheap production values, unnatural dialogue, repeated environments and a lack of enemy variety, and this game falls short of the mark.