Scarlet Nexus Review: A diamond in the rough

Japanese RPGs are not for everyone. Their special style allows them to tell fascinating stories and take us on a journey into magical worlds. They have their own, unique vibe. Modern Japanese culture overflows from within these games. This, sometimes excessive, anime style, is what makes them unbearable for some. Scarlet Nexus is a completely love it or hate it experience. You either appreciate how much it brings to the table and how many things it tries to do, or you just despise the clichéd characters with big eyes and the overwhelming anime feel.

If you manage to overcome your anime phobias, then there is definitely something enchanting for you here. Even I, who until recently considered JRPGs completely uninteresting, can’t deny how exciting Scarlet Nexus gets at times. It takes some massive risks, which, while they don’t always pay off, manage to be a breath of fresh air in an era in gaming where most new titles feel like “more of the same”.

You’ll love it if:Not for you if:
– You’re really into anime– You’re not a big fan of anything Japanese
– You like unique art style & character design– You’re looking for a well laid out story
– You like combat that makes your heart race– You like exploring
– You’re looking for a long story, filled to the brim with plot twists out of nowhere– You like watching the story play out through fully animated cut-scenes

Plot (spoiler-free)

Settle down, because we’re taking off for an alternative reality, in which humanity has uncovered the hidden functions of the human brain, gaining access to super-human (psionic) abilities. Suddenly, the mysterious Extinction Belt appears right above the atmosphere, a zone from which animal-shaped monsters, called Others, fall down to earth. Others feed on human brains and are therefore hostile to the human population. The New Himuka government has formed the OSF (Other Suppression Force), a battalion of elite fighters who use their psionic skills to protect humanity from the threat of the Others.

A special kind of Other
A special kind of Other

As soon as you click on New Game, you need to choose between the two main characters: Yuito and Kasane. Yuito is a volunteer soldier, who decided from an early age to fight for the protection of humanity, after a young soldier saved his life while he was still a child. Kasane is an elite warrior, who was handpicked to serve in the OSF because of her exceptional combat capabilities. The thing is, character selection is not a simple choice of your character’s gender/appearance. Yuito and Kasane see the same story from different perspectives and the plot differs greatly depending on which character you’re playing. Their paths meet along the way, but to a large extent the story you see with each one is different. Scarlet Nexus is a game you’re meant to play twice in order to appreciate the whole story.

This game has some amazing art design
The two main characters

Pacing

The plot consists of 12 chapters (0-11) for both characters. Each chapter progresses the story, they’re essentially the main quests. Each phase is followed by the corresponding standby phase, during which you can do side quests and watch the bond episodes of side characters. Standby phases give you the opportunity to get to know the rest of the characters a bit better. Their main function, however, is to make you take a break from the main plot, since when the story starts going, it really doesn’t stop.

Anime drama

The story that Scarlet Nexus tries to tell is a real roller coaster. It starts off with ordinary clichés, which are familiar to those who are into shonen anime, but it quickly ends up introducing so many things, it barely manages to deal with all of them. Honestly, playing this game feels like having ADHD. Essentially, you’re investigating a major plot point, until something much more interesting catches your eye, and off you go. Each phase introduces a new major plot point and the characters seem to forget what they were doing up to that point. And I can’t really blame them. There’s times when the characters just have to stop and think about what the hell just happened.

Manga-style panel cutscene
My thoughts exactly, sis.

The plot is very interesting, but there are times where it’s simply going too fast for everything that happens to have an impact. These chapters are supposed to act as episodes of an anime series. Each one adds something new and the plot becomes more and more bizarre as you progress. It’s full of plot twists and you really can’t be sure what to expect in each phase. In fact, there is basically enough material here even for a second game. If only the plot points you encounter in each phase were utilized to their fullest.

But just because everything goes so fast, the game needs to drop the curtain and tie all its loose threads somewhat hastily. In general, the story also moves on love it or hate it levels. Even on the second playthrough, what you’re going to see is not exactly what you expect. And that makes it all the more interesting.

The cast

The characters are the best and at the same time the worst thing in this game. The main characters have completely opposite personalities, but (somewhat) common goals. Yuito is the classic shonen protagonist: a complete idiot (which is justified by a single line of dialogue in the game), completely tone deaf, but he has leadership qualities and is extremely enthusiastic. He’s also the biggest simp to ever exist. Kasane on the other hand is usually calm, composed and deals with tough situations much better. From Yuito’s point of view, her actions sometimes seem random and unjustifiable. But when you look at what happens from her perspective, you realize that she’s been through some shit.

The unique narration style of Scarlet Nexus

The personalities of the rest of the characters are as colorful as their hair. From the very beginning, the paths of the protagonists are separated and each one is accompanied by 4 different characters. This is where you come across every generic character trope to ever exist, but they surprisingly work very well. We have the older guy who is about to retire and is going through his mid-life crisis, the mom of the group, the small yet extremely clever high-ranking officer, the apathetic guy who starts off hating your guys but you slowly become friends, the superstar who is a real-life sloth, the main character’s childhood friend who’s really into him but he can’t take a hint and the very shy but clairvoyant emo chick. They are all here, and it feels just right, if we’re being honest.

Yuito platoon team photo

During standby phases you can watch bond episodes, which are essentially short stories through which you bond with each character. These are very clearly inspired by Persona’s social links. But the stories here, while interesting and do delve a little deeper into the seemingly shallow characters, are very short. That’s too bad, because the cast, no matter how cliché it might be, has a lot of room for charismatic interactions. But these are few and very far between.

Visuals

The Scarlet Nexus is as close as you can get to a shonen anime. The cel-shaded characters stand out from the beautifully designed backdrops. The battles are simply spectacular. But the way it’s all designed allows it to look great and run smoothly even on last-gen systems. On the Xbox One S, it ran upscaled in 4K, on steady 30fps. In current-gen systems, everything is rendered in native 4K, locked at 60fps.

The combat looks amazing in Scarlet Nexus

The world

Scarlet Nexus has a very distinct sci-fi, cyberpunk aesthetic. Modern environments, combined with hints of a high-tech dystopia compose a larger-than-life world, which fits perfectly with the plot. A bustling metropolis, full of holographic displays. A dilapidated highway, now filled with roots from iconic Japanese sakura trees. An abandoned construction site from the top of which you can gaze upon the whole city. An abandoned hospital in the basement of which illegal experiments were performed on people. We may have seen them all before, but the Scarlet Nexus aesthetic makes for a familiar and at the same time refreshing approach.

Each location you visit is very different from the previous one. You always feel that New Himuka has something more to see, a new place to visit. Unfortunately, the areas you visit are not large in number and you only get to see a small part of what feels like a larger world. At the same time, the levels are largely linear, leaving little room for exploration. You return to the same locations several times but it never felt tedious, because every time you come back for a new reason. However, you can unlock new areas rather than following exactly the same path each time.

Character design

Scarlet Nexus has a large and colorful cast of characters you meet from the first moments. The character designs are top-tier, with the characters differing in appearance as much as they differ in personality. Of course, the character design is done according to all the anime clichés you can think of, and as such, the colorful anime hair couldn’t be absent. The cyberpunk military uniforms they wear act as a catalyst to declare that, while they differ in terms of personality, they’re all still members of the same group and pursue common goals.

*acts shocked*

There are different costumes and cosmetics to “dress up” your characters exactly as you want. The outfits are much more detailed than they seem at first glance, they’re not simple recolors. The Red outfit comes with the Deluxe version of the game. You can unlock all the others while playing. The rest of the cosmetics are heavily anime-inspired and I liked only a couple out of the hundreds available. But hey, post-launch content is a thing.

Dramaric anime-style turn-around in Scarlet Nexus
Yuito platoon sporting the red outfit available in the Deluxe Edition.

Enemies have some interesting designs, which I imagine look as aloof as they should. Somewhere between very threatening and what the f-. The Others are supposed to be abominable mixtures of living organisms, or so the story tells you. Thus, their designs are largely pairings of animals with plants. Nothing groundbreaking, but they get the job done.

Cut-scenes

As you may have noticed by now, Scarlet Nexus has a very special style of plot visualization. Instead of the traditional pre-rendered cut-scenes, most are presented in the form of static panels, on which talking-head portraits of the characters are displayed. This style aims to represent the way a manga is told and in this regard, it does very well. There are of course fully animated cut-scenes as well. They alternate with the static panels, but those only make their appearance during the most intense moments and battles.

Fighting the Others in Scarlet Nexus
This would work so much better in a fully animated cut-scene.

These static panels are a key decision on Bandai Namco’s part and act as a catalyst in how Scarlet Nexus plays out. This is not a way to “cut down on animation cost”, nor save time. These panels are rendered in-engine, in real-time. In short, they are created algorithmically while you are playing. For this reason, the cosmetics and outfits that you have equip your characters with, appear in those cut-scenes. Thus, the whole universe of the game feels more connected and since there are no pre-rendered cut-scenes, the game takes up less space on your hard drive.

Multi-panel cutscene in Scarlet Nexus
When it works, it works wonders.

Does it work?

In reality, this is a high-risk, high-reward bet from Bandai Namco. When it works as intended, the results are amazing. The character models are super-crispy and you get more time to observe both the characters and the very detailed backdrops behind them. However, there are moments when the panels take out some of the intensity of the moment. The battles should not be depicted on moving panels, but rather be fully animated. While overall it’s a pleasant departure from classic AAA game design and it is very relaxing to the eye, I would like there to be more traditional cut-scenes and the alternations between the two styles to be smoother. Either way, this is one of the things that makes Scarlet Nexus stand out.

Gameplay

Combat

Combat is another one of this game’s highlights. It’s fast, spectacular and incredibly satisfying. You can kill the Others in any way you can think of. Yuito and Kasane differ not only plot-wise but also in fighting styles. Yuito is up close and personal with the enemies and slices them up with his sword. Kasane attacks from a distance using a large number of small blades. So, in the second playthrough, you almost need to learn from scratch how to deal with each enemy. Each protagonist has two characters in their party who fight next to them.

Combat in Scarlet Nexus
Combat is really something here

Both, however, have a psionic power called Psychokinesis. In essence, this allows them to move objects using their mind. If you have played Control, it is more or less the same system. Thanks to SAS, which is some form of magical tentacles through which they connect with their partners, they can “borrow” the powers of their partners and make the gameplay change radically. Yuito and Kasane have different companions on their platoon and therefore can use different powers. Towards the end of the game, where you will be stronger, you can borrow the abilities of all available characters.

Face-off between the MCs in Scarlet Nexus

Due to a strong “main character effect”, the protagonists have some other powers that make them stand out even more. Brain Drive sends their brain into overdrive and practically speeds up their attacks. Brain Field sucks everything into a virtual battlefield in which Yuito and Kasane are completely overpowered. But this is very stressful for their brain, and thus, it has a time limit. The more time you spend in the Brain Field, the more you can hear them freaking out. If you exceed the time limit, their brain will explode and an alarming Game Over screen will greet you.

Items

There are items you can equip your characters and your party with, but they don’t do much gameplay-wise. Weapon upgrades only change the look and stats of the weapon. Yuito can only use his sword and Kasane can only use her blades. The same goes for supporting characters. Beyond that, there are consumables and cosmetics which do not particularly affect the gameplay.

Abandoned hospital in Scarlet Nexus

Brain Map

The Brain Map is this game’s version of the classic skill tree. There are five categories and all of them have several abilities that you can choose from. By the first playthrough, regardless of character, you will be at least level 50, i.e. you will have unlocked several skills. Each skill requires a different number of skill points to unlock, as not all of them affect the gameplay in an equal way. You can invest in any aspect of combat you want, and by the end, you will be strong enough anyway. The game is not very difficult, except for a few fights that are difficult based on the plot.

Standby phases

The Hideout and chillin’ with the homies.

In the breaks between the missions of the main story you can chill in your Hideout and spend time with your friends or go out and do side missions. The Hideout is the headquarters of your platoon. It’s where you and your team live basically. As the story progresses, you will begin to see the Hideout change its setting. The characters will also become more intimate with each other. Each character has their own space, with their personal decorative items. At unsuspecting times, you will catch them having charming interactions with the environment while waiting for the next phase to start.

Chillin with the homies in the Hideout in Scarlet Nexus
Chillin’ with the homies in the Hideout.

Apart from bond episodes, which are scripted sequences, you can also hand out gifts to your squad. You get these gifts from the shop, exchanging items that you find in the in-game environment. Each character has separate items that they like and different reactions depending on how much they like your gift. You will see your gifts decorate your Hideout living room or gym, giving it an even more wholesome vibe. Each character has 6 bonding levels with Yuito and Kasane and each level has an impact on the gameplay, as it unlocks new skills for said character. These levels obviously go up by watching the bond episodes and handing out gifts to the squad.

Side Missions

You accept side quests from various NPCs you find on location. Honestly, this is the most boring part of Scarlet Nexus, as these quests add absolutely nothing to the narrative, and are clearly filler content. Most of them ask you to kill Others in a certain way, or they’re just fetch quests. The dialogues for them are not even voiced. I completed a few of them and just skipped over the rest.

Sound and Music

The soundtrack is really great

Do you know what all these Japanese RPGs have in common? Awesome music. We saw it with NieR Replicant, with Bravely Default II, now with Scarlet Nexus. This soundtrack doesn’t miss. It has some real bangers, which can make your adrenaline go through the roof in combat sequences. At the same time, the soundtrack is a mixture of all kinds of music, with the tracks alternating depending on what is happening on screen. One moment you’re listening to orchestral melodies while exploring levels and the next you’re blasting alternative rock or even dubstep. Good music is one of the most underrated parts of every game and Bandai Namco did great on this one!

Squad photo in Scarlet Nexus

Sound effects

Scarlet Nexus has a lot of ambient sound, and I mean a lot. Each location has a strange effect of strong wind that plays in your ears, in addition to music. Even loading screens have ambient sound. At first, it may be a little strange, but you get used to it quite quickly. This was probably an attempt to avoid an awkward silence within the game. There are also many “woosh” sounds as they change the static panels in the cut-scenes which mimic the alternations in the pages of a manga. That’s pretty cool.

Sound effects on the other hand become very visible in the battles and they are all quite careful. Of course, this game not only looks like an anime, it sounds like one too. Each effect sounds as if it came from the frames of an animated show, but they match the overall vibe.

Voice Acting

Dialogues are available in both Japanese and English. As always, Japanese dialogue in any game is a hard pass for me. In English, the quality of voice lines varies greatly. There are times when voice acting is on point and others that seem like they’re just reading the lines in front of them – in short, it sounds completely out of place. It’s not the writing that’s responsible, but a lot of lines fall completely flat. It doesn’t happen during the whole game, but when it does happen, it’s in the most emotionally charged scenes. Or at least that’s where you notice it most. And it happens with several characters.

Yuito platoon team photo number 215 in Scarlet Nexus

Verdict

Scarlet Nexus is a bold venture by Bandai Namco. It won’t please everyone, but that’s not its purpose. It brings a lot to the table and tries a lot of new things. But for everything it gets right, it gets something wrong as well. You can’t take risks and not expect for some of them to fall flat. Scarlet Nexus is aimed at a very niche audience, and those who like this kind of game will definitely love it.

It has a very interesting story that’s full of twists and turns to keep you wondering what more could happen next. The combat is addictively satisfying and will make your screen look like fireworks. All this combined with a distinct take on cyberpunk aesthetics and a top-notch soundtrack. However, it never manages to shake that “yes, but …” feeling.

We would like to thank Bandai Namco Europe for providing the review copy we used for this review!