I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for Japan-based hi-jinx in the occasionally interweaving realms of video games and anime. It’s not often that you come to something perceived as over-the-top yet can still end up being endeared or at the very least entertained by the spectacle and substance put forth. Whether it’s the world that’s built, the characters introduced and maybe, just maybe, the gameplay mechanics at your fingertips; anything from hack-and-slash action to party-based RPGs are in a fortunate position. A position where enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to stem from meeting some otherwise objective criteria, though it certainly helps. Prior to jumping into Scarlet Nexus in any form, my intrigue was persistent if not insurmountable when it came to 2021’s releases. Bandai Namco’s latest new IP — like 2019’s Code Vein before it — an obvious, if still curious, attempt to establish itself amid a budding crowd of aspired imitators. And the concept, on paper, sounds near-bursting at the seams with opportunity: an action RPG/hack-and-slash title centered around the use of psionic powers.
In a world where psionic powers are so common-place, it’s the people in this ascended civilization whom lack powers that are the outcasts. Already your mind’s eye is darting wildly with hope and intrigue. A city whose augmented reality signs litter the streets with careless abandon and whose neural network allows our two dual protagonists to share thoughts and converse telepathically with their fellow OSF [Other Suppression Force] members. Maybe it’s the way the theme for the tutorial has such a positively-charged upbeat vibe to it (to the point I immediately conjured thoughts of the N64/PlayStation days for whatever reason) where my perception on how Scarlet Nexus — from both a narrative and gameplay standpoint alike — would pan out was led a tad astray. A middling demo aside, I was still (like that very same tutorial theme) optimistic that Bandai Namco could (more importantly, would) deliver. That Scarlet Nexus would string together if not the most gripping tale professed, then one whose likely excesses with style and spectacle could be leveraged in the right way. After spending around 20+ hours spread across two separate story campaigns, Scarlet Nexus leaves me feeling worse than a little apathetic. I’m in fact disappointed by what we’ve got.
Disappointed first by the fact that this new IP — this new world and premise — seems to chuck away all of its novel intrigue in favor of a story that is padded with one too many unnecessary confrontations and amateur attempts at a heart-tugging plot-twist or sudden character death. The problem is that Scarlet Nexus doesn’t hold in it the strength of either its writing or its general direction to justify most of these scenarios. Even if you were to put the basic mission structures and unappealing environments to the side, to shunt as many character archetypes in such short a span, without dedicating anywhere near enough time or effort to make me truly care about any of them. Nihon Falcom are able to make me interested in the dynamics and backgrounds of many a new face in a mere prologue dungeon. Likewise Fire Emblem’s relationship conversations illicit a greater investment in even its secondary characters. So why is it that Scarlet Nexus can’t even rustle up at least one noteworthy character whose history or persona (from what’s provided) I can recall that can’t be relegated to the usual seen-it-all-before templates? Answer, again: the writing is just not up to snuff.
To which my usual response at many of the pivotal story-beats — in keeping this family-friendly — was usually “oh come on, really?!” Generally I can forgive a game with such an exaggerated, over-the-top caliber of writing, if it at least acknowledges, embraces or is just playfully self-aware of such a delivery. But Scarlet Nexus feels too assured to take things all too seriously in tone. An intention to promote this unraveling mystery implying all too often (and all too on-the-nose) that there’s a mysterious connection between protagonists Yuito and Kasane. Beyond even that though, I’m disappointed more so at the way the game goes about dictating the player’s time outside of story or pivotal cutscene placement. Or again, if brutal honesty is required here: wasting it through one regurgitated sequence of events after another. The problem isn’t so much that Scarlet Nexus feels half-baked in its presentation, it’s that the game proceeds to re-use said half-baked designs so as to give the impression the campaign is meatier than it actually is.
This isn’t a kin to something like Devil May Cry 4 where the unfortunate overlap and repeated use of levels/stages/bosses happens significantly into the tale. By around the fourth or fifth chapter, you’re already retreading familiar ground. There’s one point in Yuito’s campaign whose “main mission,” if you will, lazily spawns you back in the city hub area…and proceeds to just drop a few groupings of foes to take out. The monotonously-shaded, abandoned hospital you eventually visit later on also? Hope you’re a fan of the squashed-in camera angles and consistent ninety-degree turns on top, because you’ll be doing it all over again a couple of chapters later. With practically nothing changed, aside from a few story logs to pick up along the way. It’s almost laughable at just how “shrugging of the shoulders” Scarlet Nexus feels at its worst spots. You may not be surprised to hear that a plotline concerning the word “government” begins to stir around the half-way mark and the moment you do you can already see the supposed revelation blaring the blatant obvious from a mile away.
But this woeful lack of care goes doubly so for the drab level design — environments whose watered-down, de-saturated color palettes only cement just how overlooked and under-utilized the more promising push to its more cityscape aesthetics might have been. A reasonable excuse, you would think, for why the game is structured predominantly around corridors, fighting arenas and more corridors of sorts. Praise be that the combat does alleviate some of this frustration, though it would be wise to stop short of proclaiming it anything other than a satisfactory distraction from the rest of the game.
Satisfactory in the sense that at its best, Scarlet Nexus does have within itself to muster a pleasant-enough rhythm of shifting back-and-forth between calculated melee strikes and psychokinetic projectiles alike. To its credit, Scarlet Nexus does at least one admirable job in that it slowly gets you to adapt to that back-and-forth reliance on melee and psychokinesis offense. One fueling the other and something with which the game rewards you, via higher attack power, upon getting the timing right. Granted, the general psychokinetic abilities are nowhere near as creative, radical or as playful an addition to the hack-and-slash formula as you might think. We’re not talking the Legions of Astral Chain or the altering of one’s stance in Nioh.
But there’s promise and admittedly a modicum of satisfaction when everything flows accordingly. When you’re able to keep track of where enemies are positioned without getting hit by an out-of-shot projectile, resulting in a recovery animation that is way too long for its own good. More importantly, which enemy to focus on first; Scarlet Nexus can muster a genuine semblance of fun. Aided on top by your companion’s own psionic abilities that are but a simple button tap away. And whose brief-second, character transitions on-screen do admittedly bring added flair to the spectacle. I say some, because only around a third of the total — such as Hanabi’s pyrokinesis or Gemma’s sclerokinesis (another way of saying that it makes you invulnerable for a set period) — feel like they properly harmonize with the typical flow of battle. The other two-thirds come off more as disruptive gimmicks that grind any and all momentum one has down to a halt. And in the case of the teleportation ability, a gimmick that only works on a very specific type of barricade, but nothing else.
As a whole though, the combat in Scarlet Nexus still doesn’t feel as fleshed out or as fluid to handle as it possibly should. Movement during engagement is so often stiff and hard to truly chain effective combo’s together; enemy tells are hard to pick out; even the lock-on feels busted in that your character doesn’t properly focus squarely on the enemy you want to target. And to top it all off, your Brain Drive — a temporary burst of power that occurs when a meter has reached maximum — can’t be voluntarily enabled/disabled. It activates automatically, regardless of whether you want it activated or not. Flawed gameplay is one thing, but to have completely missed such simple design principle as this, not to mention characters just will not shut up about nearby resources and spelling out what ability one should be activating to deal with a nearby foe. It’s not just the feel and controls that are hunkered down mechanically; Scarlet Nexus all too often lets its focus slip and the gameplay in as similarly-frequent a fashion suffers because of it.
Who’s to say what the real, developer-side cause is for Scarlet Nexus‘ failings. What was already a mammoth undertaking in crafting a competent-enough hack-and-slash action game that could muscle its way into the spotlight, Bandai Namco’s latest in-house creation is not just inadequate in appeasing long-time fans of the genre, but worse, comes across ignorant of its own player’s time. A story that wastes what should be an exciting prospect for world-building on unnecessary dramatics and prolonged conversations between underdeveloped characters. As well as a general mission structure whose environment design, enemy variety and progression is seldom able to mask the drab simplicity hiding lazily in plain sight. Though flashes of delight and spectacle can pop up from time to time, Scarlet Nexus — from production right down to the functioning of its mechanics — feels like a game hindered by one too many cut corners.