Anime has always struggled with an overabundance of the “hero” trope. In any world of demons and unstoppable foes, one unwitting nobody will rise to the top of the pile through brains and brawn in godly measure to claim the title of ‘hero’. This person might not be the smartest, strongest, or even most likeable character in the ensemble, but by god can no one stop them when they truly dedicate themselves to a task.
Release date: June 25, 2021
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco
It’s a trope that Scarlet Nexus fully embodies. As one of the two playable leads - Kasane or Yuito - you’re the fresh-faced rookie looking to prove yourself in the Cadets, a force of elite human warriors dedicated to repelling the nightmarish creatures dropping out of the Earth’s atmosphere to feed on human brains. Both of these leads are no-name fighters vying to stand out from the pack, but - surprise! - it emerges Kasane and Yuito are wicked warriors with untameable drive and skill.
It’s an understandably difficult tightrope to walk. Action games like Scarlet Nexus are all about empowering the player through abnormal abilities and devastating battle techniques, so they naturally lend themselves to falling into the ‘hero’ trope category that any avid anime viewer will no doubt be accustomed to. On the flip side, having the player embody your average hapless redshirt for the entirety of the 20-hour game would be more likely to frustrate than entertain, the latter of which Bandai Namco’s new action game is obviously jockeying for.
If Scarlet Nexus’s goal is to entertain, then, it’s accomplished said goal in spades. The real-time combat system is slick and stylish, letting you pelt monsters with cars, bikes, dumpsters, and everything in between from afar through telekinetic abilities. It’s not a case of style over substance though, because Scarlet Nexus uses close quarters physical attacks, coupled with a smooth reactionary dodge mechanic, to really make you think on your feet during combat. Pulling off the telekinetic moves takes a crucial few seconds, so you’re left to calculate when you’ve got a brief window of opportunity to charge up an attack while being rendered immobile and vulnerable, which turns into a great game of precision and careful planning.
There’s also surprising depth to be found in close-range attacks and other abilities. Your Cadet comrades provide Kasane and Yuito with tactical abilities, for example, one ally can imbue your physical attacks with electricity, while another can stop you faltering whenever you get whacked by an outstretched arm or tentacle. Although only limited-time abilities with cooldown periods, these abilities are a great way to make your supporting allies feel more valued and genuinely supportive in the heat of combat, especially as the abilities themselves can’t be enabled through any other method than their helping hand.
There are also infrequent “Bond” episodes peppered throughout Scarlet Nexus. In between story missions, you’ll be transported to a hideaway, which is actually a really snazzy modern apartment located in the belly of Tokyo, along with all your allies. This hideaway lets you recuperate and procure items in between combat gauntlets in missions, but it also offers you a chance to better acquaint yourself with the characters surrounding Kasane and Yuito through limited-time optional story missions focused on fleshing out one character at a time.
The Bond missions themselves are simple in design, but vital for making the ensemble cast surrounding you feel like more than the one-dimensional personas they lead with. One Bond mission has Kasane and Yuito going to retrieve a fountain pen, deeply cherished by one of their commanding officers, an opportunity which Kasane pounces on to judge if Yuito is worthy of dating her younger sister (it’s an anime thing). Scarlet Nexus’s side characters might not amount to genuinely memorable companions over the course of 20-odd hours, but the Bond missions undoubtedly give each an added depth that would otherwise be dearly missed.
Over the extended runtime of Scarlet Nexus though, there’s a whole lot to unpack. The plot zips between brilliant and bold ideas in equal measure, dipping its toe into analyzing subjects like post-humanism, militarism, the disposability of modern soldiers after their time has been served, and so much more. There’s a lot to like about Scarlet Nexus’s increasingly whacky and ever-twisting plot, but it’s a bit of a shame that with so many constant twists and turns, it never really lingers on one interesting subject long enough to properly dig into it and break it down.
Just scratching the surface
Just over a month ago, I wrote about in our Scarlet Nexus preview (opens in new tab) of how the game's world allowed the mundane to shine through its futuristic cityscape of Tokyo. As soon as you’re clear of the prologue section of Bandai Namco’s game and spat out into the maw of the city, there’s human hallmarks of any city on the face of the Earth: businessmen and street vendors jostling among crowds of office workers and lackadaisical kids everywhere you look. It’s a subtle but brilliant method of making this pulsating neon city oddly relatable, even if there are brain-eating demons descending out of the sky.
What it would’ve been nice to see from Scarlet Nexus is the hammering home of these relatable cityscape traits through side missions and stories. Scarlet Nexus has an abundance of side missions, the vast majority of which sadly fall into the “fetch mission” category of “go here, kill this”, or “keep an eye out for X amount of an item”. That Scarlet Nexus doesn’t properly let us connect with the everyday characters that it uses to ground its cityscape is an unfortunate missed opportunity, one that reduces side activities to a slate of objectives for accruing XP for your protagonist in Scarlet Nexus’ leveling system instead of being enjoyable missions for relatable people.
Scarlet Nexus has some great fun to offer through its experimental and varied combat system, and there’s a deluge of skills, attacks, and counters to mish-mash against one another for increasingly satisfying results. What ultimately lets Bandai Namco’s action game down is outside of the action itself, where side characters never amount to memorable, enjoyable companions, and a side quest structure that feels more primed to provide the player with character-boosting XP than tales that capitalize on the intriguing glowing city surrounding them. Scarlet Nexus casts its eye over plenty of intriguing subjects in its plot, but it never lingers on one area long enough to properly analyze and break down the tough subject matter.
Reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.