Colliding at the nexus of ultra-slick action game experiences and the deeply heartfelt, wholesome world of social sims, lies one of my (new) favourite games of 2021, Scarlet Nexus. While it may not blow any minds away, nor will it redefine the Action-RPG genre, this binge-worthy, world-saving adventure was still very much worthy of my attention (and hopefully yours).
And yes, it helps that the game comes with a heapful serving of anime wackiness and charm. Having been on my radar since last December’s The Game Awards, Scarlet Nexus unexpectedly arrived late last quarter on Xbox Game Pass. So, gladly, I finally gave this stylish-looking title a spin.
Set against the backdrop of a futuristic, dystopian, cyberpunk setting, Scarlet Nexus stars the up-and-coming members, Yuito Sumeragi and Kasane Randall, of the super-powered Other Suppression Force (OSF) – a government-backed military organisation of New Himuka tasked with defending humanity against the threat of otherworldly monstrosities known as Others.
No one seems to know much about these creatures except that they descend upon the Earth’s surface from an atmospheric layer colloquially referred to as the Extinction Belt. And that these grotesque florae, fauna, and faucet-inspired creatures happen to have a big appetite for human brains. So… they’re a threat because they tend to leave headless carcasses in their wake, and that’s generally not a good thing.
Playing through the 25-hour or so campaign as either Yuito or Kasane feels like being drafted into the military and propelled onto the frontline as humanity’s vanguard. Backed by nothing other than your skills, know-how, and teammates, you’re faced with the arduous task of learning the intricacies (and challenges) of the job on the fly.
Be that figuring out how to best string together weapon combos to strip enemy defences, making full use of your awesome Psychokinesis powers, quickly reading the battlefield to leverage field objects to your advantage, borrowing your teammates’ abilities to exploit enemy weaknesses, or by learning the ins-and-outs of your squad to bring out the best of each team member.
Although, before you get to do any of that cool stuff, you’ll first have to learn to live with the onslaught of over-saturated menus and torrential tutorials. This can be bothersome, but it’s definitely worth bearing with.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Combat and action are, without a doubt, the stars of the show. Taking Others down generally involves hurling a few vending machines and trains, a combo of katana (Yuito) or throwing knife (Kasane) slashes, expertly timing perfect dodges, spamming cool powers (Pyrokinesis and Hypervelocity are some of my favourites), and topping it all off with stunning Brain Crush executions.
There’s so much to love about the ever-growing set of combat actions the game presents to you. While the learning curve can initially feel a little steep because of the multitudinous nature of the mechanics, there’s never a shortage of ways to fight with style and swagger in Scarlet Nexus. And the best part is that it just grows and grows throughout your journey.
Speaking of growth, the budding and flourishing of your relationships with the game’s diverse cast of loveable characters are very much at the heart of the game. From the quietly resilient Tsugumi Nazar, to the flamboyant but introspective Kagero Donne, to the dude with the world’s biggest chip on his shoulder Shiden Ritter, the game is blessed with wonderfully well-written characters that you’ll want to get to know.
Picking out gifts for your teammates, sending them text messages, and hanging out with them in bond episodes will be a delightful way to fill up a substantial portion of your playtime. Genuinely connecting with and learning about each characters’ quirks, backstories, and motivations flesh out the humanity in each and every one of them, drawing a stark contrast with the dystopian, war-torn setting at large.
As I watched characters grow and evolve throughout the adventure, I couldn’t help but feel my face flush with a warm, wholesome smile time and time again. There’s also a neat base-building mechanic whereby teammates can be seen using and decorating their corners of the hideout with gifts they’ve received, making the space feel thriving and homely.
Tone and Texture
Visually, the game sets itself apart with its tasteful blend of anime-inspired cyberpunk designs and its exquisite usage of dynamic comic panels in its story presentation. As a big fan of the Gravity Rush series, seeing the latter basically sold me on the game from the get-go.
Characters are also beautifully drawn and endearing to look at. Meanwhile, environments feel lived in. Spending time in them often left me curious about what these abandoned towns and subway stations must’ve looked like before they became uninhabitable. Furthermore, enemy designs are rightfully grotesque and eerily familiar, giving them an appropriately disturbing quality.
As for the music, while there are very few world-beating tracks to be found here, they largely do a great job at setting the mood and atmosphere for the various locales you’ll be visiting along your journey.
All that said, my favourite quality about this game is how unabashedly anime it is. Everything from its Japanese voice acting to wild variations in tones between scenes, and its slew of wonderfully over-the-top cosmetics (which appear in all cutscenes by the way) enhance the ludicrosity of the game’s very premise and story. And that’s a weirdly wonderful thing.
Sure, the plot can, at times, feel a little bit trope-y, and there’s going to be a whole lot of “The Power of Friendship” moments, but Scarlet Nexus embraces every one of these tidbits in the loudest and proudest way possible. In recent years, the Japanese-ness here has been incredibly fun and delectably refreshing in a gaming scene flooded with Western RPGs.
Two For the Price of One
Lastly, for those who are keen to explore both sides of the game’s interweaving narrative: you’ll be glad to know that both Yuito and Kasane’s routes explore not only mostly different stories, but also provide different perspectives (and inner monologues) whenever the two stories do indeed overlap.
While it’s unfortunate that the combat ceases to grow with you any further when launching into the other character’s story in New Game Plus – there are still plenty of story moments, character interactions, and bits of world-building lore to find to warrant a second playthrough for those who find themselves enthralled by what the game has to offer.
Loud and proud, anime-to-its-core, Scarlet Nexus is a delightful Action-RPG oozing with style and overflowing with heart. It knows what it is and plays into its strengths in every way possible, even if that means having a steeper than expected learning curve and a story that borders on being completely out of whack. But it’s as Japanese as Japanese games get, and that’s a special sauce that seems to be coming by less and less, especially with PlayStation restructuring of its storied Japan Studio (RIP Gravity Rush) earlier this year.
Seeing this game headline Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to bolster their lineup with more Japanese games, particularly on Game Pass, is definitely heartening. And I’ve got to say; it seems that they’ve found an impeccable, bright red ruby in Scarlet Nexus.
Screenshots taken on an Xbox Series X. Additional visuals courtesy of Bandai Namco Entertainment.