Bandai Namco's latest action-RPG has some distinct gameplay hooks, but it'll need a stronger pull to stand out.
Scarlet Nexus makes a good first impression: fast anime-style action with an attitude and wild visual flourishes to go along with it. There's a bit of a Platinum Games vibe, and maybe you see a lot of Astral Chain in its aesthetic and premise. If you're anything like me, that's enough to grab your attention. However, after getting a hands-on preview of Scarlet Nexus (about three hours played through the Parsec streaming platform), I think it has more to prove before I'm convinced of its potential.
One of core conceits of Scarlet Nexus is that it features dual protagonists whose fates are intertwined. Kasane is the cold, stern, but sometimes friendly anime girl, and Yuito is a lax yet well-meaning anime boy. They walk different paths in the same story, and you choose who to play as at the start then experience the game through their perspective--the other, meanwhile, becomes a key companion in the story. The path through the story is largely uniform for both characters, but there are some small deviations specific to them, and some dialogue with the supporting cast is changed. But otherwise, they're essentially two sides of the same coin.
Whether you choose to play as Kasane or Yuito, they're both part of a larger elite task force who make up the main cast of characters. Dubbed the Other Suppression Force (OSF), these operatives have been physically modified with superhuman brains, which grants them powers to fight otherworldly monsters, called Others, that threaten their futuristic world. Your typical anime tropes make up the OSF crew, like the super-annoying arrogant boy who's an absolute clown or your overbearing best friend. In the opening hours, however, the writing comes off as either cheesy or generic with stilted pacing, even though the voice performances themselves are well done.
Narratively, it feels like so much is thrown at you in such a short span that the story presumes you care before establishing why--between the flurry of character names, backstories, and roles in the story, the things that are supposed to carry weight aren't given the room to leave a lasting impression quite yet.
That's not to say Scarlet Nexus won't be able to evolve into something more captivating as the story progresses, though. There's a social sim aspect in between missions where characters have the opportunity to grow into deeper, more interesting companions, in addition to their main story roles. As for the main protagonists, the one thing that has me intrigued is the way in which the two are tied together--Yuito has a hazy memory of a distant past which he recognizes the present-day Kasane being a part of, even though they're about the same age. It's said to be a side-effect of their brain enhancements, but you can tell there's a larger mystery at hand and I can see the seeds of a mind-bending trip coming together.
Scarlet Nexus is a stylish-action game at its heart, though, so gameplay is where it's going to make or break the experience. You won't necessarily get the fluidity of a Platinum action game or the complexity of a Devil May Cry--it's a bit stiff as a whole, but once you get the hang of Scarlet Nexus' quirks, it shows its potential. You have a set of basic melee attacks and psychokinetic powers to fling environmental objects at enemies, and properly timing both psychokinesis with melee attacks allows you to string together some crunchy combos and air juggles. A more powerful psychokinetic ability is reserved for certain objects in the world, and while it takes more energy and longer to charge up, it's pretty damn satisfying to use--the specific analog stick QTEs make it feel like you're physically controlling that power. It can seem like fairly basic stuff at first, but things start to layer on and open up when you have a party member or two tag along.
You're always controlling the main character, but party members offer support skills--for example, the aforementioned super-annoying arrogant boy buffs your attacks with electricity, which can stun enemies and deal more damage. Status ailments such as being wet can exacerbate the effects of electricity, and it's a two-way street since enemies can do the same to you. It's nothing you haven't seen before in action-RPGs, but it creates a satisfying flow in the heat of combat. It goes beyond just elemental effects, too. In a later mission, one party member assigned to your team offers a temporary vision enhancement to help identify enemies that can go invisible. And the few boss fights I conquered also presented some unique challenges that demanded using psychokinesis in smarter ways and making the most of my party's abilities. While your companions fundamentally displace what would otherwise be spells or abilities, it's nice to have AI companions as part of the mix in combat and story moments as well.
Kasane and Yuito also play slightly differently from one another. While you still have basic psychokinetic powers, their standard melee attacks and combos differ. I spent most of my time playing as Kasane, who uses a set of short-range floating knives, but the rhythm of landing hits and keeping combos going with Yuito's sword felt more natural for the game's frenetic action. I'm not entirely sure if combat will evolve in ways that magnify their differences, so for now, their contrasts in combat seem to come down to preference.
Structurally, Scarlet Nexus is essentially segmented in story chapters--some are small, open areas like the main city of Suoh where you talk to NPCs and do side quests, and others are linear levels full of combat sequences that lead into a big boss fight--and as mentioned earlier, social scenarios are also interspersed at times to help flesh out the character dynamics. This created an enjoyable flow that didn't linger on one thing for too long. Yet, I can't help but feel that these different parts didn't particularly stand out or distinguish themselves as highlights of the overall experience.
When reflecting on my short time with Scarlet Nexus, I see potential for a high-quality action game with slick anime-stylings, even if I feel like I've seen something like this before. However, it's the smaller gripes that accumulate and leave me reluctant to wholly embrace the game right now. I'm reminded of my time with other Bandai Namco games like Code Vein or God Eater in a sense--yes, those are very different types of action-RPGs, but they too didn't really get me with a distinct hook. I feel like I've seen how this plays out before; however, Scarlet Nexus has my attention and I hope the full game can make good on the decent foundation it builds in its opening hours.