Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A plant, an animal, and a common household item walk into a bar…
That set-up seems to be the guiding philosophy for enemy design in Scarlet Nexus, a new action RPG from Bandai Namco. Just about every creature you fight in the cyberpunk world of New Himuka is formed from these disparate components. Early on, you encounter herds of porcelain vases hoisting blooming roses on long, slender legs. Later, you meet an enemy with the body of a jungle cat, a head formed from an oak tree, and a valve on its chest, which it cranks periodically to summon a gush of water or oil onto the battlefield. Another is basically a horse, with a Slinky where its torso should be and a plant for a head. It’s hard to not to imagine these monsters as the result of Toy Story’s Sid bringing his ghastly experiments to the backyard garden.
Scarlet Nexus itself is, similarly, built from genre bits that might, at first, feel at odds with each other. It is a frenetic character action RPG with some of the flashiest finishing moves I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s also a slow burn visual novel that presents the bulk of its story in stilted motion comic panels. It is pretty good at being both of those things, but sometimes, like the beasts it contains, the proportions are a little off.
Those strange enemies are called Others and you are a rookie member of the Other Suppression Force, a military organization with a name so loaded you will almost certainly expect a few of the twists and turns the game takes in its early hours. Thankfully, though, Scarlet Nexus hits the predictable “Are we the baddies?” plot points early, and spends the rest of its run time on sci-fi concerns that are weirder and more interesting than it initially lets on. This is a game about time travel, interstellar immigration and a religious cult populated by clones of its founder, but it takes its sweet time revealing the full thematic tapestry.
Depending on which character you choose, you play as one of two OSF recruits: Yuito Sumeragi, a melee-focused teenage boy with a scene-kid haircut and family in high places, or Kasane Randall, a ranged fighter who joins the OSF with her sweet, naive sister Naomi. Yuito and Kasane’s stories are fairly different, much like the Leon/Claire split in 2019’s Resident Evil 2. I played through the 50 hour campaign as Yuito, and jumped in last night to play a bit of the new game plus as Kasane, and it seems like the skeleton of the story is the same with different characters to flesh it out. Regardless of who you choose, the game briefly tutorializes you on the basics of combat then sends you out on your merry Other-slaughtering way.
Each member of the OSF has a power, like turning invisible or summoning a holographic double, as do the vast majority of humans living in New Himuka. Yuito and Kasane have distinct fighting styles, but their power is the same—psychokinesis—and it plays a prominent role in battle, allowing the player to pick up objects on the battlefield and ram them into enemies at Mach 10 speeds. It feels like a smoother take on the Force powers from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Hold the right trigger and an object in the environment will lift up and fly toward your targeted enemy. Hold the left trigger, though, and it initiates a heavy attack that is complicated and time-consuming to pull off. Nailing these harder hits requires inputting distinct button presses in a quick-time event. I’m not generally a fan of QTEs, but Scarlet Nexus wrings flashy fun from a dry mechanic by introducing distinct QTEs for each object. In some rooms, you can pull down the chandeliers that hang from the ceiling, quickly rotate the left stick to get them spinning like a deadly top, and then guide them around the battlefield like massive Beyblades. One level takes your platoon deep into the subway system beneath the city, where you can grab trains with psychokinesis and send them speeding into your enemies. In a level set on a snowy mountain, you can pick up a sheet of metal and ride it through the air for one-hit kill snowboarding action.
Scarlet Nexus slowly introduces you to new squadmates, and each of their abilities can be deployed in combat. The stolid Gemma can lend you his defense, making you invulnerable for a period of time. Borrow the peppy Hanabi’s fire powers and combine them with oil to light enemies up for burn damage. Some powers are necessary during exploration, too. The quick-tempered Shiden can add lightning damage to your attacks in battle, but his power is also useful for channeling electric current into switches to open gates. Scarlet Nexus is playing in the same space as miHoYo’s Genshin Impact; characters, here, serve an elemental function in addition to being key players in the story.
Getting to know your squad mates is just as important as learning to use their powers in combat. In between missions, you return to your hideout and spend time talking to your OSF pals or doling out gifts, which show up as decorations in the hideout after you give them. The bulk of this time is spent on “bonding episodes,” companion quests that can be as simple as a brief conversation or as involved as a combat-focused field mission. These episodes quickly became my favorite part of the game. Though archetypal, the characters are well-realized, and I enjoyed watching these relationships bloom over the course of the 50 hour campaign. The dialogue has its fair share of clunkers, but the main quest and these side stories are interesting enough that I remained invested until the end. Plus, they feed back into combat. As your bond level increases, you gain new cooperative moves with the character you spent time getting to know. It’s a small, smart way to link Scarlet Nexus’ disparate halves into a whole that is at least in the same neighborhood as cohesive.
That said, Scarlet Nexus does struggle, at times, to balance the combat and storytelling that comprise its loop. As I approached the end of Yuito’s campaign, my wife remarked, “It seems like you mostly watch this game.” I can’t give you an exact percentage, but yeah, it’s at least half-and-half. My biggest problem with Scarlet Nexus, though, is that those halves get considerably bigger as the game nears its conclusion. At a certain point, your squad doubles in size, which means that you have twice as many bonding episodes to watch when you return to your hideout between missions. At the same time, the combat chapters are swelling up. While a mission might take an hour to an hour-and-a-half in the early game, many of the later missions are two or three hour treks through multi-tiered dungeons. And while you can skip through dialogue—the skip prompt is, annoyingly, always on screen during cutscenes—there’s no way to speed up the dungeon-crawling.
The fights are long, too. Too long. I was struck by how often a battle would reach a point that felt like it was approaching a satisfying conclusion… and then continue for another five minutes. This feeling was certainly exacerbated by the Game Reviewer’s Dilemma, i.e. the necessity of speeding through a 50 hour game in a matter of days. Regardless of how fast you play it, though, Scarlet Nexus staggers into a strange pace in the latter half. The fights are the best they’ve been, as your roster of moves continues to grow. The companion quests get better and better as character arcs begin to pay off. But, there’s too much of both to fully enjoy either, and the game suffers from the bloat. It almost feels like the ending gets further away the closer you get to it. Maybe that’s fitting for a game about time travel. Scarlet Nexus’ strange structure has somehow bent the laws governing time to its will.
Scarlet Nexus was developed by Bandai Namco and Tose and published by Bandai Namco. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It is also available for the Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.
Andrew King is a writer and museum caretaker living in Illinois. His work has also been featured at GameSpot, IGN and Polygon. He’s on Twitter @funnelchest94