Republished on Wednesday, 15th February, 2023: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of February 2023's PS Plus Extra and Premium lineup. The original text follows.
Scarlet Nexus is quite a unique action RPG set in a world where the human brain has evolved. Most people are hooked up to a kind of brain network — like if you could access the internet inside of your own head. What's more, some especially talented individuals are able to use 'powers' — utilising their mental strength to control the elements, or move objects with their mind. Basically, they're brain-powered X-Men, and the story revolves around a small number of these psychic soldiers.
It's dystopian sci-fi from a very anime viewpoint, and while Scarlet Nexus does offer up an intriguing setting and a range of cool concepts, the storytelling itself falls a bit flat. The game is split between two protagonists: Yuito, a kind hearted cadet who hails from a prestigious family, and Kasane, a psionic prodigy with a cold personality. You choose to play as one or the other right at the start of the game, with the overall plot playing out from a different perspective depending on your decision.
This means that in order to get the full picture, two playthroughs are needed; one from Yuito's perspective, and one from Kasane's, each taking around 20 hours or so. It's an intriguing premise on paper, but in practice, both the storytelling and gameplay of Scarlet Nexus wear thin by the end of one playthrough — never mind two.
That's not to say these aspects of Scarlet Nexus are bad. In fact, this is a well made RPG, and arguably the most polished title that Bandai Namco Studios has developed in a long time. It's just that, once you're about ten hours into this "brain punk" adventure, its flaws start to become more and more apparent.
The storytelling, for example, suffers from some erratic pacing issues a little later on. Key moments in the narrative are glazed over, and feel like they're forgotten far too quickly, while certain members of the cast seem to change their tune in the blink of an eye, without any real character development to back it up. By the end, the plot has performed so many leaps in logic that it starts to come across as convoluted.
It's really the supporting cast that carry Scarlet Nexus' story — even if they're not the most memorable bunch. Yuito and Kasane get their own allies over the course of the game, and they're largely likeable. As is the case with a lot of modern Japanese RPGs, these characters can initially seem stereotypical or one-dimensional, but they grow on you as you get to know them better.
The game's bond system, which lets you spend time with your squadmates in between main story missions, gives insight into what makes each party member tick. Some reveal fun personality quirks, while others provide you with an alternate outlook on how the world of Scarlet Nexus works. There's enough intrigue here to keep you invested, even when it might feel like the overarching story is losing its way.
We'd say cutscenes and dialogue account for around a third of Scarlet Nexus' runtime. The rest is spent traversing dilapidated environments and getting into fights with abstract monsters known as 'Others'. Conventional weaponry is ineffective against these nightmarish creatures, and so it falls to the psychic powers of the OSF — your taskforce — to keep the beasts in check.
The aforementioned environments are pretty standard stuff in terms of design — mostly linear locations that offer minimal opportunity for exploration. They look nice enough — Scarlet Nexus is a very neat and stylish title overall — but there's not a lot of variation; the majority of your excursions send you to old city ruins and other abandoned urban areas. It all gets a bit samey.
Sadly, the same is true of the enemies that you'll face. The Others have clearly had some imagination poured into them — they're a mishmash of organic parts and inanimate objects — but it isn't long at all before you're going up against barely reskinned opponents that have slightly different attack patterns. Even bosses are reused as normal foes later on.
And this issue bleeds into the game's combat system. On a surface level and just beyond, combat in Scarlet Nexus is unique and satisfying. Its gimmick is that you can use Yuito or Kasane's telekinesis to hurl hefty objects, like cars, construction materials, and rubble at your enemies to deal damage. Used in conjunction with basic weapon combos, it gives fights an enjoyable rhythm — especially when you start to chain projectiles together with well-timed melee attacks.
The problem is that combat never really evolves. Cooldown-based buffs and flashy special moves are provided by teammates as you develop your bonds with them, but the crux of combat is always melee attack, throw object, melee attack, throw object on repeat. It just gets rather stale, and the most interesting squad-sprung abilities are all locked until near the end of the game.
Still, combat is fun enough for the most part. And to be fair to Scarlet Nexus, smacking weird monsters with huge slabs of concrete does feel good. On PlayStation 5, the game utilises the DualSense controller's haptic feedback to deliver rumbling impacts, and it even adds tension to the L2 and R2 triggers when you're lifting debris with your mind. It's all nicely executed, and gives encounters a very tactile feel.
Scarlet Nexus is an enjoyable, polished action RPG, but despite its interesting concepts and setting, it all feels a bit stunted. An intriguing plot is hampered by sloppy storytelling, and the combat system is good fun, but it loses its edge long before the credits roll. If you can play past the game's flaws, there's a lot to like about the brain punk world of Scarlet Nexus — just don't expect it to rewire your own grey matter.