This isn’t going to go the way you think.
Scarlet Nexus plonks you into a near-future Tokyo, where neighborhoods are routinely invaded by hordes of Others, bizarre monsters that are best described as walking collages of animal parts and inanimate objects — think a birdcage head atop goat legs sporting lurid red heels. But don’t be fooled by their oddball familiarity; these bloodthirsty creatures survive by devouring human brains. Your job, as a plucky young recruit to the Other Suppression Force (OSF), is to defend the inhabitants of the city. As you uncover more about the true nature of the Others, however, your budding military career takes a dramatic turn into uncharted territory.
After a slightly sluggish start, Bandai Namco’s latest action RPG delivers a crackling sci-fi story with electrifying and innovative combat. Scarlet Nexus’ impeccable pacing and memorable characters will leave you craving a second playthrough, making it 2021’s best role-playing game yet.
At the outset, you’ll choose from one of two main characters, Kasane or Yuito. Both are OSF newcomers who wield pseudo-magical Powers thanks to the goverment’s freewheeling experiments on the human brain. Kasane and Yuito’s combat styles are similar — both use Psychokinesis to move objects in the environment, turning rocks, cars, and other debris into formidable weapons. (I picked Yuito for his close-quarters combat style, though I’ve heard from other reviewers that Kasane’s story is a bit more fun.)
You can expect your first playthrough to take roughly 25-30 hours, and new game plus allows your levels and weapons to carry over, making a second run a less daunting prospect at about 10 hours shorter.
Depending on who you choose, the story will play out slightly differently, and each protagonist has their own assortment of teammates. Yuito and Kasane’s paths cross at numerous points in the story, but you’ll learn more about the motivations driving each character — and their companions — by choosing their route. Scarlet Nexus introduces a whole lot of characters in the first couple of hours, so many that it can be a bit dizzying. It’s worth sticking out the exposition dump, as cast begins to unfurl their personalities in fascinating ways.
Playing as Yuito, you’re an eager new cadet and second son struggling to escape the long shadow cast by his prominent father and brother, both high-ranking officials in the New Himuka government. Eventually, Yuito comes to realize that the government’s behind some seriously shady doings, and it all connects to the sudden appearances of the Others throughout the city.
Though Scarlet Nexus borrows generously from modern anime and game classics — Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Evangelion, Persona 5, and Chaos;Child come immediately to mind — it nevertheless manages to carve out its own unique identity, memorable characters, and fleshed-out world. It takes a smidge longer than it should to get all the pieces on the board, but once this story gets its claws in you, it doesn’t let up.
What are your favorite games and platforms of 2021, and what future releases are you most excited about? Take our poll!
Old meets new
Early trailers for Scarlet Nexus invited comparisons to Persona 5, as both games share slick red-and-black color pallette and a Tokyo-inspired setting. Though it’s been almost five years since P5 came out in Japan, the aesthetics of Scarlet Nexus don’t quite measure up. While playing on PS5 boasts some remarkably snappy load times, the visuals and music don’t feel especially cutting-edge for 2021.
While most dialogue exchanges in Scarlet Nexus are voice-acted, most cutscenes take the form of talking heads in front of static images, reminiscent of a comic book or visual novel. Sure, not every piddly conversation between teammates requires a lavish cutscene, and it’s nice to be able to progress dialogue as quickly as you can read it. Nevertheless, it feels like an odd choice here, particularly for a game with its own anime series.
While the first few environments you explore inside the city of Suoh are a bit drab and samey, your surroundings become far more interesting once you get a bit further afield and explore abandoned museums, hospitals, and laboratories. For the most part, you’ll make your way through dungeons in a fairly linear manner, but Yurito and Kasane’s psychokinesis can move obstructions or even vehicles out of your path, adding a bit of fun and flavor that keeps the semi-open world traversal feeling fresh. Though dungeons get more complex as the game progresses, they never become excessively long, and offer plenty of opportunities to save, heal, and replenish your cache of items and weaponry.
Combat is where Scarlet Nexus shines brightest. Using melee attacks will steadily build up your Psychokinesis gauge, which can then be used to manipulate objects around you like boulders and crates. Build up enough energy, and you’ll be able to do some truly wild stuff, like ripping chandeliers from the ceiling and whipping them around on the floor in a deadly spiral, or sending a train car speeding down the tracks directly into a gaggle of Others for massive damage. It all looks slick and stylish, with brightly colored eyecatches that make you feel like a badass but don’t bring the action to a halt.
Things really get wacky when you assemble your crew. Rather than swapping between party members, you’ll always control your protagonist in battle. Your other two party members will do auto attacks, which become stronger as you strengthen your bond with them.
What’s unique about Scarlet Nexus is that both Kasane and Yuito can borrow the skills of their teammates, even those not present on the field. For instance, you can avoid enemy detection by activating invisibility, negate damage by turning your skin to stone, or add flames to your melee attacks. You’ll start off playing with one of these at a time, but eventually, you can have four of these abilities activated at once, in addition to your protagonist’s own formidable abilities. The system encourages experimentation, keeps ordinary battles from feeling stale, and adds more thrills and challenges to boss fights.
Nothing in Scarlet Nexus overstays its welcome — every aspect of the game showcases a thoughtful attentiveness to pacing. You’ll have access to fast travel pretty much straight away, and between dungeon runs, you’ll return to your hideout for what’s known as a Standby Phase. It’s a chilled-out break from fighting that allows you to get to know your teammates a bit better by hanging out and giving them gifts. The stronger your bond, the more powerful their combat abilities become, but you won’t need a spreadsheet to keep track of all your relationships like in Persona 5.
If you’re a fan of role-playing games, but can’t stomach the thought of a 100+ hour odyssey, Scarlet Nexus has a lively, page-turning quality that’ll keep you up past your bedtime, but won’t take over your life. The kinetic, combo-driven combat sparkles, and once the story gets its hooks in you, it doesn’t let go. 8/10.
Scarlet Nexus comes to PC, PlayStation, and Xbox June 25.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)