No reason to beat around the bush: aside from rather Westernized franchises like Resident Evil and anime tie-ins based on popular franchises like Naruto or Attack on Titan, Xbox has not been getting a whole lot of Japanese IPs lately. The situation certainly improved in the last few years, with franchises like Kingdom Hearts, Yakuza, Ys or Dragon Quest hitting Microsoft’s ecosystem for the first time. Fortunately, Bandai Namco’s ambitious new multimedia franchise Scarlet Nexus, spanning a promising and unique JRPG and a well-produced anime series, did actually land on our Xboxes. Let’s check out the game, shall we?
A link to the future
How to describe Scarlet Nexus? The publisher calls it a brain punk JRPG experience, which just seems a fancier way of defining a cyberpunk aesthetic, with its futuristic dystopian Japan overran by cameras, brain implants and, apparently, alien creatures. We follow an intricate story of a group of very young or young-looking (more on that later) Other Suppression Force (OSF) soldiers and cadets, finding out about the harsh reality of a fierce conflict. Players are immediately presented with a choice of main character, which is far from just a cosmetic matter: teenage OSF cadets Yuito Sumeragi and Kasane Randall are respectively the male and female protagonists of the title, but your pick has several plot implications.
Both characters in fact have their own backgrounds, their motivations and, most importantly, their own story we get to follow through their footsteps. They are assigned to different platoons, which means they sometimes share the same mission and goals, while other times they find themselves at completely different places. But it’s the well-constructed narrative that ties them together, often in unexpected moments. What may start like your run-of-the-mill shounen, with many similarities to the early parts of manga/anime like My Hero Academia and Hunter X Hunter, turns into a long sequence of dramatic, impactful and shocking story elements, with the stakes and intricacies of the lore going well beyond the expectations. At times, it feels like it’s even trying to deconstruct the genre tropes, and it does so successfully. To experience the entirety of the story, it’s very much suggested to play through it with both characters, as both witness specific events, go to exclusive areas and play with different companions through most of the game, albeit their fates intertwine often in the latter half. I’m generally opposed to stories hidden behind multiple playthroughs (looking at you, Nier: Automata), but I’ve not found it to be bothersome in this case.
Less Persona, more Bayonetta
After all that, let’s look at how the title actually plays, shall we? Scarlet Nexus’ gameplay loop feels closer to a Platinum game like Bayonetta or Astral Chain than a traditional JRPG, as it drops the usual turn-based or relatively lower pace battles in favour of an exciting action module. The player, whichever character they choose, can alternate between a set of sword and projectile-based attacks, creating combos with parries, dodges and all kinds of acrobatic moves inbetween; there’s all kinds of telekinesis coming into play as well. Dungeons are in fact packed with items that can be telekinetically raised and thrown onto enemies, from trash cans all the way to cars. There’s even contextual attacks that can be used, such as using telekinesis to splash the oil from massive canisters on enemies to make them more flammable, or taking down pieces of architecture to slam enemies with devastating force.
It wouldn’t be a JRPG without a party system, of which intricacies we’ll dive into in a bit, but up to 3 companions’ presence in combat gives the player a wide array of extra moves and abilities to choose from via the brain implant that allows them to connect to each other seemlessly and even borrow skills from each other. AI manages our teammates’ attacks, healing and so on, but each party member also has a cooldown assigned to skills we can borrow from them, as all party members specialize in some variation of telekinesis or brain abilities. Pyrokinesis to set enemies on fire, invisibility, temporary invulnerability, or even clairvoyance to reveal hidden secrets and enemies. Some enemies are practically impossible to beat without specific abilities, so learning how to connect them properly is key to survival.
Still a JRPG at heart
Structurally, the game follows a fairly rigid JRPG protocol. Unless the story forces specific combinations, players get to choose the party to roll with, with each character having their traits and abilities that come especially handy against certain kinds of enemies and to handle specific types of dungeons and secrets, as some collectibles may require a peculiar ability for example. Managing your party is, similarly, a rather standards experience, as players can assign equipment, both functional and cosmetic to the teammates and define what button activates their powers. As mentioned earlier, the characters have a strong bond via a brain link, but this can be further strengthened by doing occasional miniquests for them and giving them gifts, which will improve friendship and unlock further telekinetic abilities to use via their intervention. It’s also a great way to understand their backgrounds and characters more.
This, of course, reveals one of the inconvenient truths of Scarlet Nexus, and that is how most of the in-game characters are archetypes of typical anime characters. There’s Hanabi, male protagonist Yuito’s childhood friend who keeps falling in love at first sight with girls and is really clumsy. We have Tsugumi, who is a ridiculously shy and introverted girl who happens to really appreciate when someone finally approaches her. And of course Luka, who looks like a young kid but is actually an extremely smart and experienced soldier. All of this is further enhanced by the typical age trope: characters are given treatments to stop physically aging from the moment of their recruitment. So that suspiciously “designed-to-be-attractive-lady-that-happens-to-look-like-a-teenage-schoolgirl? She’s actually a 45 years old soldier, so it’s perfectly fine…right?
But the story, as pointed out earlier, is actually surprisingly deep and enjoyable. The lore of the world is full of exciting tech, creative designs and peculiar ideas. Perhaps the visual aspect I appreciated the most are the design enemies, featuring some scary yet surprisingly elegant and fascinating creatures, such as a creepy flower bouquet with long legs and stilettos. Likewise, the game is set in a fictional futuristic Tokyo, full of holographic texts, lasers and so on. Cyberpunk 2077 it may not be, but it’s a pleasant world. The dungeons are a bit generic with their industrial complexes, with some backtracking to boot, but the quality of the combat more than makes up for it.
The game’s anime-style presentation is generally high quality, and it ties well into the homonym anime series that is releasing alongside. If anything, the game’s relatively low budget becomes noticeable in these segments: some parts are expertly animated and well curated, especially some crucial dialogues and epic shounen-style battles. And yet, many other scenes that seem equally relevant are presented via manga-esque stills, where we only see a window with the characters’ mouths moving and the dub doing the rest, of which both the English and Japanese version is available. Some of the minor character interactions throughout the game’s world aren’t even necessarily voiced. The quality shown is still notable, and Scarlet Nexus is probably the best-looking 3D anime-style game on Xbox right now, but we would have loved to see more scenes getting animated well.
Speaking of how the game looks, we happily point out that the game’s performance is also absolutely excellent. Very stable 60 frames per second on both Series X and S, the versions we tested, even during the most busy combat segments. Some of the animations are slightly less polished and the world has a bit too many invisible barriers to gate players, but I’ve not found these limitations to be damning.
Now this is a Nexus Event!
Scarlet Nexus hits a lot of high notes in its lengthy double-story, spanning almost 50 hours of content. An exciting futuristic world, a surprising and great story, excellent combat, lovely artstyle. What’s not to love? Bandai Namco’s new IP is one of the most interesting JRPGs to come out in a long while, and while it’s certainly not perfect, we’re really looking forward to seeing more of this intriguing franchise in the future.