Scarlet Nexus

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S

“Scarlet Nexus,” a new action role-playing title from Bandai Namco, blends anime, visual novel stylings and a robust combat system that feels sleek and fun to use. For anime lovers and anyone who enjoyed “Fire Emblem: Three Houses,” the game will be a hit.

In the game, which comes out June 25, players can choose between two playable protagonists: Yuito Sumeragi, a male character who is described as kindhearted, or Kasane Randall, a coolheaded female adoptee. I completed Kasane’s story line in under 30 hours, picking her because she has ranged knife attacks and a commanding personality; Yuito, by comparison, specializes in close combat with a sword, and can be rather naive.

Each of “Scarlet Nexus’s” two story lines features scenes exclusive to that plot, though some core parts of the story remain the same. The game entices you to play both stories. Yuito and Kasane develop unique friendships with their teammates, and have different family backgrounds. Both are young soldiers who work to defend Earth sometime in the near future against “Others,” monsters who eat human brains. They begin to unravel mysteries about their world while completing missions.

The way the game tells its story is oddly confusing at first glance. Instead of still images the player clicks through, as is standard in many visual novel games, or movie-like cutscenes that immerse the player, “Scarlet Nexus” opted for still images that have a red border on a black background, plus smaller images of those same characters with their mouths moving. Characters have various special powers and can communicate via “brain messages,” which are also depicted with static images, adding to the confusion.

Cutscenes are reserved for special combat moves and for the biggest plot points in the game. Scenes and still images have full voice acting, available in Japanese or English. But once I selected Japanese audio at the game’s start, I didn’t see a way to switch over to English audio in the settings.

The game’s post-apocalyptic scenery looks dreary and drab, and characters’ stylish outfits all adhere to one color scheme (black and red) which can get old after a while. The world looks much more beautiful and alive in some moments, but for the sake of plot, it stays dull and washed out for the most part. Combat is the exception.

That’s where “Scarlet Nexus” truly excels. Players can levitate and throw rocks, ice sculptures, bicycles, cars — you name it — against hordes of foes. To spice things up, each platoon (whether it’s Yuito’s or Kasane’s) has special abilities that can be borrowed by the player. Kasane, for instance, can use her teammate Kagero’s invisibility power to sneak behind enemies and backstab them; Yuito can borrow his pal Gemma’s damage negating power to block attacks. As friendships deepen, these powers only grow stronger, giving players real incentives to get to know their teammates. Not only will they unlock more stories, but they’ll also gain more abilities.

Both Yuito or Kasane get the same core telekinetic powers, which grow more powerful as they level up. Over time they obtain some truly awesome finishing moves that make fights feel worthwhile and impressive.

“Scarlet Nexus” starts off like a high school anime, focused on romance and making new friends. It isn’t until the first hour mark that things really start to go south, as Kasane and Yuito experience major shocks in their lives. Once things do pick up, “Scarlet Nexus’s” convoluted plot will have you on the edge of your seat.

I don’t want to give too much away. Just think of the biggest twists in anime like “Full Metal Alchemist,” “Attack on Titan” and “Psycho Pass.” Human experiments, mysterious lore that gets more perturbing as people learn more about it and authorities with dubious morality. It’s the same vibe.

The story is about uncovering why Earth is overrun with strange monsters, why the two main characters share the same powers and what happens when those powers combine, as well as unraveling the agendas of various political actors. I counted about four potential plot holes, three typos in the English translation and one bug that crashed my game by the end of it, but the experience is better enjoyed if you don’t think too hard about how it all holds up.

Clocking in at around 20 to 30 hours per story line, “Scarlet Nexus” is both compact enough to enjoy leisurely over a week, yet sprawling in its ambition to cover thousands of years of Earth’s history and lore. I found myself revisiting in-game messages from teammates and plot summaries of the story while playing, and marveling at how much ground was covered.

The game does a good job of making Kasane and Yuito’s story lines converge at key moments, yet keep enough shrouded in mystery to make you want to play through a second time. If you choose one character, the other character’s thoughts and emotions won’t be clear to you. In one early conflict, Kasane decides she needs to kill Yuito for reasons I’ll leave a mystery. Since I played Kasane, I was curious how Yuito fared through this tumultuous plot development. I’ll only know after I sink another dozen hours into the second story line.

“Scarlet Nexus” will be adapted into an anime, to air in Japan on July 1. That feels fitting. Just like in many anime shows, the game goes beyond its characters’ cutesy exteriors to debate morality and even the meaning of life. The game, for example, poses these thematic questions, among others: If you could save one person’s life at the cost of affecting everyone else, would it be worth it? Is it justifiable to murder one person if it means the rest of humanity can be saved? If life doesn’t feel meaningful, or if it’s marred by regret, what can one do?

At some parts, I found myself tearing up, as if it was the ending of the recent anime film “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train.”

While asking those existential questions, the game packs plenty of action. Monsters are on constant patrol and they deal deadly attacks. After an hour, “Scarlet Nexus” finds its rhythm of jaw-dropping reveal, followed by lots of monster-hunting, some respite to talk to teammates and drink tea, followed by another surprise, and on and on.

“Scarlet Nexus” also showcases the technical capabilities of the PlayStation 5 controller. When the psychokinesis gauge is charged enough to perform an attack, the trigger stiffens, and you can hear the internal mechanisms in the controller click into place. It’s a nice tactile confirmation that Kasane (or Yuito) is ready to fight, which enhances the game’s role-playing. The Xbox Series X controller didn’t display the same effect.

Gifts, which are important for improving team bonds, can be found in the item shop. And yet, as important as they are, gifts can be tough to find in the menus. I made the mistake of selling all my monster parts, only to realize later they can be exchanged for gifts. Presents can’t be purchased with money; Instead, they are found in the right-most sub-menu under Exchange, the third tab in the shop. It’s a process.

Players can exchange monster bits for fun items like old PCs, electric guitars, crystal balls, snacks and more. Certain characters like specific gifts, which reveals something about them too. For instance, Kagero loves old items from what’s considered ancient history, such as teddy bears and guitars. That actually hints at his background, which is the subject of a shocking reveal later in the game.

This element — “Scarlet Nexus’s” well-written characters — makes the game that much more appealing. None of the core characters are merely an archetype. Often, Kasane (and the player) will develop an impression of a teammate, only to have those initial observations subverted. Kasane, for example, sheds her cool exterior over time, revealing an often-awkward bluntness. There’s also this sick burn she lays on Kagero when he tries to ask her on a date where they’d hunt monsters: “I hope you stay invisible the whole time.”

That’s the charm of “Scarlet Nexus.” Even if I don’t want to waste another second in its dreary streets, I do want to spend more time with these characters, who I’ve come to adore.

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