Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’ll be honest: I approached my opening hours with Bandai Namco Studios’ new game, Scarlet Nexus, with a certain amount of trepidation. This was, after all, a studio whose last anime-inspired action RPG was Code Vein, a game I tried so hard to like that I ultimately took it as something of a personal insult when the last bursts of my enthusiasm fizzled out in a hail of poorly explained systems and overly repetitive combat. True, Scarlet Nexus was clearly cribbing from something more like Square Enix’s Nier, rather than Code Vein’s obvious Dark Souls influences—what with the quick-moving combat, and the reliance on flashy ranged attacks and spells. But still: Once-bitten (by anime vampires), as they say, twice shy.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Scarlet Nexus proved to be, not just significantly better than Code Vein, but a legitimate blast to play, full of charmingly written characters, and a combat system that steadily layers in rich new mechanics as the player progresses. The opening few hours are a little slow, admittedly, and its opening gameplay sections rote. (There is no reason, for instance, to have players spend as much time as they do wandering around its generically cyberpunk city Suoh; when fast travel eventually arrives, it can’t come fast enough.) But once I hit the actual meat of the game, I was happily shocked to find myself quickly moving from “Hey, let’s give it a try” to actively wanting to not put it down, slipping into a groove that saw me blowing the game’s monstrous Others away with a steadily widening pool of engaging powers.
Those powers, or their early absence, are the big reason Nexus suffers from that aforementioned slow start. Friendship is power in this universe (aw!) and the game takes its time in allowing the player to accrue a full party of the teen sci-fi soldiers who make up its playable roster. (Once again, it seems, it falls to the nation’s most mopey and hormonal to save the world.) Once it does, though, your chosen protagonist—either standard anime dope Yuito, or standard anime standoffish person Kasane—is granted access to all their teammates’ particular abilities, shaped by which characters decide to hang with you on the game’s two paths.
These powers, like pyrokinesis, clairvoyance, teleportation, and more, all gel together in engaging ways, allowing you to bust out new combos on the fly, and all supplemented by your main character’s base ability to hurl rocks and lampposts around like a big-eyed Jean Grey from the X-Men. (Which is actually a pretty good comparison point, now that I think about it.) Being able to pick and choose which powers to deploy makes for a surprisingly robust decision matrix: Do I supplement my teleportation strikes with fire for extra damage, or swap in clairvoyance to make dodging enemy attacks easier? When should I deploy my powerful but slowly recharging damage shield? Do I switch into a passive power mode now, or save my teammate’s energy for a sudden burst attack? These are the sorts of decisions from which fun combat is made, and Scarlet Nexus offers them in abundance—eventually.
All that, and it carries a refreshing lack of some of the more frustrating tropes that can slip in when such an obvious set of anime influences holds sway. (Which is to say that it’s depressingly shocking to have a cast in a game like this where every female soldier appears to be wearing an entire set of clothing.) Sure, the writing (and especially the team-building sidequests) have their fair share of romantic drama and obvious crushes, but that can be forgiven when so little of it grates. And while the plot itself is fairly boilerplate—don’t trust the government, kids, especially when they’ve outfitted you as child soldiers with superpowers—it all moves swiftly enough so as not to wear out its welcome. Frankly, Scarlet Nexus gets the highest compliment I can generally deploy in this space: As soon as I send this column off to our editors, I’m going to go back and play another hour or so before heading off to bed.