A dark futuristic world, psychokinetic powers, monsters shaped like slinkies with human hands... despite the limited amount of information Bandai Namco released about Scarlet Nexus over the last year, what we had seen pointed towards a fairly unique action-RPG. In particular, the gameplay trailers suggested that Scarlet Nexus would boast some truly crunchy combat: after all, it's not every day you can smack a car down on a mutated unicorn's head.
Yet after playing the preview build for four hours, I've found Scarlet Nexus's combat to be chaotic at best, irritating at worst. Generally speaking, the combat just feels a bit woolly. Which is unfortunate, considering it's the main focus of the game.
Scarlet Nexus is a third-person action game developed and published by Bandai Namco, due to release later this year on PC, PlayStation and Xbox. It's set in an alternate reality where humans have learned to harness substances in the human brain to give them powers. They use these abilities to fight hideous monstrosities called Others that rain from the sky and eat human brains.
You can play as either Yuito Sumeragi or Kasane Randall, who both possess the power of psychokinesis (AKA flinging cars around) and sign up to join the "Other Suppression Force" at the same time. The game hints at a mysterious connection between them, and trying out both characters will show you their perspectives on the story - a nice incentive to replay the game to get some extra background info on each of the characters. The whole thing is structured into story chapters, with a mixture of linear combat missions and chances to explore the world or hang out at your OSF hideout.
For the preview I mainly played as Kasane, whose abilities are focused on ranged powers rather than melee combat. Scarlet Nexus still wants you to get up close and personal, however, with a certain amount of melee hits required to charge up your psychokinetic energy bar. In other words, you can't just sit in a corner and chuck rocks from there. You can also borrow certain powers from your squadmates, such as electricity, to give you a temporary buff in battle or help with particular enemies. Some stages provide you with special environmental objects that can be hurled at enemies for massive damage.
On paper, this all sounds like an exciting combination of abilities, but there's something about Scarlet Nexus's combat that just feels off. In particular, the game seems absolutely hell-bent on disrupting your sense of flow. I found that taking practically any damage at all would be enough to knock Kasane to the floor, at which point she'd take an age to stand up. Taking even one hit could create a devastating chain reaction: Kasane would sometimes take so long to get up that another enemy would hit her in the meantime, resulting in two or three hits from what really should have been one dent to HP. More importantly, it's just pretty annoying when you want to maintain a feeling of movement in combat.
The combat generally feels chaotic and hard to manage: there's simply a lot going on at once, and I often felt success was down to luck more than skill. Enemy movement patterns can be unpredictable and hard to read, and I found that Scarlet Nexus's controls are not particularly reactive - making it hard to dodge once committed to an attack. The camera feels awkward, often angled too low to give a useful view of the combat situation, and I found myself pretty unaware of what was happening to either side of me. This meant projectiles and charge attacks frequently took me by surprise, creating problems not only with getting knocked down, but with charging up my psychokinetic attacks. These also have an enormously long wind-up, which look dramatic and rather cool, but in reality can take a fair while to land - making the power feel rather sluggish. Getting hit during the wind-up to a psychokinetic attack will also cancel the move, so watch out for those projectiles... if you can.
As for the special abilities provided by your squadmates, well, they appear to be pretty situational: fire is useful when you have an enemy covered in oil, for instance, or electricity for one covered in water. I didn't notice a huge difference when using them on regular enemies or in combination with Kusane's psychokinetic powers (other than the occasional status effect), which made them feel a little gimmicky.
It's worth noting that the combat did start to feel slightly better about three hours into the game, once I had unlocked some skills in the "Brain Map" skill tree. So to some extent, this may be a case of Scarlet Nexus being a little stingy with your combat abilities and psychokinetic powers at the start of the game. I did start to (occasionally) feel a sense of flow and carry out some powerful combinations - thanks in part to my psychokinetic powers doing more damage - but it still wasn't enough to make the combat feel satisfying. Although cracking an enemy's outer shell to hit them in a weak spot does feel pretty good, I will admit.
Still, it's not all bad news. Scarlet Nexus's setting is rather unique, and I enjoyed learning snippets of information about its futuristic world. The government has the power to censor gore as you see it in real life, for instance, and OSF members are treated like celebrities by the press. The idea of having to deal with these monsters on a day-to-day basis - avoiding them with forecasts like the weather - makes for an unpredictable environment with plenty of danger and dystopian themes. Oh, and the art style is certainly memorable. I can't really think of another game where you fight brain-eating flower bouquets that wear stilettos.
As for the characters and story, Scarlet Nexus does take a while to get going, and it felt like the game had only just finished laying the groundwork by the end of the preview. So I can't say whether the game will develop into a narrative masterpiece - but there are certainly some plot threads there to keep you interested, particularly in regards to Kasane and Yuito's backgrounds. Yuito comes from a high-achieving family and is under pressure to live up to their lofty expectations, while Kasane has been adopted into a business-owning family that doesn't seem to treat her equally to her non-adopted sister Naomi (although Kasane is fiercely protective of her). And naturally, both main characters have some mysterious dreams to unpick. The game eventually gives you opportunities to get to know the wider cast of OSF members and build "bonds" through conversations and character episodes, which I hope will flesh out their personalities.
Scarlet Nexus does have some promising features, but it's hard to look past the underwhelming combat, and the preview build left me feeling a bit flat. It's a shame, as I think the setting has plenty of potential (and the monster design is both hideous and fantastic). Maybe things do get better if you hang in there - but after four hours of flopping onto the floor with nearly every hit, I think I'm pretty ready to move on. If I can get up, that is.