Review: Scarlet Nexus (PS5)


When Scarlet Nexus was first announced, I was intrigued but a little skeptical of the way it was being described: “brainpunk”. In a world where “cyberpunk” has lost all meaning—where it’s so often reduced to neon lights and “cool” body augmentations, with none of the depth and thematic weight that should come with the territory—it was easy to imagine “brainpunk” being the same thing, with the “brain” aspect being nominal at most. That said, early trailers certainly looked impressive, so I was cautiously optimistic that Scarlet Nexus would deliver on the expectations that come with the “punk” suffix.

That optimism was justified. Scarlet Nexus is brainpunk: in style, certainly, but more importantly, in substance. It’s cyberpunk-adjacent, with a psychological bent but with the punk part fully intact in its questions of identity, information, privacy, surveillance, freedom, and governmental overreach. All that, wrapped up in an extremely slick action JRPG full of interesting characters and a captivating battle system that’s frantic yet refined and rhythmic. It’s great.

Scarlet Nexus takes place in an alternate vision of the world in which some level of psionic ability has become commonplace. Most people have some small level of psychic ability, and society as a whole has developed itself around that: psychic networks are the default option for communications, while advertising and public information is delivered through hologram-like visions projected directly into people’s brains. (If you’re wondering what that means for those people without psychic ability, they’re largely excluded from the normal, everyday functions of society—a point that Scarlet Nexus very deliberately makes.)

But all this psychic energy flying around also means Earth has become a prime target for “Others”, bizarre-looking aliens that feed on brain waves. As a result, much of the world has been destroyed, but a few civilizations persist thanks to the Other Suppression Force (OSF), an elite force of particularly powerful psychics who fend off Other attacks. Kasane Randall and Yuito Sumeragi are two new OSF recruits, and it’s through their eyes that the story of Scarlet Nexus unfolds.

And what a tale it is. You can probably already start imagining some of the twists and turns a premise like that would lend itself to, but I guarantee whatever you’re thinking is only the tip of the iceberg. Scarlet Nexus is full of surprises, and it’s not afraid to drop emotional gut-punches out of the blue and drop shocking revelations. But it’s also a game that makes those surprises work, with just the right amount of build-up as needed—or not, if complete surprise is what’s needed—and thoughtful character development to let every new turn leave a big impact. 

And running through all of this are those crucial “-punk” themes. You can imagine how psychic communications as the default state could be corrupted or exploited by special interests, and that’s something that’s at the heart of Scarlet Nexus. Not only on the grand scale of omnipresent media and questions around the validity of any piece of information you come across, but also in the little details of everyday life in this brainpunk world. It’s a place where there are no physical limitations on information presentation—you don’t need a wall to stick a poster or billboard to when you can just have it display anywhere—which means ads everywhere, but also helpful information posters, augmented-reality road signage, holographic festival flags, and hopeful attempts to mark sidewalks with directional arrows (which still get ignored as people use the walkways for bike parking…). 

Indeed, the setting is so intriguing and convincing that I one of the first things I did in the game is spend more than an hour—no exaggeration, I checked my playtime—just wandering around the first city area, looking at all the little details and letting this “brainpunk” atmosphere wash over me. The towering buildings with ads projected all over them; the speed signs and lane markers displayed in a way that’s both directly in drivers’ lines of vision but not intrusive or distracting; the news headline ticker tape that hangs in mid-air near busy crossings; the vending machines with holographic drink cans sticking out the front. Scarlet Nexus comes right out the gate with a vision of the world that’s fascinating, and it only builds from there as more of this place’s many secrets get revealed.

It’s a place where information overload is a constant—for the people who live there, but not so much for the players, thankfully—which is an important theme that Scarlet Nexus goes deep into. Not just the overwhelming volume of info that widespread psychic networks allow, but also the questions about who controls that information, to what ends, and what privacy and freedom can ever mean in such a world. There’s also the question of identity, especially with regard to OSF members, whose entire lives are dictated by the psychic powers they’re born with, but also just in terms of what a self-determined identity can even mean in a place where everything and everyone is connected.

And yet, through all the heavy ideas that it explores, Scarlet Nexus still finds time for levity and humanity. The characters that fill out your party are unique and intriguing, the process of getting to know them—through both the main story and the bonding events that are now a JRPG standard—reveals a cast with a lot of depth and nuance in their characterisation. There are moments of humour and charm (the in-world mascot character, Baki, comes in handy here) and comical interludes to balance out the more serious, emotional side of the game.

The combat and RPG make a nice complement to themes that Scarlet Nexus explores and the story it tells. At its core, it’s an action RPG with a psychic twist: both Kasane and Randall have the power of psychokinesis, which translates into being able to lift objects—rocks, cars, you name it—and fling them at foes. But you need to use normal attacks to charge the energy that the psychic abilities use, which creates a natural rhythm as you dance between regular attacks and psychic ones. 

The rest of your party is AI controlled, but they also each have their own psychic power that you can borrow for a short time: invisibility, time manipulation, elemental attacks, clones, and so on. In the world of Scarlet Nexus, psychic power manifests in many forms, and with this comes a wide array of tools to expand your combat abilities and tactics. On top of that, some locations and most boss fights have some sort of gimmick that you can activate with your psychokinesis—like dumping a bucket of oil on an enemy to make them more susceptible to fire attacks, or jumping onto the back of a train and ramming it through a whole group of unlucky Others. 

The simple loop at the core of it makes Scarlet Nexus’ combat exciting right from the outset, and it only builds from there as you get stronger and unlock new abilities, and as new party members, mechanics, and gimmicks get introduced. It’s exciting and intense, tying nicely into the overarching “brainpunk” theme of the whole game. 

And to top it all off, it looks phenomenal, especially on PlayStation 5. The art style draws on both classic cyberpunk anime aesthetics and the grim atmosphere of something like Code Vein to give the game a unique look, backed by pristine 2D-look animation. Pause the action, and every scene looks like it could almost be a piece of concept art—an effect that’s put to great use in cutscenes that deliberately use still shots from otherwise fully-animated scenes to create a comic book-esque effect. It looks just as good in motion, with fluid animations that let the whole world and its unique aesthetic come to life.

Scarlet Nexus reminds me a little of The Caligula Effect, in a way. Not in theme or style, but in tone, in energy, and the way it uses the JRPG format to go down some fascinating, thought-provoking paths. But where such games are not unusual from smaller developers, it’s a rare joy to see a publisher like Bandai Namco take the same risks, and to see those experimental ideas get the budget they need to truly shine. In a world where the “punk” suffix is often just a shallow aesthetic choice, Scarlet Nexus truly lives up to its “brainpunk” vision.

Score: 4.5 stars

Title: Scarlet Nexus
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Platforms:  PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC (Steam)
Release date: 25 June 2021

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.


About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.