*visual spoiler warning for Scarlet Nexus and Tales of Arise*
Scarlet Nexus was the best-looking game I played last year.
I feel the need to explain what I mean here and, at the same time, I wish I didn’t have to. But “best-looking” game is a vague crown so, here we go.
- No, it’s not the most technically proficient game. Scarlet Nexus is not making strides in photorealism.
- It’s not the most traditionally appealing game – its anime intro is probably the worst looking part.
- And no, it’s not the most creative or different in its artstyle. There are none of Mundaun’s pencil effects or anything equivalent
When I say Scarlet Nexus was the best-looking game I played last year, that’s not meant as a disparagement to any other games. I genuinely think Scarlet Nexus is just that good.
As I’m not an artist by trade or by study, these will be a player’s observations, not an expert’s.
A first glance may not explain much to you. I’ve picked a pretty neutral screenshot here to show you – although I think even this demonstrates the quality of design that permeates even the most simple spaces in this game. We’ve got a pretty familiar 3D anime art style. The characters are rendered in the way most “anime-style” games do it nowadays, with varying degrees of fidelity. They look similar at a base level to the models you’d see in Persona or Genshin or Astral Chain.
The characters and environment are exhibiting a solid color pallet here. These are alternate uniforms, but the base ones are mainly black, like you see on the twins standing in the back. I also kept the optional accessories to the color pallet, because I’m messed up like that. However, we’ll see this strong commitment to these colors throughout this examination.
Okay, maybe you’re not sold yet. Let’s get some environments in here.
You seeing it? Right? Maybe?
Again, we see thoughtful use of color. Scarlet Nexus commits to stark whites, blacks, and reds, while keeping other colors more faded out without letting them get boring. The city is certainly more beige, but it still breaks itself up with the mess of environmental details, leaving barely a few feet of bare wall. There’s a sense that the streets are hectic and crammed without letting you get too distracted by it. Instead, the stark colors of Kasane’s clothes help you focus on where she is on the screen
The other two showcase the game’s focus on red as well as simply some of its more immediately visually arresting set pieces.
So, white black red. Sounds like Persona 5, right? Well sort of. Persona was more about bright colors against black in general – each phantom thief with their own signature color. Scarlet Nexus keeps things more consistent. Just as an example, the pink of the cherry blossoms and the pink of Arashi’s hair in dinner table screenshot are nothing compared to the reds, whites, and blacks.
What really sets Scarlet Nexus apart from other games like it, however, is its use of sharp lines and geometrical shapes.
I think this is the part of Scarlet Nexus which I appreciate the most. It excels at creating eerily artificial spaces – there’s nothing more unnatural than a perfectly straight line, and Scarlet Nexus’s most striking environments are full of them. That first screenshot literally took my breath away the first time I saw it in the game, when I came over the ridge and spied the shapes on the edge of my screen. I had to stop and take it in, cursing the lack of a photo mode. It was riveting – beautiful yet somehow deeply unsettling.
At the end of the game, the characters find themselves in a space where everything is falling apart. Lines are broken and made odd. After so long in this crafted world, you can really feel it. The dread that it wants you to feel – it lives in the floating cubes and twisted branches.
Perhaps my reason for being so taken with Scarlet Nexus’s art design can be explained by using a point of contrast. Let’s take a moment to compare it to Bandai Namco’s other 3D anime-style RPG game to come out last year: Tales of Arise, a game which I also played and appreciated.
Tales of Arise is very pretty! It’s the culmination of the style of previous Tales games, bringing more texture and shine with the power of the Unreal Engine. There’s tons of color, lush environments, more particle effects than your eyes can even take in – oh my god there are too many particle effects. It’s also…kind of forgettable. I think that has to do with the setting.
This isn’t an objective measure, obviously, but I have about five times as many screenshots in Scarlet Nexus than I do in Tales of Arise.
Admittedly, I do like that last one quite a bit.
Arise’s graphics are certainly more sophisticated than Scarlet Nexus. The models and environments look “better.” They have more detail and fidelity. But there just aren’t scenes that will stick in my memory. What Scarlet Nexus lacks in sophistication, it makes up for with style and identity. I don’t think there’s a game out there that looks quite like this one.
Whereas the typical JRPG or even RPG these days always seems to take place in sprawling nature with impressive vistas and natural beauty (can I blame/credit Breath of the Wild for this? it probably predates it), Scarlet Nexus’s world is urban and man-made. You could compare it to modern Final Fantasy, but I think it diverges from that too.
Holographic ads overlay over physical signs in cramped cities. Outside, highways fall apart without beauty. Even where nature emerges, it is not lush or green. Eerie order takes over the jagged mountains. The city of Togetsu stands white against white with clean lines. Colors are stark when they do exist, standing out against a washed-out world. Everything feels made and not grown. This is in keeping with the themes of Scarlet Nexus’s (buck-wild) narrative.
I’ve only shown you amateur shots, composed by me. But Scarlet Nexus knows how to make moments. Images that will stick in your mind, even if the writing loses you.
I feel like I should just share a few.
And there are so many more! These are the ones where I managed the thought to take a screenshot.
The clarity with which I can remember some of Scarlet Nexus’s moments, even without a screenshot, astonishes me. And it never even uses a 2D animated scene to do it, the way Tales of Arise tended to rely on. And I knew, in all these moments, that the script had not earned the emotional investment required. But the visual direction was working so hard, it nearly got me there all on its own.
I haven’t even touched on the gameplay and combat, which make much more conservative and impactful use of effects than Arise. I appreciate the way certain powers like Invisibility or Hypervelocity are rendered, but they just further demonstrate how strongly Scarlet Nexus commits to its aesthetic rather than standing out too much on their own. In the end, the full picture of Scarlet Nexus is worth experiencing for yourself. My ramblings on the subject don’t beat seeing it all together as a full game.
I sometimes feel like games are relying too much on certain types of settings and certain types of styles. Sometimes I feel like gamers and game developers overvalue the technical side of graphics. They talk frames and resolution and draw distance and whatever. It’s not that those things aren’t important or don’t have their place. It’s just that I want more discussion about color design, shot composition, lighting, environments…I want to talk more about graphics as an artistic discipline instead of as a technical one.
I want games that can make me feel something with its art design – and “wow, pretty” does not count as feeling something. Despite Scarlet Nexus’s mess of a story, its striking art design breaks through and makes the whole feel greater than the words on the page. Ideally, of course, these forces should work in tandem. But a visual medium has the power of visuals. As a writer, I still admit: often a picture is worth a thousand words.