Let’s be honest… Tales of Zestiria was a huge let down. Bandai Namco (or Namco Bandai or whatever they’re calling themselves this week) had done a fantastic job on the series recently, making some of the best JRPGs I’d ever played and then Zestiria came out with its anticlimax of a finish, awkward combat, and disappointing core protagonists, reminding us all that what goes up must come down. Then I heard about Berseria, I saw trailers of it and it looked promising.
I kept hearing tidbits about the game that seemed good. It has a darker tone? Intriguing. The protagonist is female? Nice change of pace. But my hope wilted when I found out it took place in the distant past of Zestiria. I began to fear that we were in for another let-down. I still wanted to believe it would be good, that we would be going back to the greatness the last installments had featured… but I had my doubts. Now, the question then becomes: were my doubts realized?
Revenge is a Dish Best Served Often
A Colourful Cast
Tales of Berseria’s story is remarkably well-done. Dark stories are very difficult to do right. I’ve seen so many games and anime fall flat because they wanted to portray a dark story, but forgot that you can’t just be tragic all the time – there has to be contrast. Berseria does not fall into this trap. Don’t get me wrong, Tales of Berseria is a tragic tale, with every turn unveiling more and more desperation both in the cast and the world itself. Our protagonist is the desperate, hate-filled Velvet Crowe – a young lady who was forced to eat demons to live for 3 years after being imprisoned by her sister’s widower after he sacrificed her ill younger brother right in front of her eyes. The cast is comprised of demons and criminals, for the most part. Half of the game is spent committing various atrocities in pursuit of Velvet’s revenge.
But there are a few things that make it work. First, you’re accompanied for most of the game by the apathetic, sarcastic, know-it-all witch Magilou. While a bit of an obnoxious character, Magilou is one of the most important characters to the story’s success. Probably the biggest reason for that is that she offers fantastic comic relief. Additionally, since she is always very clearly aware of more than she’s letting on, she’s able to relay information the game wants you to know without it sounding out of place.
The second element that makes it work are a combination of relatively morally strong characters – the young, naïve Malak Laphi and the exorcist Eleanor. These two characters offer the ordinary non-evil person a lens into the story. Laphi offers us a reminder of who Velvet was when we first saw her in the tutorial segment before things went to hell for her, while Eleanor acts as a bit of a moral compass for Velvet, tempering her tendency towards expedience.
The final aspect that helps the story avoid breaking your engagement is that the game gives you the early gaze into Velvet’s past, which helps you understand why she is the vengeful, hate-filled monster she has become. The game instilled a sense of almost righteous wrath into me while playing that surprised me quite a bit – I genuinely wanted to see her revenge succeed, even if it damned the entire world. Even if it meant destroying the religion that seemed intent on saving the people. And then, when the end came and the true motives behind it all were unveiled, it vindicated everything you’d been doing.
Blast From the Past
I wanted to take a moment to touch on the ties to Zestiria here. It’s easy when making games with related stories to make one too contingent upon the other… yet Berseria avoids that trap with ease. There is definitely benefit to being familiar with the future’s tale, as there are numerous subtle references that set the stage for events in Zestiria… but none of them feel heavy-handed or overdone. There were a few of these references that even took me a while to get, such as the identity of Eizen’s sister.
It was also really interesting seeing some of the key titles and figures from Zestiria in a different light. You get to see both the first Shepherd and the first Lord of Calamity, and – to avoid spoilers – let me tell you they’re not filling the roles you might expect. And they’re not the only ones… several other concepts, roles, titles, or positions have their first origins in Berseria, but you might need to look a bit harder to see them! Finally, the one returning character’s future personality makes a whole lot more sense when you look at his past.
Fight Like a Demon
Berseria’s action combat system is a slight modification on Zestiria’s setup, fixing most of the previous game’s problems and creating a similar feeling system that is actually a lot of fun to use. You accumulate combat points, called souls, that determine how many actions you can make in a row before stopping. The big key is that they focused it on making each character impactful. Each character has a special ability that has secondary effects which differ in interesting ways. For example, Velvet devours enemies, assuming some aspect of their power and draining her life over time until she performs a super attack based off of the type of enemy she devoured. What balances out these special abilities is that you actually sacrifice one of those souls to use it, so you can’t perform as many combo attacks that fight unless you accumulate another soul.
Whether it’s Velvet’s brutal melee, Magilou’s arcane esoterica, or Eleanor’s synergistic battle mage style, Berseria revels in the action and chaos of combat. The game let you play whoever you wanted without really penalizing you. I felt as though Magilou and Velvet were clear winners in terms of power, but no character I tried felt weak to control. Unfortunately, as the game went on and the characters increased in power, I eventually found myself settling into a comfortable ‘routine’ with Velvet that was useful against nearly every fight. Eventually, she got a pair of attacks that were so generally useful that it was hard to justify using anything else.
Aside from that though, the combat styles were really well defined. Velvet truly felt like a hate-filled berserker hell-bent on revenge, with a combination of heavy duty melee strikes and special attacks, leaving no time or thought to defense. Magilou played exactly as the mysterious and powerful witch her personality demanded, offering strange attacks, potent magic, and a distinct mastery of the battlefield through her special attacks. Laphicet, our demure and eager Malak friend, offered healing and protection, while exploiting potent magics without closing in on foes. The list goes on, but each character had their own distinct strengths and weaknesses, and it meant that whoever you liked you were allowed to pilot them to success.
The one thing I will say is that the game didn’t seem to have a good option for increasing difficulty. When the developers wanted to make a fight hard, they did one of two things: they either added invincible enemies that would die when you killed the main enemy, or they bumped up the ‘daze’ rate an enormous amount. Daze was probably the one genuine pain point of Berseria’s combat, as it was like a status ailment except it had too many negative effects and could not be dealt with in any normal way. You couldn’t heal it with spells, couldn’t really reduce its frequency or duration much, and it even reduced your soul count. High daze rates basically meant if you ever got hit by anything, you died.
Use Every Part…
The game has a ridiculously robust equipment system. In some ways, it’s too involved. You are expected to manage dozens of different types of crafting ingredients which are used to upgrade your weapons, but are acquired from breaking down your weapons. You see, you’ll be literally flooded with items… so many items that you’ll frequently be sitting on a bag full of over a hundred superfluous pieces of gear. But this gear can be upgraded and broken down to acquire materials to upgrade your other weapons. It’s a bit excessive, in a lot of ways, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the process of breaking down a ton of items and then upgrading stuff. It was interesting, even if I would’ve certainly welcomed it being a bit more narrow in scope.
Additionally, using a piece of equipment for a while allows you to master it, which permanently grants you its unique passive effect. This is a great addition to a standard level-based progression system, as it gives you more unique benefits and allows you to tailor your progression to a degree. Overall, if you play enough you’ll master everything, but the game gives you enough equipment that it will take a lot of playing to hit that point.
As with most JRPGs not made by SquareEnix, graphics are not the #1 priority for Bamco when making Tales games. That is not to say the games are not pretty, but they rely on a distinct art style and colourful palette to achieve beauty rather than the type of graphic quality seen in games like Horizon, Uncharted, and the like. As a result, Tales of Berseria does look a bit dated. There are some animations that are a bit stiff and models that aren’t quite flawless. Fortunately, the art style and use of colours make up for these flaws.
Something to be aware of is that the game is a bit more linear than previous entries. I mean, the Tales games are a linear series, but the zones are usually fairly open and often featured a fair number of reasons to backtrack and explore. Berseria doesn’t really have those: there are a few side quests around, and the game occasionally gives you motivation to look around, but it’s usually prettymuch eyes forward. For my perspective, this is a positive. I find that games too often give you too much of a reason to ignore the story, which can lead to the story feeling unimportant or too casual. However, a lot of people like open world concepts and games lately, so Berseria’s forward focus may turn some away.
Berseria is everything I hoped it would be. They’ve crafted a compelling dark tale full of surprises, interesting game mechanics, and clever characters. While there are still a few flaws, it far surpasses it’s immediate predecessor and brings things back into line with the quality that Xillia and Xillia 2 led me to expect from the franchise.