Tales of Berseria - Review  

It's Wowie-Zowie Cool Beans
by Colin Milliken

60-80 Hours
+ Strong writing, good voice acting
+ Fun characters
+ Enjoyable battle system
- Dull dungeons
- Somewhat rushed localization
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   Bandai Namco's Tales of series is among the most venerable RPG series still being produced, but as one would expect from something with more than twenty entries, the quality from title to title can vary wildly. Aside from some sort of action RPG combat and silly skits by the characters, it can be difficult to know what to expect when going into a new one. This uncertainty hit especially badly with the previous entry, Tales of Zestiria, which was marred by a confounding crafting system, a sometimes-infuriating battle system, and seemingly having the last third of its story abruptly cut off. It's no surprise then that the Tales team would seek to redeem themselves, and in many ways Tales of Berseria seems to have been made as a direct response to the criticisms of its predecessor. Despite its relatively short development time, it succeeds, and is not only one of the best Tales games in recent memory, but also simply a great JPRG.

   The most obvious way that Berseria follows up on Zestiria is that it takes place in the same world, a thousand years in the past. While references to the other game come often and never let up, the plot doesn't rely on the player knowing anything about Zestiria, and the kingdoms and geography of the world itself are nearly unrecognizable, so the experience will be fresh for both veterans and newcomers alike. That said, some parts of the premise might sound familiar: ten years before the story starts, the ocean-spanning empire of Midgand was decimated by the daemonblight, a mysterious affliction that turned ordinary people and animals into vicious monsters like werewolves or lizardmen. The daemons were impervious to mundane weapons, and half the empire's population was lost within only a few years, so the people had already resigned themselves to the world ending. It's in this age of despair that a single man wielding the only power capable of fighting daemons emerges from an obscure rural village, and takes up the sacred title of Shepherd on his quest to save the world.

   In a twist though, that man is not the hero of the story. Instead it follows Velvet, a human-turned-daemon whose only goal in life is to seek revenge on the Shepherd Artorius, who killed her family during an outbreak of daemonblight in her village three years ago. In the process, she's perfectly willing to burn down what's left of the world, now united under the Abbey led by Artorius. Joining her on her nihilistic quest are a rogue's gallery of pirates, murderers, and witches who all have their own bones to pick with the Abbey. That said, this isn't just an edgy antihero power-hour, so the Abbey has its own share of sinister authoritarianism. Ultimately the story is a bit more traditional than it appears at first glance, but as with all the best stories the execution is what counts most, and the execution is exceptional. Themes develop, characters grow, and the fact that the premise is essentially the opposite of Zestiria offers a new perspective on both games. Amazingly, it even has a complete third act.

   While that description may make this game sound like a grim, unpleasant affair, Berseria somehow manages to also have one of the most enjoyable casts of any Tales game. Velvet herself may raise some red flags in the early game, but her revenge-focused tunnel-vision is balanced out by an hour-long prologue making her actions understandable if not always sympathetic, and she has an understated sense of humor that bounces off her companions well. Not to mention the game regularly making fun of her ridiculous outfit. Joining her early on are Rokurou, a laid-back war daemon who just wants to kill people but can also laugh at his own ridiculousness, and Magilou, an obnoxious/hilarious witch with her own secrets, whose overblown theatrics will amuse the player just as much as they annoy Velvet. The humor in the skits feels natural this time; less like people putting on a show for the audience and more like the natural banter of a bunch of well-written characters thrown together by overlapping goals. Even the obligatory child character, who clearly enters the story to help humanize Velvet, undergoes some impressive development, becoming a respectable character in his own right. And if all else fails, players can still entertain themselves by making everyone wear silly costumes during dramatic cutscenes.

Sure, whatever you say, Magilou. Sure, whatever you say, Magilou.

   Combat has been significantly revamped. All four face buttons are now some form of attack and correspond to different chains of moves set up by the player in a 4x4 grid. Pressing the same button four times in a row will make the character do the four corresponding skills in sequence, and pressing any other button will cross over into that other chain at any time. Enemies tend to have multiple weaknesses, and the game rewards hitting all of them in the same combo, so switching quickly between a variety of moves is encouraged. That said, there's nothing stopping a player from opening the skill menu mid-battle and creating a chain custom-made to be effective against one particular enemy, so in that sense it can sometimes boil down to mashing the same button repeatedly until it's necessary to dodge or block. Only four of the six party members can be in combat at once, but the back-row members can be switched in at any time, even in the middle of a combo to extend it, or while stunned to avoid a fatal blow.

   Mixing things up are Break Soul skills. Souls are essentially a meter that limits the maximum combo size, with the default Soul count being three. Normally they refill after a moment of idleness, just long enough to interrupt a hit chain, but by using the Break Soul command the player can sacrifice a Soul for the rest of the battle to immediately refill all their Souls, heal the character using it, and trigger a special ability unique to that character. While it can be crippling to be stuck at low Souls after a badly timed Break Soul, they can also be regained in battle by doing generally useful things like inflicting status ailments, killing enemies, or dodging enemy attacks with perfect timing. The character-specific effects of a Break Soul can also be very powerful, such as Velvet putting herself into a temporary super-mode or Magilou interrupting all enemy casters at once, so the player is encouraged to use these abilities very aggressively, and finding the right rhythm to keep a combo going nearly forever can be incredibly satisfying.

   It's worth noting though that healing spells in this game are quite weak, and are made even weaker at higher difficulties (which can be changed at any time). This causes the game to lean towards action game logic, where a character's survival is mainly a matter of how well they can dodge, block, and stun their enemies, rather than the RPG tradition of continuously taking big hits and then healing up. Luckily for all involved, the party member AI has been greatly improved since Zestiria, and characters will regularly block and dodge on their own, perhaps even better than some players. Not to say that they're invincible, but the situations where the player is the only one left alive while the rest of the team repeatedly throw themselves into the fire are much, much less common.

Hit them many times, preferably very fast. Hit them many times, preferably very fast.

   Sadly, the dungeons have not received the same level of attention, as they are often a bit too long and filled with annoying obstacles that aren't even worthy of being called puzzles. At least monsters can usually be avoided entirely by an impatient player who doesn't mind being a bit underleveled. There's no traditional world map, and due to the nature of the empire a lot of travel is done via boat, by picking destinations off a list. To prevent the world from feeling disjointed though, the animations for traveling give the player a strong sense of where everything is located. However, the freedom to explore is often limited by arbitrary plot locks, such as a port being unavailable for no clear reason, and while the game's map does conveniently display where sidequests are available, the player has to zoom in on each individual town to see them.

   In terms of equipment, the randomized drops of Zestiria return, but in a much more palatable fashion. In addition to the randomly generated passive skills they have, each type of equipment has a primary skill that's always present and can be learned permanently if the character equips it long enough. Crafting is done by breaking down unnecessary equipment for materials that can be used to upgrade another item of the same level. For example, one might break down Iron Boots for the scraps necessary to make an Iron Sword +1. Compared to Zestiria's nonsense, it's a clear and straightforward way of upgrading equipment.

   Musically, there are some standout tracks, but a lot of the town, dungeon, and battle music is fairly forgettable. Visually, the game's anime-style 3D graphics are both expressive and aesthetically pleasing, but 3D cutscenes are used relatively rarely compared to skits using 2D portraits. They're simple, but well executed and are a highlight of the game. Naturally, this is largely due to strength the voice acting, which is for the most part excellent in both English and Japanese, either of which can be chosen whenever the game starts up. The caveat being that some of the side characters in English are exceptionally bad, and the localization itself seems to have been rushed as there are some minor translation errors throughout the game, in addition to some typos and such in the subtitles that likely would have been caught in another editing pass.

   Overall, Berseria has its flaws, but those feel like nitpicks compared to the solid core gameplay and story, and it marks a strong return to form for an older series that doesn't quite command the same respect it used to. The writing and characters are better than they've ever been, and the skill-based combat is no slouch either. On the other hand, dungeon-crawling can get a little tedious, the crafting system is acceptable at best, and a rushed localization certainly doesn't help either. But despite all that, any fan of the series deserves to check this out, and probably even people who aren't fans yet.

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