I have an awkward history with Bandai Namco’s Tales series, worth mentioning going into Tales of Berseria. I am aware of their popularity, how their legacy of fantasy narratives don’t default to cliched Chosen One vs. Ancient Evil set-ups. The experimental nature of their combat attempting to mash together dense RPG number crunching with fast-paced and satisfying action punch. I have heard so much from trusted friends about their uniqueness and underappreciated storytelling quality… only to have my entry to the series be the utterly milquetoast and forgettable Tales of Zestiria. The black sheep of the series that played things abysmally safe while somehow breaking every single rule imaginable for concise exposition and world-building. Needless to say the newest entry left me beyond skeptical in the build-up to launch. Especially since the game is billed as a prequel to Zestiria.
So I was naturally surprised when the game’s plot and characters sunk their hooks into me. I was presented with an impressive adventure that strays away from JRPG conventions to deliver a narrative that manages to balance an optimistic aesthetic with a dark tale of revenge.
The main adventure begins with protagonist Velvet Crowe dealing with mundane chores around a quaint village. Hunting and gathering food, looking after her sickly younger brother Laphicet, and gossiping with friends about local events.
But since plot needs to happen, the village is attacked by an outbreak of demons brought on by the celestial event that occurs every seven years known as the Scarlet Night. When Velvet seeks the aid of her brother-in-law, the calm and calculating demon exorcist Artorius, she discovers that he has just sacrificed Laphicet in a ritual to obtain the necessary power to wipe out demonkind. Then to cover up this nasty detail, Artorius fatally wounds Velvet by cutting off her arm, and throws her into the sacrificial pit along with her cherished brother. But since revenge is the sort of stuff that attracts dark powers, Velvet is restored to life as a demon-like entity complete with a brand new monstrous arm. Then Artorius knocks her out with his newfound abilities and leaves her to rot in a prison on a remote island, since he can’t find a way to permanently kill her.
From this prologue, the game skips ahead three years. After feeding on her cell mates to stay alive and planning her revenge, Velvet finally gets an opportunity to escape and proceeds to do so, leaving a path of destruction in her wake. But the world of Midgand has changed dramatically in her absence, with Artorius ushering in an oppressive empire with a holy order of warriors trained to fight off the demon scourge… and anyone who goes against the order’s laws. Laws that prize cold and unfeeling rationality above personal attachments of any kind. Needless to say Velvet is going to need the aid of other criminals and scoundrels if she is going to succeed in her vengeance quest.
I love this set up. Playing as a villain isn’t exactly a new development, the Grand Theft Auto games built an entire franchise around such detached wish fulfillment and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain showed that the role of a villain can be more nuanced than a Saturday morning cartoon. But Tales of Berseria paces itself so well as a traditional linear JRPG and is so confident in portraying its protagonists as murderers and backstabbers against a pious theocracy that it brings a level of harsh sincerity to their actions. Within the first three hours of the game’s adventure, Velvet incites a prison riot, sets fire to an entire port city, leaves a party member behind because they were contributing absolutely nothing to the group, and performs a political assassination. Most of these acts of cruelty weren’t by accident either, these were calculated and enacted by the demon-arm warrior. Whenever a cutscene began to play, it lead to me feeling equal parts excited for what new wrinkle in the story would be introduced, engaged by Velvet actively contributing to the proceedings rather than turning into a static audience surrogate exposition machine, and worried about what her actions might cause; what new challenge will arise from her decisions.
Not only is this a great command of cutscene fundamentals that doesn’t bore the player by hiding or excluding them from the action, it adds chilling credence to the saying, “heroes are reactive, villains are proactive.” This even continues when the plot introduces several twists and turns such as Artorius’ endgame and the source of the demon outbreak. No hackneyed contrivances that assume player stupidity, just solid unraveling revelations.
On the bright side, the whole presentation doesn’t descend completely into self-indulgent adolescent ideas of edginess thanks to an entertaining bunch of characters. While Velvet herself can be a little one note as a cold and vicious schemer losing her humanity, her outfit pushing into dangerous edgelord territory, her allies help ground things with levity and humanity. Sure the corrupt swordsman owes a life debt to Velvet, but he also enjoys food and gets along well with children, who would have guessed? There’s also a manipulative witch who is a high-energy drama queen, and a small innocent child spellcaster that eerily reminds Velvet of her deceased brother, all of which organically bounce off each other. Both in story-oriented cutscenes and in the optional side conversations that are used for worldbuilding dialogue and comic relief. Sometimes so well you forget you’re playing a game about a group of chaotic criminals trying to kill The Fascist Logic-Pope.
In gameplay terms, Tales of Berseria is reliable. The Linear Movement Battle System is still being used here, the series’ workhorse for making combat both addictive and challenging, and it works like a charm. Battles occur in real time and feels closer to an action game. You have multiple attack types mapped to certain buttons that you can chain together into combos and juggles. Once your stamina bar runs out, here called the Soul Gauge, your attacks will no longer be effective and you will be defenseless until the bar refills. This gauge can be extended a number of ways such as equipping the right gear or hitting the enemy enough times with an attack type they’re weak against. But it can also be shortened by the enemy doing the same to you. There are also special attacks and alternate forms that can help you extend a combo way past your Soul Gauge’s capacity with a little practice. Adding to this ballet of battle is your entire party will be fighting the enemy along with you, throwing spells, using healing items, and punching and slashing alongside you. Allies you can switch between at any time or simply program with fixed commands in the options menu.
It’s amazing how even when these fights turn into visual chaos, the game does an adequate job explaining how everything works. The introduction is admittedly awful, using giant alienating blocks of text to explain gameplay is the kind of tutorial that should have been phased out in its entirety years ago, and Tales of Berseria makes a bad first impression. That stumble doesn’t last long as the combat tutorial slowly uses practice scenarios and much more concise text to teach the finer details of the combat system, which went a long way to bringing a pseudo-newbie like me up to speed. Ten hours later, all of the game’s combat elements were in full swing and I was able to negotiate the battlefield like it was second nature. Chaining combo attacks and destroying large monsters like a pro also had another grand side effect: it made me want to keep fighting monsters even if they were low level. Not because I wanted to level grind but because the combat just felt that satisfying.
But while Tales of Berseria’s combat remains the series showcase, the rest of the gameplay is woefully stale. Dungeons are bland tedious affairs full of backtracking and simplistic puzzles. This running around continues in the game’s overworld and main objectives, with fast travel limited to special use items. There are also instances of some pretty blatant filler and padding. There was an actual point in the game where in order to get help from a certain character I had to do three tasks for her, but instead of getting all three at once so I could handle them efficiently she would only hand them out one at a time. I had to go back and forth for absolutely no good reason and it seriously dragged the pacing to a crawl. This doesn’t completely ruin the game’s flow but annoyances can add up.
There is also a novel idea in the inventory management known as Item Mastery. For every weapon and piece of armor a party member wears they slowly “level up” the item by fighting monsters. Once the item is fully mastered, that character gets a permanent boost to their stats. In theory, it’s a great way to encourage trying out different weapons and builds for your party, but in practice it can lead to a headache. Mastery applies not only to each individual item in your inventory, but that entire item variant. Mastering this particular Amber Blade for example means you have mastered all Amber Blades period. For the sake of balance it makes sense, but it still doesn’t excuse rummaging around in my inventory trying to find one piece of armor or weaponry that isn’t a particular kind to squeeze out a bit more power out of my group.
The only real issue I do have with the story is that its second half does lose some of the novelty of its initial pitch. Velvet is still determined to succeed in her mission, but more fantastic elements brought in around the twenty hour mark slowly change the narrative from that of dark revenge procedural in a fantasy world into a group of misfits struggling against a more cosmic existential threat. The characters still remain who they are at their core, there is no moment of self-reflection that makes them waver or repent into being Good Guys, and the enemies they face remain consistent with the game’s themes of emotion and want versus reason and pragmatism. But a lot of it also translates to the game playing for time by throwing out more challenges and obstacles. Even though I have grown to like these characters in all their flawed and dark ways and found the combat so thrilling, there’s only so much boring dungeon crawling and key hunting I can stomach.
Finally on a technical level Tales of Berseria looks and feels inconsistent. Texture quality and character models are serviceable enough when it comes to major events and main areas, maintaining a bright, colorful and expressive aesthetic. The animated cutscenes also look consistently exciting, brimming with high production values. The whole thing is well optimized at a crisp framerate with loading screens being short and unintrusive. But dungeons are awful, looking and feeling like something from a late PS2 game with bland interchangeable rooms full of forgettable, washed out colors and lacking any defining features. Couple that with the game’s tendency to make you key-hunt and scramble around and it leads to an experience that paradoxically focuses on its visual shortcomings rather than hide them.
As an addendum it must also be said that the English voice-acting is hit and miss. The main cast are solid, Cristine Vee has some solid range as Velvet and Benjamin Diskin is endearing as the samurai Rokorou, but when it comes NPCs and minor characters it sounds less like professional voice-actor extras and more like high school sophomores trying too hard.
In conclusion, Tales of Berseria is another installment in Bandai Namco’s series that manages to be a refined adventure worth taking with reliable, albeit antiquated, gameplay. While it doesn’t break any new ground in the genre or in gaming as a whole, I can still fully appreciate the polish and care that has gone into this game’s characters, writing, and combat. If you’re a fan of the series and are willing to take a trek down a darker path, this latest tale will be worth telling. If you’re like me and haven’t given the series a fair shake just yet, this is the installment to get you on board.