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Tales of Berseria review

Why is it that birds fly?

There are certain building blocks fans expect to see in most Tales games: a sprawling, epic, adventure, a wide and fantastical world, and a plucky band of heroes raring to beat back evil. Tales games, however, also aren’t afraid to experiment, and Tales of Berseria—the sixteenth game in the long-running series—kicks that traditional hero narrative out on the street in favor of Velvet, an unapologetically villainous daemon-eater out for revenge.

Tales of Berseria takes place in the same world as its predecessor, Tales of Zestiria, and though you don’t have to play one to play the other, the two games are opposite sides of the same coin. The history of the Holy Midgand Empire is one of a world corrupted by malevolence, where certain humans must take on the role of the Shepherd in order to save humanity from corruption. Zestiria, the previous game, takes place late in this Empire’s history and stars a human taking up the nearly-forgotten Shepherd role to beat back the Hellions. Berseria, however, takes place thousands of years earlier, and your party is a group of daemons, witches, misfits, and other rogues taking up arms against the first man to ever call himself a Shepherd.

Leading the group is Velvet Crowe, a young lady-turned-daemon and rare (for Tales) female protagonist. After two cataclysmic magical nights result in the death of most of her family, Velvet finds herself turned into a therion, a type of daemon capable of devouring other daemons. Her loss of humanity gifts her with unending hate, a weaponized claw-hand, and questionable taste in clothes (it’s rare that I change up a character’s default appearance, but Velvet’s busty-vampire-gone-through-a-blender look made me very glad for Berseria‘s Fashion options). Now no longer human, Velvet has no pretense of being a hero—she and her party of misfits shamelessly steal, burn, and slaughter their way through Midgand as Velvet seeks revenge for the death of her family.

Though the stories are flipped, Berseria and Zestiria have a lot in common. Visually, the two games are strikingly similar—random fields, paths, and dungeons might as well have been transplanted from one game into the other. Berseria also borrows Zestiria‘s encounter system, at the time an innovation for the series. Monsters wander freely across the overworld, and while encounters still take place in a separate combat segment of the game, the battleground takes place exactly where that monster was encountered on the map. Running into any one monster will enter a fight with a group of them, though it’s easy enough to avoid encounters if you just want to walk through the area, or to run away from the circular combat area.

Combat itself is something of a mixed bag. Berseria‘s take on the Linear Motion Battle System is dubbed Liberation-LMBS, and it’s simultaneously extremely complex and extremely “mash-X-to-win”. Liberation-LMBS incorporates the Tales-standard rock-paper-scissors system of Artes, the abilities that map onto your controller’s face buttons, but also introduces a Soul Gauge mechanic. These Souls are won as you stun, defeat, or pull off special moves against enemies (and lost as enemies do the same to you). The more Souls you have, the longer you can keep a combo going, which leads to something of a self-fulfilling loop. If stuck with only one Soul, the minimum, it can take a while to land a good enough combo going to earn more, but with a full gauge, it’s easy to wreck your way through all your foes and more than max out your bar.

All characters also have unique Break Soul abilities, allowing them to spend part of their Soul Gauges to extend combos and add unique effects. Velvet’s Break Soul, for example, draws out her therion claw-arm to rake through her opponents for massive extra damage. It’s possible to switch party members in and out of battle to deal extra attacks and keep a combo going. Fighting with any of the party members at any time, and meeting certain criteria—like pulling off two of a move in one fight while keeping your Soul Gauge high—will allow your characters to pull off even greater special attacks and combos.

The end result of all of this is a game that’s part Soul management and part mashing the heck out of your controller, since keeping your combos going means you’ll keep pressing buttons. At any point, you can change out your Artes, so most of the game’s strategy involves looking at what your opponent is weak to, setting up an Arte combo with those weaknesses from the menu, and going to town. This lets you build up a gameplay loop of combos to earn Souls to Break Souls to keep the combos going to earn Souls to Break Souls, etc.

Finding your personal balance of strategy to button mashing might involve messing with Berseria‘s difficulty settings a bit—at higher levels, you’ll have to put a lot of work into learning the system (which has so many potential status effects and conditional moves that the game still throws tutorials at you twenty hours in), but you’ll be able to pull off some pretty amazing chains. If you just want to wreck enemies and not bother with all the strategy, though, it’s possible to mash through most fights even at the normal difficulty level. It’s not a terrible system, and it’s not an amazing system, but it works.

Outside of combat, there’s not a whole lot to Berseria‘s gameplay. You’ll do a lot of walking through monster-riddled fields and a lot of walking through monster-riddled dungeons (which is mostly like walking through the fields, but with the occasional switch to flip or easy “puzzle”). When not actively telling the story through combat, a mission, or a cutscene, Berseria doesn’t quite know what to do, leaving players to stroll through some extremely bland dungeons (hello, geometric sewer level) just to get to the point where the story can continue. There are a few things around to collect, like ingredients and items that can be sold off at the store and shiny orbs that can be traded in to Katz chests for a chance at unlocking cosmetic items, but both dungeon and overworld design consists of mainly walking to a place while picking shinies off the ground, without much else interesting to do or see.

When not walking or fighting, you’ll do a lot of talking—and dear Empyreans, is there a lot of talking. If an NPC could tell you all about their town’s totally plot-irrelevant potato farm in three lines, you can be sure that you’ll hear about it for at least thirty. How’s the potato crop? Going good? Oh, but the skins of the potatoes are slightly poisonous? But you’re breeding that out? So people can eat them raw now? And you have a local recipe? But you don’t want to breed out the poison entirely? (Is this relevant?) The poison has value as a natural pesticide? (Can I stop talking to this NPC yet?) The skins are millimeters thinner this year? (Please?)

For all the heaps and heaps of dialogue, though, the English localization is actually quite well done. There’s plenty of time for the party’s varied personalities to shine and interact with one another, both in cutscenes and in humorous skits that pop up as you travel from place to place. There are entire conversations built around jokes and puns that must have taken serious effort to translate (there’s an entire skit about using a book of sad poetry to press flowers, complete with examples of said sad poetry, and ending with the joke that it’s the best book for flower-pressing because it’s subject material is “heavy”), and the translators deserve praise for going through all that material and actually making it work. The English voice acting is a little more hit-or-miss, but Berseria does allow players to switch between the English and Japanese dubs every time the game starts up.

Ultimately, it’s both the premise and these skits that are the best parts of the game; if you play Tales of Berseria for anything, play for the story and the characters. The revenge-fueled quest and morally ambiguous cast of villains break new ground in a game that draws so heavily from its most recent predecessor, and there are some genuinely interesting twists along the way. While the dungeons are pretty weak and the walking-and-fighting can feel same-y, at least you’re doing everything for a good reason—or, rather, as your ragtag team of misfits and outcasts will proclaim, for an evil reason.

★★★☆☆

Tales of Berseria flips the traditional heroic story on its head, taking up instead with the vengeance-driven journey of daemon-eater Velvet Crowe and the unapologetically villainous crew of misfits she picks up along the way. A fun premise and some great skits make for a good story, though middle-of-the-road combat and fairly boring dungeons and fields bog the gameplay down.

Developer
Bandai
Publisher
Namco
ESRB
T - Teen
Release Date
01.24.17
Tales of Berseria is available on PS4, PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Namco for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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