Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 7th 2009
Legendary warrior Guts is fighting for his life against the apostle Grunbeld, whose monstrous size and bloodthirsty minions would be a match for even the mightiest human. Luckily, Guts is equipped with the Berserker Armor, giving him strength and stamina beyond that of mere mortals. But such animalistic power threatens to destroy his humanity, and it's up to young witch Schierke to probe into Guts' mind and save him. Meanwhile, the royal city of Windham has been laid waste by the Kushan empire, and there is little hope left for Princess Charlotte, the last heir of the royal bloodline and now a captive of Kushan's ruthless emperor. However, a timely invasion by Griffith's all-new, all-powerful Band of the Hawk could be the saving grace for Charlotte. Will they be able to fend off the Kushan empire and their army of mutant beasts?
Goodness, but there's a lot of distressed-damsel-rescuing going on these days in Berserk. Just last volume we saw Casca and Farnese being saved from the clutches of trolls, and now we've got Princess Charlotte locked up in a tower (because where else would you find a captive princess?), waiting for an airlift from the world's most effeminate superhuman warrior. But the stuff in between these rescues is probably what Berserk fans are really after: lots of brutal, bloody fighting with heroes pushed to the brink of life and death. Unfortuately, this installment doesn't pull off quite as much shock and awe as the last one, and the result is a rather pedestrian dose of hack-and-slash combat.
This problem is clearly evident in the first few chapters: Guts already blew our minds with the power of the Berserker Armor in the previous volume, so all that's left is the routine task of finishing off Grunbeld and his crew. Catching the finale of an earth-shattering battle just isn't as impressive when it arrives several months (in real-world time) after the buildup—instead it just looks like a whole lot of hack, slash, hack, and more slash. Schierke's act of psychological sorcery to save Guts' humanity and the parting words of good witch Flora offer a touch of the series' softer, more mystical side, but it's really not enough to make an impression.
What does make an impression, however, is the switch to the Kushan-Midland conflict that takes up over half of this volume. It was probably about time for someone other than Guts to go around busting heads anyway, so this change of scene is a refreshing one. The Kushan empire's exotic attire and beastly armies, combined with the ruined-city setting and the Band of the Hawk's ruthless combat style, add up to a darker storyline than the heroic exploits of Guts and his companions. Indeed, if attempted rape and unethical genetic manipulation sound like one's idea of a good time, this string of chapters is guaranteed to please. Yet, paradoxically enough, it's Griffith's dramatic arrival that provides perhaps the most heroic moment of the entire volume. Don't get too hyped up about this subplot, though—once again the key moments are interspersed with several long stretches of typical, sword-swinging fantasy combat.
Then again, with an artist as talented Kentaro Miura at the helm, this series is probably entitled to as many hack-and-slash battles as it likes (this guy could even take a game of Go or mahjong and depict it as an epic struggle for the fate of the universe). Certainly, the levels of detail and graphic violence provide more than enough pages of eye candy—but at the same time, this artwork becomes its own worst enemy when all the pages start to look like gray masses of obsessive hatching and screentoning. Eventually, one is left to just stare and marvel: "Wow, that Kentaro Miura sure can draw some gruesome monsters and armies! ... And I have no clue what's going on." With all the claws and blades and streams of blood flying past each other, even widely spaced layouts provide little room for the eye to rest. However, this doesn't take away from the fact that the creature and character designs are unparalleled—high fantasy at its finest, along with grandiose backgrounds to match. Even the abstract scenes where Schierke delves into the realm of the magical are an outpouring of intense fantasy detail in their own way.
Because of this sheer virtuosity, it should be no surprise that Miura often lets the artwork speak for itself. The most powerful scenes are usually the ones with no dialogue: Guts delivering the final beatdown on Grunbeld, Griffith's high-flying reunion with Princess Charlotte, as well as shockers like the revelation of Kushan's stomach-churning cross-breeding experiments. It's probably just as well, because when the characters open their mouths, the results are less than impressive: most of the script involves predictable battle taunts and stodgy fantasy chatter. True, it fits the mood of the series, but this style of language has been considered old-fashioned for decades now. Since the script consists entirely of dialogue like this, there are no linguistic or cultural footnotes to be found, but a glossy color fold-out page is a pleasant artistic bonus.
While this volume of Berserk doesn't provide as many jaw-dropping moments as its predecessor, there's still enough battle and sorcery—all right, mostly just battle—to satisfy devoted fans. In addition, the change of scene to the Kushan occupation lets us take a break from Guts and company's ongoing adventures, and the timely re-appearance of Griffith lets this volume go out on a high point. Still, all those battle pages in between are far from the series' best, and it often feels like Miura is just grinding the gears with his usual repertoire of expertly-drawn beasts and blades and bruises. Yes, he's very good at what he does ... but after reading this installment, it's clear that he can do better. Sure, Guts beats his latest opponent and the Kushan empire gets a surprising punch in the gut—but surely the series is capable of more.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ A drastic change of scene keeps things fresh, the combat is as intense as ever, and the artistry continues to impress.
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