Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Tales of Berseria

PlayStation 4, PC

Tales of Berseria
Velvet Crowe lives contentedly in a gentle village with her precocious little brother and her wise, magically experienced brother-in-law. Yet there's a plague spreading across the land, transforming humans into bestial monsters called daemons. When her village is torn asunder, Velvet spends years confined and consumed by a dark power that leaves her feeding on daemons. Longing for revenge, she breaks out of prison and gathers up men and women who have their own reasons to stand against the powers that be.
Tales games are struggles, and they're not just between a world-saving cadre of misfits and some ruthless villain or eldritch power. They're clashes of quality. On one side, you'll find entertaining characters and hectic, enjoyable battle systems. On the other, you'll find routine RPG design and stories that manage the unenviable feat of being both largely cliché and thoroughly confusing. It's been the Tales standard for a long while.

The series needs a new edge, especially after the by-the-numbers Tales of Zestiria. That's why Bandai Namco made Tales of Berseria a few tones darker than its predecessors.

Like many RPGs, Tales of Berseria grants its main character about an hour of happiness before tragedy unfurls. Velvet Crowe is a cheerful teenager in a village seemingly unscathed by an outbreak of magic that turns humans into monstrous daemons. Nothing is safe for long, however, and Velvet's life is shattered in gruesome spectacle.

Three years later, she's caged in a citadel, and one of her arms is a clawed, shadowy form that devours all the daemons fed to her. Everything she once loved is long-destroyed, and the man responsible for it all now leads a powerful religious order called the Abbey, using spirit-folk known as Malakim for the betterment of all civilization. Velvet doesn't care what's best for the world. She wants to avenge her family at all costs.

Fortunately, Tales games specialize in building surrogate families, so Velvet finds one in the demon-infected samurai Rokurou, the relentlessly melodramatic witch Magilou, the reluctantly in-tow Abbey exorcist Eleanor, and two Malakim creatures: a pirate named Eizen and a near-emotionless Abbey acolyte who Velvet brusquely adopts and names Laphicet.

The typical Tales game is hardly free of bleak moments, but Berseria uses them more frequently and more adeptly than any other piece of the series. Velvet wants revenge no matter who she has to hurt, no matter what her arm has to devour, and no matter how much of civilization she has to throw into chaos. And for someone raised in a remote village and confined for years in a cell, Velvet is remarkably skilled at manipulating situations. With her, Tales of Berseria manages something a lot of sordid fantasy stories can't: she's ruthless and violent and opposed to the greater good, but she's never so terrible that the audience won't sympathize with her—or wonder why her equally messed-up comrades stay by her side.

Tales of Berseria's newfound ferocity seeps into the battle system. It follows the Tales standard of letting the party roam small open areas while attacking enemies with simple button-presses. Yet the combat here proves more intense, relying on a stockpile of Souls that determines how many times a character can attack, defend, or evade. Expend them all, and you'll end up merely chipping away at an enemy's defense. Fortunately, Souls regenerate quickly, and Break Souls unleash nastier attacks with ease. Chains of regular moves and more powerful Artes can be freely mapped to the controller's four action buttons, and it's lots of fun just to customize the sixteen different slots and find a combination that works just right.

Berseria feels closer to a pure action game than most of the prior Tales titles, and the fast-paced mix of combination attacks and dodging almost recalls a multi-character Devil May Cry more than an RPG. It works well with Tales standards. Upon creating different spreads of Artes and special moves for each character, players can switch between them at any time during battle, and it's hard to get bored once all six characters, split between warriors and spell-casters, join up and the difficulty's notched to your liking (the highest setting is perhaps best here). Since its inception the Tales series promised a quick, action-driven contrast to staid, menu-filled RPG battles, and Berseria pushes it to a newly satisfying plateau.

If the combat makes Berseria refreshingly intense, it can't escape mundanity elsewhere. Most of the dungeons are unmemorable in their layouts and seldom challenge the player. Modern Tales games seem hesitant to pile on complex exploration, though that shouldn't be a problem for Berseria or any RPG where enemies are easily visible and easily avoided. Item crafting is also a simple equipment-building affair this time around, and the series staple of cooking new dishes seems uninspired here (it's so strange that Senran Kagura got a culinary spin-off before Tales). At least Berseria has some decent mini-games, costumes that include goofy mascot suits for everyone, and the best transportation shortcut possible: a magical hoverboard.

A lot of Berseria's strengths come from nudging back flaws common in its predecessors. Tales RPGs often feel bloated, but Berseria keeps a good focus despite a longer running time. Tales games typically lose themselves in neologisms that turn entire conversations into mushes of fonic blastia spyrix spiria exspheres, but Berseria rarely loses track of just what's happening or why the player should care. Tales RPGs, particularly recent ones, suffered from conventional soundtracks, but Berseria brings up some striking music at times. Berseria also looks impressive in its backgrounds and characters, though it's always obvious that the game doesn't pack the budget of a Final Fantasy.

Tales storylines are usually secondary to the interactions between characters, to their quibbling and jokes and little skits that arise at the press of a button. Yet Berseria is the rare outing where the plot doesn't shrug or slouch off, and it's driven as much by the showdown between Velvet and her nemesis as it is by the appealing gaggle of personalities that surround her (including some endearing non-player characters). They're all drawn from the usual Tales casting call, but they play off each other. Magilou's theatrics threaten to annoy every moment she's on screen, and somehow that makes her a good counterbalance to Eizen's dreary tone or Laphicet's blatantly obvious role in redeeming Velvet. The dialogue is competent yet typo-prone and occasionally awkward, as though it was meant to be read but not spoken, though the voice cast does fine in both English and Japanese.

Despite its improvements, Berseria still clings to reliable ground. It may be grim and taut next to the majority of Tales entries, but it lacks the realistic jabs and unique concepts of top-caliber RPGs. Don't expect the finely honed cruelties of a Yasumi Matsuno game, the elegiac flair of a Valkyrie Profile, or the psychological spelunking of a Persona. Even with the game's morbid overtone, Velvet's still gathering crystalline spheres for pun-spouting Katz felines and treating with turtle merchants who talk like 1920s Chicago mobsters. And she's doing it while wearing a revealing mass of rags and belts that her comrades can't help but remark upon (though a costume change is available early in the game). It's stylish but pandering, and that goes for a lot of the game.

Even if it doesn't move that far beyond hackneyed RPG territory, Tales of Berseria has plenty of bite to make up for it. It's a compelling rearrangement of clichés elevated by interesting characters and energetic battles, with shortcomings more forgivable than those of its relatives. Going darker isn't the same as going deeper, but it's a move that wrested Tales games out of stagnation, and it just might put Berseria at the top of the entire series.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : B+

+ Characters are intriguing, battles are well-paced and fun
The dungeons are uninspired, the storyline is still trite

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