Game Review

by Dustin Bailey,

Berserk and the Band of the Hawk

PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC

Berserk and the Band of the Hawk
Koei Tecmo and Omega Force put their signature Musou action to work in a new action game based on Kentaro Miura's seminal dark fantasy series. Adapting the story's first four arcs, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk gives you massive battlefields full of enemies to destroy and a selection of iconic characters to carry out that violent mayhem.
By now, the formula for Omega Force's increasingly prolific line of Musou anime adaptions has proven to be a mostly winning one. Take the basic Dynasty Warriors gameplay, replace Chinese historical figures with an array of fan-favorite characters, insert a few bits of the anime itself to make the story congeal, and boom—an entertaining but mostly unremarkable take on the license. Berserk and the Band of the Hawk fits that profile from top to bottom, rebuilding the grim, ultra-violent tale as an action game that will see you wading through thousands upon thousands of enemies both human and monstrous.

That core action—ripping countless bad guys to shreds—is as simple and satisfying as ever. Light combos on one button, heavy finishers on another, and some guard and dodge options for when you run into boss characters. Killing enemies fills up a meter that unleashes frenzy mode, which powers up your attacks and lets you rip apart enemies even more easily for a time. Each time you use your frenzy meter, it fills up again to a higher, more powerful level, so it's worthwhile to be making constant use of it. Killing in frenzy mode fills up your death blow meter, which can be spent for a single high-damage that will wipe out everything in your vicinity. So you attack enemies until the first meter fills, attack enemies until the second meter fills, use a special attack when you can do maximum damage to minibosses, and then repeat the process infinite times.

That might sound dismissive, but it's not—ask any Warriors fan and they'll tell you all about the zen pleasures of infinite combat in a Musou arena. Where Berserk suffers, however, is in its limited stage and mission design, which (unlike typical Warriors games) rarely challenges you to look at the battlefield and manage the flow of armies. You can capture enemy bases to stop new foot soldiers from spawning, but why would you? Allies don't take over the bases, and stopping the flow of fodder enemies means fewer targets with which to build up your meters. Mission goals essentially just point you to specific points on the map and say “go kill over here for awhile,” but there's rarely strategy to the when and how. It makes sense for Guts' battles to be lone wolf affairs, but with no mechanic to guide the flow of the battle the grind of the action is even more apparent. The best games of this style are able to wrap up the simple action with light strategy elements that turn the simple action into a plate-spinning game of battlefield management, and that's something this title isn't able to do.

You'll get money as well as new items and equipment in missions. Equipment gives you passive stat bonuses, and there's a fairly extensive system for crafting, improving, and combining the random gear you find on the battlefield. But those bonuses don't have an appreciable effect compared to the levels your characters gain through experience, so high-level gear is only going to be a boon in the deepest bits of the endgame, which is likely dozens of hours past most normal players' stopping point.

Completing stages in story mode unlocks them in free mode, where you can replay them in an effort to clear side objectives with any character you like. You're still constrained by the limited mission designs, which makes the thought of revisiting those stages less than appealing. More interesting is the Endless Eclipse mode, which is a run-based thing that series you taking on missions (or “desires”) in five-floor stretches. Your health is only restored after every fifth floor, and once you're dead you have to start over from the beginning. It's Berserk's most interesting game mode, but you can only plumb its deepest depths once you've worked all the way through the story.

The story mode retells the first four arcs of the plot, starting with the Golden Age and ending with the Falcon of the Millennium Empire. The Golden Age missions are based most closely on the relatively recent film trilogy, with extensive clips from the movies used as cutscenes to push the story forward. Nearly the entire Eclipse scene is here, for example, though in a censored form that hides the most graphic bits of sex and violence. The later arcs here bear nothing in common to the 2016 anime which also adapts them, featuring original CG cutscenes to tell the important story moments. Static dialog scenes fill in the blanks, including optional bits of character development that are on a separate selection scene. It's worth noting that the extra dialog, all in subtitled Japanese, is subject to typos and misspellings that become more and more prolific as the story wears on. I get it, things slip through the cracks sometimes—but you'll be hard pressed to find a scene past the Conviction arc that doesn't feature some sort of misplaced word or improper verb tense.

Despite the censored bits of the film's most horrific scenes, the game doesn't attempt to bury the violence and instances of rape that define some of Berserk's most important moments. Their appearance won't be surprising for those familiar with the series, but there's something a little awkward about Berserk grimmest scenes being acted out with barely-animated character models who are scarcely able to approximate the sadness of a lost balloon, much less the sorrow of the survivors of the Great Eclipse. That's less a problem when the story can fall back on the anime to depict those scenes, but for the later arcs where there's no animation to draw on the game's devotion to retelling the story is at odds with its limitations in doing so. I can read or watch far more effective tellings of this tale elsewhere—why am I seeing anything beyond the iconic moments and big action sequences here?

The disappointment of the story mode's structure is compounded by the fact that it's the central component of the game. All standard missions are found here, and while there are a tiny handful you can tackle with other characters, you'll be spending the vast majority of your time striking down enemies as Guts. Casca, Griffith, and even the likes of Zodd are playable, though once story mode was over and I'd spent so long pouring experience points into Guts and memorizing the rhythm of his combos, I was a lot less interested in the rest of cast. The gameplay differences are pretty minor, mostly owing to a few different inventory-based special attacks, though certain characters do get an extra, temporary transformation that makes clearing the field even easier.

Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a Musou game all the way through, which means it's filled with simple and repetitive but ultimately satisfying action. The problem is that its weak mission design makes it a pale shadow of the Warriors games it's built from, and Berserk fans already have two—or in some cases three—more compelling versions of the same story. The novelty of mowing down armies with Guts' massive sword only lasts so long when everything done here is done better elsewhere.

Overall : C+
Graphics : C
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : C

+ Satisfyingly mindless destruction featuring the show's cast
Lacks the depth that drives better Musou games, weak retelling of the Berserk saga

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