Tales of Berseria is the 16th flagship game in the Tales Of franchise and the grand cap on Bandai Namco’s 20 year anniversary festivities. However Tales of Berseria, along with its counterpart Tales of Zestiria, ends up being a festival of mediocrity, ending this celebration with a whimper rather than a bang.
Tales was never quite on the cutting edge of JRPGs, and due to awkward licensing deals and odd console choices, Tales was never quite allowed to achieve the super stardom in the west as titles such as Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts. That’s not to say it never found acclaim out here on Western shores, and wasn’t exactly the obscure ‘I liked it when it was underground’ hipster dream. Symphonia and Vesperia particularly enjoyed nice reach due to console exclusivity in a time the NA and EU regions were starved for JRPGs. Though despite following in the shadow of its competitors, two things Tales was always ahead of the curve on included characters and combat. Phantasia presented a combat experience ahead of its time. Symphonia, for the period it was released, was a technological wonder. With Abyss I went on a true heroes journey with spoiled aristocrat turned freedom fighters and savior, Vesperia I enjoyed fluid combat reimagined on a 3D plane where other Japanese RPG titles could barely play nice with new technology.
So it’s really incredibly disappointing that Tales of Berseria lacks a great deal in the departments of character and combat, while all its other features remain frozen in the eras of the PS2 and Xbox 360, and that’s if I’m being generous. Berseria, styled after ‘Berserker’, the seemingly invincible legendary blood drunk warriors, follows the journey of Velvet Crowe. Once a sweet and adoring big sister, a professional hunter and a keen homemaker, saying the poor girl fell upon some hard times is an understatement. Some dark shit capable of making Xenogears blush goes down, and after a short time skip packed with Motivations ™ we return to Velvet a few years older with a lust for revenge. Her goal? To kill a holy man and crusader most everyone on the planet views as a messianic guide. We’ve been here with JRPGs before. The church is evil, prayer is bad, let’s go kill God.
From there your next 60, 70, 80 hours or so you’re stuck with this grim, Marshall’s bargain bin pantyhose wearing Velvet who is made up of all sighs and monotone apathy. My largest problem with Velvet is the fact she simply doesn’t change, post time skip she’s already mature and world weary despite essentially being stuck in a singular Velvet Rage Room for her prime years. Change is perhaps the most Tales has to offer up, whether it’s a young heroine who has to learn the difference between selflessness and self sacrifice, a lazy farmboy destined to be the chosen one, or an overly possessive marine who has to learn to open himself up, Tales once offered a remarkable heroes journey that got you truly invested. ‘Revenge’ is already a pretty bottom of the barrel motivation, best reserved for Charles Bronson and Liam Neeson in a two hour romp of blood and viscera. It’s less compelling when that’s your only goal for a days long experience.
Now there are others in Velvet’s morbid menagerie, old magical granny Griot in a young sexy body out to freak your mind Magilou, the edgy pirate archaeologist Eizen who carries a passing relation to a Zestiria character, the poorly defined demon samurai who really likes cutting things Rokuro, prejudiced faith carrying inquisitor Eleanor and innocent boy with a heart of gold and the power of gods Laphicet. I’ll even say those final two at least had something in the way of character development, some long roads to travel, to the point I frankly wondered why the game wasn’t about them. Some of the 11th hour truth bombs come from Velvet herself, evils of the abbey we the players already knew as we saw it all through Velvet’s eyes, these sudden ‘plot twists’ if they can be called as much would have had lasting impact if you played from the perspective of religious faithfuls Eleanor and Laphicet, but as it was Berseria was simply an exercise in exposition and ‘shit we already know.’
There are way too many skits, there’s way too much dialogue, that might seem a silly complaint for a JRPG, but keep in mind again how much padding this game has. That’s not to say nothing interesting that happens, on the contrary. The story some times does something that is vastly interesting in displaying Velvet’s upwards fall, such as starting a prison riot to make a bold escape, for example. Every now and then you might get a scene such as the one where Rokuro and Eizen, two brothers in arms, split one bottle of whiskey and one bottle of sake between them as they discuss common goals. Moments like these would serve as an espresso shot to the humdrum story. Sadly the narrative easily confused edge for maturity, whining for insight, tackiness for comedy and saccharine for tenderness. It made for a lot of melodrama and cool for the sake of cool rather than being slick in service of the plot. Skits which used to be fun, world enriching, and at times tragic, now hammer you in ten minute intervals with boring exposition, going as far to contradict something a skit an hour earlier said. Tales, which used to map out an endearing fantasy RPG adventure, now feels like a collection of loosely hanging anime cliches.
Random encounters and combat are more refined and fluid than they’ve ever been, building on the battle systems the Tales team has explored with the most recent flagship entries including Graces F, Xillia and Zestiria. While combat may be more intuitive, faster paced and customizable, it’s irrelevant when the game slowly teases out skills and makes you wait before you can even start dreaming of putting your flashy abilities to the test. Gameplay wise it’s a pretty standard Tales affair, four brawlers, two mages, with so much crossover in utility who you use comes down to which Weird Trick you want to execute in battle that day. Using a new ability called Break Souls a simple hammer of the shoulder button could get a character to do something cool. Whether it was Rokuro’s parry, Eleanor’s air juggle, Magilou’s magic absorption or Velvet’s ‘go hog wild on they asses.’ While it seems Break Souls and the ability to tag in party members mid-combat as you would a traditional brawler might add a lot to the combat variety and tactics, the game is an overly simple affair. It seems to be hinged on ease, the hardest modes aren’t all that hard aside from the occasional frustrating one shot that’s simply cured with a life bottle (or in the case of all bosses, a simple ‘continue’ screen), and any combat complexity present in prior games is relegated to simple flicks of a trigger or a bit of button mashing.
In fact this whole late bloomer nonsense seemed to be the MO of the entire game. I had no idea why the rather large cast of characters remotely liked each other or were motivated to remain together until 2/3rds into the game, there was no real sense of mission or purpose until just as late, basic knowledge required to understand the plot was held up the sleeve as a card trick to ‘surprise’ late in the game. There was a lot of wheel spinning in the story, a season of Game of Thrones or Walking Dead has nothing on the padding Berseria packed in, with so much backtracking and busy work I felt as though Bandai Namco should be paying me. If this all seems a bit hyperbolic just be mindful of this, there is one single dungeon in the game that you’re required to complete three different times at three different intervals, with no kind of variety in how you’re meant to approach said dungeon.
I didn’t hate every moment of Berseria, I just wish it weren’t so darn boring and idiot-proof. Linearity is the name of the game. Even when the world map opened up, you could only push one, maybe two sidequests at a time, the game would never let you go where it didn’t want you to go, even if you had already completed an area and wanted to return to explore some more or fulfill your completionist desires. You secure a pirate ship and the wide open seas are made available, but enjoy only sailing to one or two ports on your drop down list while all the others are greyed out. This killed any sense of exploration, any sense of wonder. Indeed once the game opened up in its twilight hours, allowed for far more exploration, challenging bosses with an old school Tales feel, and offered up entertaining character quests that really delved into the history of the party (this last thing should have been part of the core game frankly) it made for a far superior romp to much of the otherwise restrictive, melodramatic game.
Pair this up with the lackluster environments of the game, with wide empty fields, dungeons with monotone color palettes, forests that are essentially just long corridors with the occasional 90 degree turn, entirely switch based puzzles where the ‘difficulty’ is how much said switch blends in with the environment, and guide posts showing you which doors you can and can’t enter, and you have one of the most bland Role Playing Game journeys in existence.
The only other place there was even some remote detail in the gameplay, aside from late game combat, was the synthesis system. Now if people played Nioh and had a difficulty time with its itemization, I will say Berseria is a waking nightmare. I began avoiding battles not because they were difficult, quite the opposite, but because I was tired of all the trash that would stuff my bags and require an inordinate amount of management. Dismantling, selling, enhancing. Characters were able to learn skills from gear, maybe justifying getting so much of it, but I can’t say there was any rhyme, reason or strategy to this either, fight enough battles and everyone can learn every skill no problem. The gear system was ultimately a giant timesink. The fashion system was a bit more fun, but lived entirely to support waifus and husbandos, and in fact some of the best fashion couldn’t be found in game but rather in 7, 8, 9, 12 dollar DLC packs. I was vastly disappointed with how bland the in-game collectable outfits were, such as Tales usually legendary swimwear, but that’s because the good swimsuits, the ones Bandai Namco wanted you to buy, were locked behind pricey DLC.
The good parts of Tales of Berseria happen way too late, which is a major faux pas even for, or perhaps especially for an RPG. One should be able to get lost in its characters, world, myriad play systems and narrative right away, not have to slog it through to get to the juicy bits just because you have more allotted time. By the time Berseria chose to pick up I was sick of playing it, and a lot more focus would have gone a long way to making this game tolerable, just tolerable, because everything else about Berseria plays and looks like a relic. A franchise that hasn’t bothered to evolve for going on two generations of consoles. In a year where Nioh and NieR: Automata have been released, where Pokemon and Fire Emblem are still warming shelves, and Persona 5 is basically around the corner, Berseria can well wait until it’s collecting dust in the bottom of a bargain bin.