Wot I Think: Tales of Berseria

I’m sitting with some friendly seaside townsfolk debating the merits of placing chocolate jelly in every toilet in the Holy Midgand Empire. The Great Choconito Gambit, one of them calls it to much amusement, insisting he was going to get rich from the scheme. We all laughed.

Cut forward half an hour and I’m deep in an ancient temple watching a starving daemon child, half-boy, half-tree, eat his mother alive as my party looks on, helpless. And so it goes in Tales of Berseria [official site]: one minute you’re enjoying the idle chatter of your rag-tag RPG party, the next you’re thrown back into a twisted tale of death, revenge, and dragon gods. This is Tales’ attempt to shed its label as a solid but predictable series – and for the most part, it succeeds.

You play as Velvet, a young woman living with her brother, Laphicet, under the care of Artorius, a daemon-fighting exorcist who saved the pair during the so-called Scarlet Night, an event that turned their old village into daemons. Life is good until the Scarlet Night returns and Artorius, determined to end the daemonblight, kills Laphicet as a sacrifice and thus creates daemon-fighting humanoid spirit beings called Malaks. Velvet sees it all unfold and it’s her desire for revenge that forms the main thrust of the story.

And this really is revenge at all costs: Velvet and the crew she assembles – each of whom has their own, often competing agendas – is willing to stretch the boundaries of what’s normally justifiable to achieve their aims. They’re more anti-heroes than heroes: as I travelled around Midgand, usually by pirate ship, I left a trail of destruction. I blew up a peaceful port town, murdered an old high priest, and generally created havoc for the people of the land. It’s a refreshing change of tone from the series’ usual binary good vs. evil battle, and there’s a sense of moral ambiguity that linear stories like this rarely grasp.

The winding plot itself managed to keep me guessing for most of the 55 hours it took me to complete the game, but it’s nothing spectacular – it’s the characters themselves that drove me forward. There’s six who are playable, once the full crew is all assembled. You only see one at a time on screen when you roam about the map – more come into play in combat, which we’ll get to shortly – but they really shine in cutscenes and the comic book-style cutaways the series has become known for.

These are downright bizarre at times: Eizen, a cursed pirate in my crew and Rokurou, a happy-go-lucky samurai, nearly come to blows about 20 hours in while arguing whether a stag beetle or a rhinoceros beetle would win in a fight. Later, Bienfu, the diminutive Malak attached to playful witch Magilou, is listing his book collection to Laphicet, a young malak that Velvet has taken under her wing and – completely healthily – named after her dead brother. Pride of place is a tome called “After-bath party games: Dropping your defences and your towel”. Velvet provides one of the best moments of the game with a deadpan impression of a pigeon in an attempt to convince a city guard that the group has come to perform at a city event, and therefore don’t need to show ID papers.

It’s this unpredictability and humour that always gave me a reason to press the frequent pop-ups for optional dialogues segments, and I barely skipped a cutscene in the whole journey. The characters are more than just quirky. They have clear, explained motivations that often land them in conflict with others in your party, which lends them a sense of depth.

The writers use all of the vast ground they have to play with, eschewing side quests in order to flesh out each party member and fully explore how their opposing agendas interact. It’s no wonder that forums discussing the game are not just debating who their favourite character is – for me its Laphicet (the Malak one) – they’re debating what their favourite relationship in the game is.

That’s not to say Tales of Berseria is just a talking shop, as there’s plenty of distractions. You play mini-games to unlock new outfits, for example, although as an aside, the developers really need to get a grip on the way they dress the women in the game. They make a big deal over the fact that Velvet is the series’ first solo female protagonist, and then dress her in a barely-there outfit that looks like a trench coat compared to what some other female NPCs wear. I know this is common in JRPGs, but we’re not all 14-year-old boys, and I’m getting tired of it. Okay, rant over. You also collect orbs as you explore that you give to magical cats in exchange for items, and command a pirate ship around the world hunting for treasure and new food recipes, which can help you in combat.

It’s the real-time combat that forms the bulk of the action. As well as set piece battles at various points of the game, combat triggers whenever you encounter an enemy in the world by running into it or by it running into you. The game gradually introduces complexity, which is good because it gives you a chance to master the basic systems before another is introduced.

Combat is based on souls; you have a soul gauge that is essentially stamina, depleting as you attack. You can increase the number of souls – the depth of your stamina bar – by dodging at the right moment, and you spend souls on more powerful attacks. You’ll quickly go from learning basic attack patterns to stringing 50 or more together, switching out characters from your party to juggle combos, and figuring out which characters work best in any given situation. You can have four on the battlefield at any time, one of which you control directly.

While it can be frustrating to run low on souls, which kills your chance of large combos, learning the intricacies of the system is satisfying. I controlled Velvet 90% of the time in combat and never felt bored. Each character has an ever-growing move set that you can quickly lose track of, creating a system of surprising complexity. If you want to just mash the buttons, that’s fine too, and you should survive on the default difficulty.

The enemy variety is huge, from giant krakens to armoured guards, and despite the flashy animations and high number of assets on screen, I never had any performance issues. It’s worth mentioning that the combat lends itself better to a 360 controller than a keyboard and mouse, as is true for the rest of the game.

So, the story segments are excellent and the combat solid. The problem is the bits in between. Most of the plot involves you travelling to specific locations – towns, villages, temples, or highways – and completing a certain task, usually killing a specific person or demon. That’s mostly fine in the settlements you visit, with rickety beachside towns built on stilts contrasting the grand cathedrals of the large cities, and they’re pleasant enough to look at and explore. But between settlements, it all starts to fall apart.

There’s countless bland, flat plains of grass, drab forests, and tedious dungeons. The maps are linear and constrained, so meaningful exploration is replaced by simply going through every door you find until you get the right one, or kicking through a blindingly obvious crumbling wall to open up a new passage. It’s not helped by the fact that, especially in the second half of the game, you’ll return to a lot of areas you’ve already seen, like the grey interiors of a prison that Velvet is locked up in at the start of the game. If it wasn’t very interesting the first time, it’s certainly no better on a second visit.

There are also pacing issues that could put a lot of people off. If feels like the developers have crammed the worst of the game into the first two hours, including crummy voice acting, sloppy writing and one-dimensional characters, all of which improve later. It’s forgivable if you’re geared up for a 50+ hour experience and if you’re a long-standing fan of the series you’ll look past it, but if you’re hoping to be hooked from the start then you’ll be disappointed.

Even after things pick up, it’s not until a good 10 hours in that the engine really starts to rev. Only then do you get to know the characters, and they each other, and the relationships start to unfold. Crucially, Velvet starts to come out of her shell, becoming less serious. I fear that a lot of players will fall at the first hurdle or make it five hours in and give up because they haven’t yet been exposed to the inter-character conflict that hooks you later on.

And that’s a real shame because, despite its flaws, Tales of Berseria has numerous interesting stories to tell. If the developers had cut the flab and focused almost exclusively on the cast of characters – with some combat thrown in – then I think this would have been a must-play. As it is, I think it’s still worth playing if you’re a fan of story-focused JRPGs, as long as you know you’re strapped in for the long haul. I felt more connected with the game’s characters than I have to any group in a long time, and it’s worth putting up with a few hours of pain for that pay off.

Tales Of Berseria is out now on Windows via Steam and Humble for £40/$50/€50.

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40 Comments

  1. Shakes999 says:

    I’m only about 3 hours in so I skipped the first 4 paragraphs of the review. That being said, can confirm, the first hour and a half is dreadful. Yeah it’s all needed to setup the story but man is it heavy handed and annoying.

    The second the flashback ends the quality and enjoyment almost skyrockets straight up. It’s quite jarring, yet plesant, how quickly it shifts for the better.

    • ephesus64 says:

      So does that mean the dialog gets better? I had a moment and was curious, so I watched a bit of a playthrough which happened somewhere around the first hour. The dialog was pretty mechanical and formulaic. I mean, I don’t expect writing on the level of classic literature in a game about anime schoolgirls in frilly dresses stabbing giant monsters, but wow. I apologize, I don’t want to be offensive to anyone who is enjoying themselves, I was just surprised.

      • Shakes999 says:

        Way better, the quality of the writing and the voice acting. Once she breaks bad and the flashback ends and you get some of your party members its like night and day. There’s still some generic anime elements to deal with but theyre hidden behind the good personalities and funny writing.

  2. geldonyetich says:

    Watching streams of this was enough to convince me to get the previous game in the last humble bundle. Lots of fun, even if it’s not quite as deep, and overwhelmingly black and white. (You’re a literal messiah fighting along side literal half-angels against literal half-devils lead by the “Lord of Malevolence,” so check your moral relativism at the door.)

    • Hawke says:

      Spoiler warning.
      ToZ seems black&white at the beginning, but later on it becomes more morally grey. Because a Shepherd must fight against only hellions, a small village of drug dealers and a kid bullied to death by their own parent aren’t his problems and he mustn’t get involved. It sometimes gets resolved, but not always.

  3. Chillicothe says:

    This man displays that he knows the proper Velvet attire via his screenshots. Good job.

  4. funkstar says:

    I’m 12 hours in, my first tales game, really enjoying it so far! I had no idea dodging got you souls back though lol

  5. tsff22 says:

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    That High Priest was pushing a poisonous, addictive and very, VERY illegal drug in order to make a quick buck though, so he’s not exactly what I’d call sympathetic.

  6. King in Winter says:

    Well I already commented in the previous article, so I’ll just add that I feel a controller is a must to play this game. Maybe I’m just used to playing these with a console, but I wouldn’t even touch the combat system with mouse&keyboard. So I grabbed a little bit of something off the web that makes Windows think PS3 controller is an Xbox one, and the unofficial patches for Zestiria and Berseria to switch the button icons into PS ones.

    And I guess it is too late to recommend playing Zestiria first as Berseria is pseudo-prequel (with several characters making appearances in both).

  7. brucethemoose says:

    Being so dialogue-heavy and character-driven, I REALLY want to try this game. But the Japanese anime style has never agreed with me.

    I don’t even know why. It’s more than just the clothes (though seriously, did a dog maul Velvet’s default outfit?). I’m a massive Avatar fan and have given the best anime series and games a shot, but I bounce off them every time.

    • funkstar says:

      haha there’s a story ‘explanation’ for the outfit (her clothes get destroyed after 3 years in prison) but luckily you can change back to the ‘village life’ clothes that you start the game in straight away

      • brucethemoose says:

        Ha.

        They could’ve at least torn it up some more or given her some scars…

  8. Blad the impaler says:

    I think I’ve seen more attention than usual focused on this title. Is it simply a good JRPG or does it break away from the same old tired tropes and linearity (once you get to the meat of it, I mean) I’ve come to expect from Japanese developers?

    I trust you all more than the Steam reviews.

    • Endomorph12 says:

      It’s incredibly linear, but the characters and their situations are a lot more complex and engaging than most JRPGs. They have arguments over whether or not they’re doing the right thing, they have different moral standards that speak to their characters and cause conflict in the group, etc.

  9. bill says:

    Good lord, what is up with the clothes?

    I realise I’m being very shallow here, but that top screenshot is enough to put me off the game entirely, and the later ones are almost all off-putting.

  10. Tizmah says:

    What does having a character having more skin shown have to do with 14 year old boys? Girls don’t like revealing characters? Hah. It is quite annoying when a game presents you with many outfits to cover up, and also dress down, yet someone still chooses to rant about. Look, it’s cool if you don’t like revealing clothing. But don’t raise your moral high road on every one else, especially when the devs give you options.

    You sound like a 14 year old yourself, wanting things to be his way and only his way.

    • Bremze says:

      Yeah, instead of “14 year old boys” it should’ve been “14 year old boys and obnoxious manchildren”. Much more accurate that way.

    • Premium User Badge

      teije says:

      Bring on the fake rage. And to think this comment thread nearly didn’t have one of these.

    • EternalPioneer says:

      I have used the ‘gives you choices’ argument before but peoples always reply with ‘doesn’t matter, the default outfit is still selected by the authors as the main one, it is marketed everywhere’.

      I think I can see it both ways.. We shouldn’t pretend like there aren’t choices but we also shouldn’t ignore criticism just because ther are choices!!

      like with Metal Gear.. I like sexy Quiet very much (❤) but not only is that primary design, but you also need mods to change it!!

      • Snowskeeper says:

        My main problem with Quiet’s design is the game’s pathetic attempts to justify it. “She breathes through her skin.” Really?

        She wasn’t even the only person in the game with that condition. Code Talker had the same sort of thing going on. But he was fully dressed, thank God. No shivering old man bums for us.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      … He gave it, like, two lines. When we start seeing male characters regularly put in the same position, we can stop talking about it, but as things stand, I don’t think a brief aside with little to no impact on the rest of the article is going too far.

    • RichUncleSkeleton says:

      What does having a character having more skin shown have to do with 14 year old boys?

      It is a well-known biological fact that men stop appreciating the female form when they turn 15.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    “Barely there” but her clothing in every screenshot is nearly covering everything but her forearms and head. Does she need to wear a burka or something?

  12. Tei says:

    JAPAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    PS22222222222!!!!

    FLAT TEXTURES!!!!!!!

    COMPLICATED BUT STRANGELY REWARDING COMBAT SYSTEMS!!!

    PREDICTIBLE BUT WITH HIS OWN TYPE OF CHARM STORY!

    Is kind of a nice game, but see above.

  13. Endomorph12 says:

    The Tales series has a mostly female fanbase and has more women on staff than most JRPG series. The character designers are women who are pretty much given free reign, for starters. Milla from Tales of Xillia also has a kind of showy outfit ( link to vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net.png/revision/latest?cb=20140506185339 ) and the female fans adore her. There’s incredibly loud cheers whenever her voice actress shows up at fan events.

    Not saying you aren’t allowed to dislike or criticize the designs, but it isn’t as simple as men victimizing women or anything. A lot of women like these designs, it isn’t just ’14 year old boys.’ Even Velvet’s japanese voice actress praised Velvet’s design, saying ‘as soon as I saw the art of her at the audition, I wanted to voice her.’

    • Snowskeeper says:

      I don’t think women liking a character and women designing a character translate to women liking the character’s design, necessarily.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong, but most of the women I know usually like strong female leads in ridiculously skimpy costumes in spite of the clothes–not because of them.

      Again, not saying you’re wrong–anecdotal evidence is unreliable–but it might be useful to have a peer-reviewed, active survey (as opposed to a poll on a website) of female gamers done about this at some point, so we don’t have to rely on praise for voice actors and female character designers to figure out whether women are okay with this.

      (And, speaking as a man, I find these costumes more annoying than entertaining, even after the Moral Outrage(TM) drops away. They’re just sort of dumb, IMO. This is also the main reason I found MGSV’s Quiet so annoying. So the existence of people like me is also a thing.)

      EDIT: Also this goes without saying but women aren’t a homogenous undifferentiated mass; they make up more than half the population of the world, so it’s probably not as cut-and-dry as the words “women are okay with” and “women dislikw” imply. Not saying you were implying otherwise; just a disclaimer.

      • Endomorph12 says:

        What about if they’re asked why they like the character and a lot of them say ‘because of her design?’

        I agree that women aren’t a homogeneous mass, considering I am one – that’s why I’m saying ‘don’t paint it like only 14 year old boys could like these designs.’ I’m a woman. I like most of the female character designs in Berseria. I totally get why someone wouldn’t like them, and if someone wants to criticize them, that’s perfectly valid. However, the implication that only horny boys could like the designs just because they’re sexual bothers me. Just say that you don’t like the designs because you feel they’re tackily oversexualized, don’t bring the perceived gender of the audience into it. All it does is put guys who like the designs on the defensive and completely shut out the opinions of women who like the designs.

        • Snowskeeper says:

          To be clear, the thing at the end was me clarifying my own position, since I’d spent the last like. Twenty paragraphs generalizing to a huge extent. Wasn’t trying to claim you were the one generalizing.

          Otherwise: don’t really have much to add. Would have just left this alone, but didn’t want to let the above stand. I agree that extreme language generally just serves to put people on the defensive.

    • EMI says:

      “There’s incredibly loud cheers whenever her voice actress shows up at fan events.”

      Probably has nothing to do with the fact that she’s the second most popular voice actress in Japan of all time :P
      link to anime-now.com

      • Endomorph12 says:

        I’m sure that’s part of it, but considering the fan events are done in-character and they cheer for all the in-character jokes, I have to imagine they like Milla, too. And her design is pretty popular from what I’ve read on japanese internet.

  14. Azuremelody says:

    Holy shit this must be the worst review I’ve ever read.

  15. Kasper Finknottle says:

    I see I wasn’t the only one to go for the ‘Rose Corsage on all characters’ look :0)

  16. authorroy says:

    When I first saw the promotional art for this game, I knew there would be complaints about Velvet’s costume. I registered to this website specifically to share some information in response to this review and one of the comments.

    Velvet was designed by Inomata Mutsumi, one of the series’ regular designers since Tales of Destiny, which even features her name in reverse (Via the plot macguffin “Eye of Atamoni”; Atamoni is Inomata backwards).

    Inomata-sensei is 56 years old. From what I can tell, she designs characters similar in appearance to Velvet because she likes to. If you visit her personal blog (accessible via Wikipedia, called Ichigo Mountain), the very first image you are presented with is of an even more scantily clad female than Velvet.

    Velvet’s design was not in order to satisfy the lusts of fourteen year olds or, as another commenter declared, “manchildren”. My understanding is that the series’ regular artists are given a large amount of leeway if not full discretion over the designs of the characters; my reason to believe this is that the copyrights to said characters’ designs belong to the artists, rather than Namco. (Fujishima Kousuke, another of the series’ regular artists since the very first game – mangaka of “Ah! My Goddess!” is male, and his designs are actually more conservative than Inomata-sensei’s, if you study the series’ designs overall).

    Spoilers below.

    In my opinion, if we study Velvet’s character, we very quickly see that beyond Inomata-sensei’s tastes, there are artistic reasons for her design. The tattered clothing is representative of her battered soul and testament to having spent three years in prison without a single change of clothes the entire time. Furthermore, she has the opportunity to change fairly quickly, but does not, despite the fact that she has no obvious liking for exhibitionism. We can decipher from this that after everything that has happened to her, something as petty as a change of clothes is of little consequence.

    Namdai makes her Villager outfit available from the outset specifically so people with conservative views on body exposure can hide what they don’t want to see, despite the fact that it runs contrary to her character, backstory, and concept. I’d liked for people to have been satisfied with that, but perhaps some people believe there are or ought to be limits to what is acceptable in artistic expression. As an artist myself, I can’t agree with that mentality, but to each their own.

    As an aside, I fail to see how one must be either an adolescent or “manchild” to not disapprove of designs that bare skin, but I will assume this a difference in moral belief.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      This conversation has already been started in another comment stack. I don’t know why you felt the need to start a new one.

      Regardless, a few points:
      The author is not attempting to limit anyone’s artistic expression. He is mocking the costume design. There’s a difference.

      Most prisons have uniforms. And the moment Velvet got out of prison, she had the opportunity to get a new outfit. The “this is the only set of clothing she has!” argument is silly. So is the “this is an artistic representation of her battered soul! Now changing her clothes is too petty for her!” argument. That’s only a few steps above the way Kojima tried to justify Quiet (“she breathes through her skin, guys!”). If you like the design, whatever–there’s a reason it was only given half a paragraph in an article 18 paragraphs long–but don’t try to pretend it’s something more dignified than it is.

      FFS. It isn’t conservative to dislike playing as somebody who runs around in her underwear and expects to be taken seriously. It isn’t conservative to find that this breaks immersion. It isn’t conservative to be annoyed by the fact that female characters frequently end up wearing ridiculous costumes like this while male characters are dressed like normal people.

      By all means, be irritated by all the name-calling. That irritates me, too. But it seems to me that all you’re doing here is substituting insults for passive aggression. That’s not an improvement.

      • authorroy says:

        I don’t actually like the design more or less than any other outfit she has. I’m impartial to it. Actually, I tend to alternate between the two versions of the villager outfit combined with the cowboy hat and aviator glasses. Makes her look rugged.

        Anyways, you apparently either didn’t notice or ignored the part where I said “She can but chooses not to change clothes and this is perhaps meaningful in some way” so I’ve repeated that here.

        As for its dignity – or lack thereof – I am struggling to understand this idea. Why does whether or not someone chooses to run around in “their underwear” or something similarly revealing have any impact on why they are taken seriously – both as a character, and as a real life person? What is the basis for this philosophy? There are plenty of characters who wear less (Gill from Street Fighter III for instance, wears only a loincloth that appears similar to briefs underwear), yet whose concepts are not diminished by it. I would consider our inherent differences on this subject to be the result of either differing enculturations… or some form of… the only phrase I can come up with is body conservatism. I do not mean this in an insulting manner.

        Anyways, Velvet’s costume design is immaterial to me. I’ve been playing JRPGs for over 20 years; it all blurs together at this point. My argument is simply that the design is not *merely* to serve as eye candy for hormonal young boys (or men in general), even though it may do so (with which, I cannot find any fault), it was designed by a fifty six year old woman whose taste in fashion design simply runs along those lines. As my understanding of the initial comment in the review was a complaint against its intended nature as eye candy, I wanted to offer a counterpoint.

        Your complaint with the design however seems to be more rooted in your perception that her clothing’s design should have a more pronounced impact on how other characters perceive her throughout the story, and that’s a much more interesting conversation if so.

        As for starting a new comment line, I’m unfamiliar with how this website works and its etiquette. I apologize if I broke some community norm.

        Edit: I would add, Velvet’s prison is… an unusual one, in that the entire mentality to it seems to be “lock them up and throw away the key”. I can believe that they wouldn’t bother with uniforms, but that they might is also believable.

        You have to consider all the economic factors, especially given the era, and… well, a lot of other things. Anyways, edit time up.