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.