With Tales of Zestiria, Bandai Namco concocted a workable new recipe to build the future of the Tales franchise upon, and while it didn’t manifest without a few problems, it still managed to create one of the better and more memorable games in the long-running series.
Having tried so many new systems and methods of progression all in one title, it wasn’t surprising that Bamco left a few lumps in the cake batter, so to speak. The large quasi-openworld layout, the magic point-less combat, the convoluted weapon upgrade mechanic…it all worked once you finally got used to it, but it really need more time in the oven.
Tales of Berseria
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC
Release Date: January 24th, 2017
Price: $59.99 (Review Copy Provided)
Which brings us to Tales of Berseria, a prequel to Zestiria that, other than creating a badass female lead, was meant to build upon and improve the changes set forth in its predecessor. Initially – even as a fan – I was highly skeptical that much would change, especially for the better. I loved the first Tales of Xillia, but like its own quickly pumped-out sequel, it lacked the original’s impact.
Systems were unnecessarily dragged out, the new character roleplayed a coma victim through over half the game, and 90% of the world was just copy-pasted from the previous title. Call me pessimistic if you wish, but I was confident the same fate would befall Tales of Berseria. Thankfully, I’m starting to get used to being wrong about a lot of things.
Before I get into the most impressive changes in Berseria, let’s talk about its most shocking: The story.
A lot of anger was thrown at Bandai Namco’s way when it was revealed they would censor the scene where a certain character is killed during the game’s introductory level. While I agree it was a very poor decision, it didn’t mute the overall tone of the title, which is still remarkably dark for a JRPG. After all, when your party is made up of two demons, a pirate, a fallen priestess, a witch, and a young combat slave freed from the church that tried to get him to suicide bomb you, it’s hard to fathom a cheery tale of sunshine and rainbows being crafted from such a mess.
Berseria knows this and seems to revel in the roguish nature of its “heroes”, often having them default to murder or theft as the resolution to their problems without even considering non-criminal alternatives. The only time they don’t, amusingly enough, is when they are confronted with other demons…whom they proceed to let into the merry band of NPCs that make up the comic relief of the party. Imagine having a lizard demon who you were tasked with killing instead get drafted to be your ship’s helmsman, and a headless (and hate-filled) samurai coerced into being your blacksmith. It all makes sense when the stated goal of your outfit is to assassinate the Shepherd and remove the land’s new religion from their seat of power.
The lead character, Velvet, is easily the darkest character in the entire series, even out-throat-slicing Vesperia’s chaotic good hero Yuri, who at least had the common decency to dispose of his targets away from the rest of the group. Velvet extends no such niceties, since the rage she has towards the “Shepherd” is so unparalleled and impossible to contain that she even willingly endangers other party member’s lives to accomplish her deed.
The most interesting aspect of the story is that there comes a time near the end when their assassination plot is somewhat validated and to “save the world”, someone has to willingly plunge it into darkness…which makes Velvet’s murdering ne’er-do-wells seem to be the heroes. The game then balances the idea of granting man free will at the price of producing chaos or maintaining a status quo that grants peace but takes away all freedom.
Though this isn’t exactly heavy story-telling when placed next to a western RPG, it’s a might bit thicker than the usual “evil empire” fare we get from JRPGs. In fact, it’s my favorite storyline in a Tales game by far and the best I’ve experienced in any JRPG since the glory days of the PS2 and Digital Devil Saga. Clearly, doing the “angsty” route was a good choice.
This isn’t to say that everybody is covering their left eye with their bangs, painting their nails black, or listening to My Chemical Romance. In fact, there are many skits in which the characters engage in silly banter…only in this game that silliness is delivered with a clever sense of trolling, all thanks to the party’s resident witch, Magilou.
Oh Magilou…if ever there was a more important comic relief character in an RPG, I’ve yet to find one. Sure, she looks silly and starts off seeming like a completely useless addition to the party, but it doesn’t take long to realize she is the glue that holds the group together.
Unfathomably intelligent, deviously sinister, and a master show(wo)man, Magilou is a supremely skilled professional troll that delights in making the rest of the party look like utter buffoons. This works perfectly with the darker tone of the game by bringing things down to earth and lightening the mood when Velvet and her friends get a bit too grimdark. It also makes for some of the best skits of the Tales of series.
Whether it’s Magilou convincing the party she can commune with canines and getting them to fawn over her as she delivers clever insults to them in her assessments of the dog’s speech, or her fooling a guardsman by convincing him they are simple bards while also embarrassing the hell out of Velvet by forcing her to imitate a pigeon, Magilou is the ultimate shitlord and the only person in the entire game that seems to be “in on the joke”. A dark age Andy Kaufman that makes everyone but themselves the punchline and no one can seem to realize they are the butt of the joke. It’s a shame she doesn’t have a twitter.
One final aspect I feel needs to be mentioned is the voice work. While the dubbing is on point –as usual for a Tales game – the acting done here by Velvet’s voice actor Cristina Vee is off the charts spectacular. Vee has always been my one of my favorite VAs (Right up there with Lisa Ortiz and Jim Cummings), but she seems to have dug deep to deliver a truly bad-ass and frighteningly nasty performance as Berseria’s demonic main hero. Her gravelly voice, low guttural grunting, and the way she seems to capture the strained anger of a woman hell-bent on revenge who also has to somehow hold it back long enough to prevent from going completely insane is a delight to witness. Easily the best role she’s played, if not the best voice job anyone has done for a JRPG, ever.
The other characters may not reach the same peaks as Vee’s interpretation of Velvet or Erica “Orange Heart” Lindbeck’s Magilou, but they all manage to impress in their own way. There’s Eizen, a brooding pirate who wants to kill those responsible for capturing his captain Aifread, Rokurou the man who became a demon in order to slay his brother, the “fallen Paladin” Eleanor who act as the party’s moral compass, and “Boy learning to become a man” Laphicet. They all play off each other wonderfully in the skits and make some memorable moments that fans are already losing their mind over in YouTube recordings this very minute. The chemistry really is that good.
Glowing endorsements of the story and character work aside, the real meat of any JRPG is the combat…and if you read my review of Zestiria, that was the one thing that needed the most work.
I’ve agonized quite a bit over this part of the review because depending on my mood, I could gush excitedly about the combat, or tell you how hideously broken it is and that it destroys the balance of the game. The reason for this dichotomy of views in regard to the battle system is because as unbalanced and easy to exploit as it is, it’s this very same imbalance that makes the game exciting.
Not to bring a totally different RPG into the discussion, but I feel this method of creating an addictive combat system is the same thing that drove the “Souls” series and the first two Gothic games to success. In those RPGs, the combat – at least initially – appears to be difficult to control. Though that changes dramatically after you learn “the trick” and you turn what is universally accepted as a “Hard game” into one that is so laughably easy that you could literally beat it blindfolded.
The “trick” with Tales of Berseria is wrapped up in how they’ve supplanted magic points. Like Zestiria, your ability to perform special moves in combat is governed not by “mana”, but instead by “souls”. These souls, which are gained by afflicting enemies with status effects (or harvesting them on the battlefield) are basically an ever-expanding gauge that determines how many attacks you can chain in a combo. As you gain more souls you get longer chains, which in turn makes it easier to inflict status effects, which means you get into this dangerous (for the enemies, anyway) loop where you essentially become invincible because nothing can mathematically withstand your ever-growing ability to gain “souls” through status-afflicting.
The upside to this is that even on insane difficulty, the hardest of bosses can be wiped out in mere seconds with little effort. The downside, well, that’s *also* the downside.
Battles are decided in the initial five or so seconds of a fight, since whoever nails a status effect first is going to get into that aforementioned loop and getting the combatant out of that cycle is annoyingly difficult. If that combatant is you (and even an arthritic 40+ gamer like me was this fortunate about 95% of the time) then you’ll be screeching with delight over how easily you handle even the dangerous wandering monsters the game claims are outrageously difficult.
However, if the enemy is the fortunate status-inflicter, then you better dig out those gels and hope you can outlast it long enough to turn things around, since even the most mundane of monster mobs can send you to a game over if they drain you of your souls.
Unbalances aside, I love the simplicity of the combat system. Unlike other Tales games, all attacks are mapped to the four main controller buttons rather than being mapped to one button and a joypad direction. What this does is make combat much faster than any other Tales game and combos far easier to pull off, chain, and set up beforehand. Though meant to bring new players into the series, it actually does veterans a favor as well by making combat more about rhythm and planning rather than quick reflexes and move spamming.
All one has to do is find a chain of attacks that have a high chance to cause a status effect and then open up with it during a fight. If it hits and the status effect fires off, you can “stun lock” the enemies into a constant loss of souls that gives you an almost unstoppable advantage. After that, you can turn on Velvet’s “Demon Mode” and get guaranteed hits with an even more profound chance to cause status effects that end in a mystic arte.
See how outrageously unbalanced it can be?
Like I stated earlier, it depends upon how you feel about such a system. I happened to enjoy the unbalanced nature since I could play on the higher difficulties and farm grade/items/experience very easily in a short amount of time. However, I could still easily see people being upset about the exploitative nature of the combat system.
One system I felt they completely nailed this time, when compared to Zestiria, is the equipment upgrade mechanic. No longer tied to a silly graph that requires you to match colored symbols to activate bonuses, Berseria has gone the same route Final Fantasy IX did and tether skills to your gear and have an AP system that permanently teaches you the ability after you wear it long enough. What this does is eliminate the need to carry 50 or so variants of each piece of equipment around and instead lets you pick and choose your equipment according to how you want to build each party member.
Thanks to this system, I built a Magilou who was a frontline tank and damage dealer who had the option to cast powerful AOE attacks and healing spells, making her the most used and valuable character on my team. The same techniques can be applied to other characters as well, giving players the opportunity to mix and match styles according to their need. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to turn everyone into tanks or casters, given enough time and equipment accrual, which is a welcome change of pace in a JRPG series that’s never been known for allowing for much build creation.
Weapons can also be upgraded to +1 and above, given you farm the right components. Most of these smithing materials are dropped by enemies, but you may also obtain them by breaking down unneeded weapons and armor…a method I found to be the quickest and easiest way to get what I wanted.
On the visual side of things, Berseria runs at a crisp 60fps, something Zestiria seemed to have more than a bit of trouble of doing even on the PS4. Perhaps more stunning than the framerate would be the fact that, unlike that other Tales sequel game (Xillia 2), it doesn’t reuse old maps from the previous title to pad out its content. Though you do revisit some familiar locales, the designers took into account that you’re playing in a world that predates the previous game’s land by more than a thousand years…so things are quite different than before. You’ll notice this when discovering the swampy verdant overworld “dungeon” you’ve been walking around in is actually the desert canyon area from Zestiria. A nice little touch that shows someone at Bandai cares about continuity.
As for the music, it’s more of the same brilliance from Sakuraba, only this time many of the tracks feel more “metal” than j-pop. One of my favorites was near the start of the game when Velvet tore up her prison and started feasting on the prisoners. I stood there for a good five minutes simply listening to the music. Later in the game I was required to return there and whenever I did, that same gothic-horror style music grabbed me again, causing me to stop. The soundtrack, overall, is one of his best works and probably the best in the Tales series since Symphonia…at least in this reviewer’s biased opinion.
Every Tales game has a special place in my heart, even the horrible ones, but Tales of Berseria won me over in a way that few have. Though many accuse its dark and gloomy story as being more “edgelord” than darklord, I still consider it to be the most engrossing Tales game since Vesperia. Take from that comment whatever you will.
With such an outstanding story, great characters, a blistering fast (And addictively fun to exploit) combat system, a “less messy” weapon upgrade mechanic and the best visuals in the entire series, I feel comfortable calling this my new favorite “Tales of” game…or at the very least, tied with Graces f.
What’s great about Berseria is that unlike most Tales of games, it acts as a wonderful jumping-in point for new players. Combine this with its ease-of-use and flashy combat designed to accommodate more tactical, veteran players and you have one of the most complete JRPGs you’re likely to find on the current generation’s systems. Tales of Berseria is a must play for any and all JRPG fans.
Tales of Berseria was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict 9.5
- Great visuals/framerate (even on console)
- Easy to learn systems & combat
- Engrossing story & characters
- Lots of new environments, very little copied over from Zestiria
- Feels like a true “next-gen” Tales game
- Battles are highly exploitable if you know what you’re doing
- Some mild backtracking, which can get tiring
- Battles are highly exploitable…which may be a turn off to some