Tales of Zestiria was a massive disappointment. Conceived as the twentieth anniversary installment in the long-running and beloved JRPG franchise, Zestiria’s undoubted potential was undermined by a plethora of avoidable problems. The story suffered from an uneven script and poor pacing; the otherwise excellent combat was marred by an awful camera; and the myriad levelling and crafting systems were over-complicated and obtuse. Moreover, the game’s marketing pulled what has since become a notorious bait-and-switch, introducing someone who seemed like a main character before replacing her and selling her story as a paid DLC. Although Zestiria sold well, it riled up and alienated parts of the Tales fanbase, both in Japan and in the West.
So, a lot was riding on Tales of Berseria. Released in Japan last summer on both PS4 and PS3, and landing in Europe and America in January this year, Tales of Berseria is a prequel of sorts to Tales of Zestiria. Set in the same universe as Zestiria but in the dim and distant past, its events and characters are known only to a few of those encountered in Zestiria. The story is completely independent, and there is no need to have played Zestiria in order to understand the plot, but the experience of playing Berseria did make me appreciate Zestiria a little more. Moreover, knowing the ultimate fate of some of Berseria’s characters makes the journey with them here all the more poignant.
Tales of Berseria is an excellent game with a compelling and engaging story, and an exceptional cast of characters. Most of the main cast are well fleshed-out – those on your side as well as your antagonists – and you will find probably find yourself sympathizing with most of them in turn over the course of the game’s 70 hours. Berseria is pitched as a story of “Emotion versus Reason”, and the plot largely eschews a conventional good-versus-evil dichotomy, instead showing how people pursue goals in line with their own philosophies and value systems.
Berseria’s world is a low-tech one where demons run rampant, and humanity has been driven to a marginal existence, confined to a few hard-pressed enclaves. A hero, Artorius Collbrande, emerges who establishes the Abbey, an order of Exorcists who combat the demons by controlling Malakhim, a race of humanoid spirits (familiar to some as the Seraphim of Tales of Zestiria). But the game is largely told from the point of view of Velvet Crowe, a young woman who has escaped from a hellish island prison and who knows the terrible secret of how Artorius acquired his power. On the surface, Artorius ticks many of the boxes we associate with our heroes, with many of the trappings of an enlightened and self-sacrificing leader. However, it quickly becomes clear that Artorius is willing to do almost anything in order to achieve his ideal world, and the main events of the story show how the end does not necessarily justify the means. Artorius is a Puritanical idealist unwilling to tolerate any human weakness. For her part, Velvet and her associates embody many such weaknesses, but despite their selfishness and individualism they generally seem more capable than the Abbey of sympathy and humanity (which is ironic, considering that most of them aren’t even human).
Velvet is motivated by a single-minded desire for revenge against Artorius, and she is possessed by this furious monomania for most of the game. Velvet is about as different as it gets from the milquetoast leads we’re used to in most JRPGs, and in particular she’s a sexy and dramatic counterpoint to Zestiria’s poor Sorey. Velvet’s party is composed of an assortment of humans, Malakhim, and Demons, each with their own motivations and distinctive personalities. Tales games are known for featuring entertaining casts and good drama and comedy, but Berseria’s character design and script is still really stellar. Although main character Velvet is only 19, her personality feels much older, and most other main characters feel like they’re in their 20s and 30s: grown up people living with grown up problems. Berseria doesn’t pretend that our problems can always be fixed and, for all of Velvet’s rage, it teaches the value of acceptance. We see broken or damaged characters living with past trauma, the legacy of bad and shameful decisions, or ongoing pain, but also finding friendship and camaraderie; trying to make the best of their lives, and where possible trying to help others around them.
The strong ensemble cast is needed, because for all that Velvet is a striking lead, her singular focus on getting revenge against Artorius limits the ways she can develop as a character. But the supporting cast of Eizen, Eleanor, Rokurou, Magilou, and Laphicet make up for it. For me, Eizen was a real standout character, but you could make the case for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for any of them. In addition to Artorius, your antagonists include Shigure, an affable and charismatic master swordsman with hidden depths; and the brother and sister team of Teresa and Oscar, who between them have 95% of the attributes you would expect to see in the heroes in most games. It’s a bit of a weird feeling when you have to beat the snot out of poor, gentle, noble-minded Oscar, but Berseria is full of moments like this. Berseria goes beyond humanizing your enemies, although it certainly does this, providing rounded opponents with lots of little touches that show their humanity. What is more unusual is that Berseria shows you that your enemies might also be better, stronger, or more moral than you; and they might even be right, while you’re wrong.
Berseria is a great achievement, and in many ways it feels like the Tales series celebration that Zestiria was meant to be. Some of the game’s mechanics and bonus systems contain nods to other games in the series, such as sets of collectibles, or a card-game featuring familiar characters from other games (rather like the card game from Graces). The Tales team must have pulled out all the stops for Berseria, because (with a couple of notable exceptions) the production values are consistently high and the game feels quite polished. For one thing, Berseria features an outstanding score, with some stand-out tracks capable of evoking a gamut of emotions. A couple had a bittersweet feel that, for me, were a nostalgic reminder of playing my first Tales game (Symphonia) circa 13 years ago. The graphics are generally very good, with some stunning vistas and topography, and some of the cutscenes feature intense and dramatic contrast and excellent animation. As ever, the battle scenes feature explosions of colour as well. Berseria attracted some criticism for its visuals, and although it’s true they’re not necessarily pushing the envelope as far as technical proficiency goes, the stylized graphics are still attractive and occasionally beautiful.
Berseria’s active combat system does not feature the Armatization system of Zestiria, instead making use of a ‘Souls’ system. Characters can perform moves and spells based on the amount of soul power they have available, and can also perform powerful Break Soul moves which consume a soul crystal in return for high damage and the ability to chain together longer combos. Some characters (Velvet) have a more powerful and easier to use Break Soul than others (Rokurou), but generally the relative power and style makes sense. Mystic artes also make a return, and fights are generally very good fun. Performing well earns high Grade, the resource used to master skills from equip-able armour. Eventually you unlock the ability to chain fights together and build a multiplier that increases Grade, giving fights a satisfying and addictive rhythm that makes exploration and combat a lot of fun and rarely a chore. The difficulty is well-balanced, and the game is quite generous with how often you can pull off special moves.
As with all Tales games, the ability to play the game in co-op mode is a major draw, and it’s a real joy to be able to experience the whole story with someone else. Unfortunately, as with other recent Tales games, for some reason only Player One is able to earn trophies. I don’t know whether this is a deliberate decision or just an oversight, but it feels like the game could be optimized a little better for multiplayer. Moreover, the first eight hours or so is pretty much a single-player affair, as Velvet doesn’t really have any partners at that stage, so if you plan to play the whole game in co-op there will be times when someone is twiddling their thumbs. That said, the Tales series is still fairly unique among A-list RPGs in allowing you to play in co-op at all, and long may it continue to do so.
Berseria is an outstanding game, so it’s a shame there are a few annoyances and irritations. Some of the dungeon design is uninspired, and there’s a bit too much backtracking and aimless wandering for my taste. The inventory system is also disappointing: performing well in battle can see you ‘rewarded’ with huge quantities of junk items, which are individually listed in your inventory. There is a limit to what you can carry, meaning you will need to dispose of stuff eventually, but because you have to sell every item individually, it takes ages. There is also a way to upgrade equipment, but it’s long-winded and, because you get new equipment regularly, pretty much pointless (maybe not if you’re playing on one of the top difficulties). Finally, although the script and dialogue are top-notch, some of the subtitles seem to have been rendered as a phonetic transcription of the English voice acting by someone who doesn’t understand English (or by a machine), meaning the subtitles sometimes don’t match what the characters are saying. Considering the overall quality of the game, and the obvious passion that went into it, it’s unfortunate that a few things like this subtract from the overall package.
Nevertheless, Tales of Berseria is a great game and one which I’m truly grateful to have played. It marks a resounding turn to form for the franchise, and should serve as a solid basis for the future development of the series. Many Tales fans breathed a sigh of relief when Hideo Baba, a producer associated with many of the series’ problems in recent years, recently moved on to a new job with Square Enix, and indeed by all accounts he had little to do with this game. If Berseria is anything to go by, the series now seems to be in good hands, and I only hope future entries will maintain the sophistication and emotional maturity displayed in the story here.