"Tales is back with a vengeance."
Tales of Zestiria, despite being a pretty alright game, was seen as a weak entry in the decades-old JRPG franchise. The gameís ambitions were perhaps too much, too soon. In response to criticisms, Tales of Berseria's developers vowed to right the wrongs of its predecessor. And they certainly achieved some of their goals, but at the cost of taking a step back in a few areas.
Tales of Berseria opens by introducing Velvet Crowe, a young girl who is living out her life in a quiet town with her brother and brother-in-law, following a demon attack that killed her sister and unborn nephew three years prior. Soon after, Velvet's brother-in-law ritualistically sacrifices her brother and turns her into a demon. Sheís then locked up in prison for three years, with only other demons to feed on. Upon her escape, she vows to track down the one who wronged her and to avenge her brotherís death.
Even that quick summary of the opening narrative should make it apparent that Tales of Berseria differs from past Tales games. Gone is the plucky, endlessly optimistic protagonist who saves the world with the power of friendship. Velvet is a violent, crass woman who will do anything to achieve her goal. Not long into her adventure, she teams up with a pirate, demon and witch, and subsequently razes a town and hops on board a pirate ship in order to escape the authorities.
If Tales of Berseria were any other game, Velvet would be a brooding anti-hero just for the sake of being edgy and dark. Fortunately, the writers avoided falling into this trap by providing a cast of neíer-do-wells with nuance and tact. The game makes a concerted effort to establish that while these may be bad people, morality is a two-way street. Thereís always a reason behind actions that the larger populace may consider ďevil,Ē and that purpose is often far more complex than it may initially appear.
Of course, Iíd be remiss if I didnít address the fact that Tales of Berseria is a prequel to Tales of Zestiria. The question, then, is whether you can play and enjoy Berseria without having first played its predecessor. And since the story told here is self-contained and doesn't rely on anything from the other game (beyond the broad strokes of lore that are filled in as you go), the answer is "yes." With that being said, playing Zestiria before you touch Berseria will make your time with the latter far more enjoyable, since many story beats and side quests feed directly into the events of the former. I had many ďAha!Ē moments as events that took place in Zestiria were finally given context that not only made sense, but gave me a deeper appreciation for them.
Besides improving its narrative complexity, Berseria also takes a step forward with its combat. Until now, Tales games have used some form of its absurdly titled battle systems, relying on characters moving on the same plane as the enemy. Here, your party members are finally given completely free movement. In an even larger shakeup, gone is the interface that finds players using two buttons and directional inputs to launch attacks. All four face buttons now correspond to a different Arte combo tree that can be fully customized. Both tweaks combine to present the most versatile Tales combat system to date, with plenty of room for experimentation.
Berseria also introduces the Soul Gauge, which may remind long-time players of the CC system featured in Tales of Graces. Each action drains a bit of energy from the meter, but unlike in Graces, running out doesnít stop the action. Instead, depleting the Soul Gauge leaves a character more susceptible to stuns. For its part, the gauge itself is filled by defeating or stunning enemies and dodging attacks. After completely filling the gauge, characters can then consume a soul in exchange for a Soul Break that gives them extended combos and stagger-free attacks (while adding the complication of a slowly draining HP bar). This unique system adds a nice risk-reward element to an otherwise free form battle system that would otherwise be prone to abuse.
Character progression also has been improved compared to the random and confusing skill system that was present in Zestiria. The skill system implemented here is similar to the one found in Final Fantasy IX. Each piece of equipment has a learnable skill that remains permanent, once enough experience is earned. Berseria sets its system apart from its inspiration, however, by tying skill experience to the grade earned in combat. In other words, skills come faster to those who learn and exploit the intricacies of battle. Itís an interesting way to encourage superior play, one that I would like to see return in the future.
Unfortunately, Tales of Berseria takes a few steps back when it comes to presentation and exploration. The large environments from Zestiria are gone, replaced here with smaller areas that feel even more scaled down than those we saw in Tales of Xillia. While itís true that Zestiria flubbed its open world approach by including too many sparse environments, itís unfortunate to see the team revert to the smaller scale. Since the story focuses on pirates and sea exploration, it would have been nice to be able to actively sail across the ocean. Instead, that region is reduced to a menu. Players simply pick which location to travel to next and materialize at their destination.
Whether or not it was due to a shorter development time or a conscious decision by the staff for artistic reasons, the decided reduction in the number of available side quests is also felt. Each party member and some supporting cast members have personal quests, but thereís not a lot on offer anywhere else. It's not all bad, though. Berseria still has my favorite supporting cast to appear in any game in the franchise. I came to really love the cast of fugitives that joined the pirate crew over the course of my journey, and there are some real surprises for those who dig deep enough into the pasts of these supposed monsters. It would certainly be nice to have more to do, but Iíll always take quality characterization over busy work.
Unlike Zesteria, Tales of Berseria finally runs at a mostly solid 60FPS. Itís a welcome quality for a game with an active battle system, but the fluidity shouldnít come as that much of a surprise since what you're getting looks like a PS3 game. With frequent pop-in and sparse environments, the Tales series still doesnít look like a current gen outing. For those of us who donít particularly care about visuals, Berseria is serviceable. Still, I canít help but hope the next game fully embraces the power of the PS4 and shows us a world that can only be realized on current hardware.
Tales of Berseria stands proud as one of the best games in the franchise. It doesnít quite reach the level of Tales of Xillia 2, but it certainly comes closer than Zestiria did. If you found yourself bored with latter, Iíd recommend giving Berseria a shot. Itís a far more focused game that knows exactly what it wants to do. If the series can keep this up, I have high hopes for whatever the team comes up with next.
Freelance review by Zachary Walton (February 08, 2017)
Zach Walton likes JRPGs, visual novels, horror games and anything that gives him an excuse to drink.
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