Namco’s Tales franchise is the black sheep of the long-running JRPG franchises that still thrives today. It doesn’t have the notoriety or critical acclaim of something like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, other anthology series of old that still hold strong and iterate. It fails to hit the wider reception of massive audiences; no entry has become quite the critical darling of its competitors, yet it still continues, and most recently, flourishes through its many hiccups along its storied path. Since the first Tales of Xillia, which released on PS3 in 2013 (2011 in Japan), the series hasn’t quite left a massive impact with any entry, even if its sales continue to grow. Tales of Berseria changes that.
Tales of Berseria is a tour de force in all of the learnings of that PS3 generation of Tales games that have come and gone. It stands as the best entry in the series since Tales of Vesperia was released on Xbox 360 in 2008, and does just about everything right for a series that felt almost crippled because of missteps in the past few years.
Berseria starts its overhaul with a fresh, different approach to its characters and storytelling. It begins with a flashback to the origins of Velvet, the first exclusively female protagonist the series has ever seen. Velvet falls from bubbly anime-affectionate heroine to vengeful demon over the course of three years, succinctly recounted in the opening hour or so of Berseria. Instead of drowning you in the mechanics and the inner-workings of the world, the tact here is to introduce the characters, namely its protagonist, and her foil through the story, Artorius Collbrande, which outside of being a fantastic name, is a villain who grounds the core revenge story that carries the entire narrative of the title, and makes the scope of the game’s set up in that opening hour deeply personal.
Tales of Berseria, while still drowning in JRPG jargon, a massive problem for Tales games specifically, really trims the fat down. It’s narrative is about characters and their relatable problems, and less about all the different titles for places, people, and spirits.
Character is always the heart of any good story, and since Tales games stand tallest when their cast is at the forefront (see: Xillia, Vesperia, and Symphonia), completely reimagining the heart of your storytelling into one focused on character is a breath of fresh air. From this kicking-off point, we understandably see a woman with so much love to give go to a bitter, selfish, and misanthropic anti-hero, which acts as the second tentpole of the narrative: you don’t really play the good guy.
From its peaceful villages to its wide landscapes, you and your eventual team of misfits, spirits, and demons run amok, causing genuine calamity with little regard for the safety and well being of the innocents that find themselves in your way. The story is the major highlight of this game, which hasn’t been the case with the most recent iterations of the franchise. It’s sweeping, world traveling, full of buccaneering pirates and tragic characters. The cast is made up of six of the strongest heroes of the series to date. Rokurou, the tragic Samurai demon who must best his clan’s leader, Eizen the pirate searching for a friend, taking no bullshit and plotting his own creed, and even Magilou, the sarcastic witch who slowly evolves into something far, far more interesting.
Time is spent on each character, with major sidequests cropping up for all of them. The characters not only develop in their own way, but as a group, in pairs, and the internal relationships between characters are some of the most compelling, with a great set of supporting cast members that help fill in Aifread’s crew, the pirate crew you end up spending most of your time with. Berseria still leans on tropes more often than I think will appeal to your standard RPG goer of today, but the cast of characters are relatable in at least some way, and the transformations that all of them experience through the lengthy journey is a really marvelous achievement, and one that I think really changes the tone of the whole franchise, denoting a far deeper experience than one the Tales series has ever tackled before. It surpassed my expectations with flying colors.
It’s worth noting, while discussing the story, that the game actually serves as a prequel to Tales of Zestiria. It’s a difficult thing to talk to, since I think the less said, the better, but it’s the first time a completely new and original game has been set in the same world as another Tales game, at least to great success. There are mostly small nods to events that may occur in the future, but having been a fan of the series and finished Zestiria, some of the attention to detail presented here enriches the experience even more. It can absolutely still be enjoyed on its own merits.
I’ve spent most of this time discussing the story, which is a highlight, but the major shift for the gameplay is also a massive boon to this entry in the series. Each Tales game is different mechanically, and that’s almost always for better and for worse. The action combat has been jumping around a lot more since the release of Tales of Graces, and Berseria evolves on what that and previous entry Zestiria did for the franchise.
Combat still has you entering a circular arena any time you touch an enemy on the map, but now instead of being generally linear, you moving left to right on a straight line between you and the enemy you target, you can freely roam the arena. Instead of mapping special attacks, melee attacks, and guard to three of the face buttons, all four face buttons have become different inputs for attacks, with guard being moved to the shoulder buttons. Anyone who has played a Tales game before probably recognizes this as super uncharacteristic, but everyone else may see it as more traditional, character action-like. And it is. That’s what makes it work; Tales of Berseria is closer to a Devil May Cry than it is to a previous iteration in its own franchise, and it’s excellent.
The combat is focused around combos, stunning enemies, and building up how many times you can attack in a single string of commands. It feels almost even fighting game-like, since a big reliance is on a special “Break” command, which lets you sacrifice one of the hits you have available to you in your current combo attack to cancel to the first hit in new a string of attacks, and by repeatedly using this at the end of your attacks, you can chain together combos for massive damage. Your arsenal of abilities grows pretty quickly, and each character has different breaks and different ways to combo off of enemies, with the main playable character, Velvet, really centralizing herself as one of the most fun Tales protagonists to play as to date.
The key components of Tales are here in all their glory too: the character skits, the presentation of which has been completely overhauled to make them way more fun to watch, the item upgrading system, which is oddly more like Dark Souls than anything else, allowing you to use specific repeated materials to upgrade weapons to +10. Even weapon skills make a return, which the series hasn’t seen since Tales of Vesperia: the longer you have an item equipped, you can eventually permanently learn a skill from using it, like +5 to attack, or something along those lines. The systems that have worked best in the past make a return, connecting all the tissue in Berseria into just a powerhouse entry for the whole series. Again: tour de force.
The complaints I have by no means hinder the experience, but they’re still worth noting. The game is still a little visually crippled. It runs at a fantastic 60 frames per second, but generally looks like a higher resolution PS3 game. The pop in from far-lying objects is the only time where this becomes really a noticeable issue.
My other issue, which is still just an odd one to bring up, is some weird mistakes in the written text dialogue. I don’t know how else to phrase it, but it looks like much of the subtitles toward the end of the game is a poor voice-to-text translation. The script, voice acting, and dialogue are all superb. The best in the whole series, I’d even say, but the script that scrolls in accompaniment to that looks as if a machine put it out, using homonyms and weird replacement words that just sound like what’s being said. It’s an odd complaint, but goes a ways to make the late-game sidequest content feel a less polished than the excellent framework that came before it.
But these minor complaints don’t really compare or diminish the achievement Berseria serves as for the franchise.
It’s odd to sit here and consider overlooking pieces that do go a bit of a way to taking down the incredibly polished nature of the package in play here. Parts of the final sidequests in the game have a rushed feeling to the localization, underpinned by a continuously great script which makes it all the more bizarre. Yet Tales of Berseria is such a total package. There are parts of it that may seem throwaway or experimental, but no part comes in the way of a total that captures the highest points of the series, while also trailblazing a new structure and format for a franchise that was beginning to feel like an RPG factory.
Watching this franchise hit its peaks and valleys, as frustrating as it has been, was worth it for this moment. For them to finally, really nail it.
Tales of Berseria is an adrenaline shot to the heart from almost the word go. Its fast-paced, character driven romp through the darkest underworlds of character motivation, with some of the most gratifying mechanics in the series to date underpin an achievement for Tales, as a series. Berseria is a true highlight, and though some parts of it don’t live up the high standards of its peaks, the package here is one that proudly stands as the best entry in the franchise in over nine years.