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A Gripping Tale with A Demanding Investment

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    Tales of Berseria

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    A Gripping Tale with A Demanding Investment

    This review was written on November 18, 2017 for Version 1.00 of Tales of Berseria for the Playstation 4

    The Tales series was always one I had been meaning to get into, but never found the opportunity. By the time I had actually acquired a Playstation 4 of my own, the poorly reviewed and esteemed Tales of Zestiria had already signaled for many longtime fans the "final death" of the series. However, Zestiria’s prequel, the upcoming Tales of Berseria, shone like a light at the end of the tunnel and captured the attention of series veterans and newcomers alike. It promised a darker, grittier story than the series was historically known for and a main cast that players could grow intimately attached to. As a newcomer to the series, it seemed like the perfect entry to hop aboard.

    Taking place one thousand years before Tales of Zestiria, Tales of Berseria lines up the state of that world in an epic drama of hatred, betrayal, and revenge. You play as Velvet Crowe, a young country girl living in the quiet village of Aball. On the eve of the Crimson Moon, which had previously claimed the life of her older sister, Velvet’s meek life is turned completely upside down when she’s transformed into a demon and murders her entire village in a bloody rampage. Now with a thirst for revenge, Velvet is determined to kill her way to the man who stole her life and her family.

    The tone of the game is constantly dark throughout, and the most interesting facet of the overall narrative is the fact that Velvet very frequently dips into the "clearly immoral" category. She’s completely unfazed at the thought of manipulating whoever she needs to to achieve her goals, even killing indiscriminately if the situation calls for it. The traditional party of heroes is instead comprised of criminals, misfits, and rejects, which is an interesting departure from the familiar tropes. This change of perspective is welcome, especially considering how for the majority of the game, it’s unclear if you’re playing as the good guys.

    While the writing of Tales of Berseria’s main narrative is great overall, it suffers from plenty of pacing issues. The story is structured in a series of arcs that develop the main cast both individually and as a unit, but as a result creates an ebb and flow of highs and lows that shift unpredictably and sometimes nonsensically. The heart-pounding excitement of arc climaxes are followed by segments of dungeon crawling or segue awkwardly into the beginnings of the next plot point, which completely drops the pacing of a particular part of the main narrative. The quieter parts of the story – the traveling, the exploration, and the (few) mandatory fetch quests – drag on for noticeably long periods of time, and though the world building is executed phenomenally in towns and in the environment, the constant transition from fast to slow is jarring, confusing, and annoying.

    Berseria’s overly cliche tutorial segment is an excellent example of the game’s pacing issues. It begins in Velvet’s quiet village and sets the framework for the looming narrative with foreshadowing and thematic paving while introducing you to the basics of the battle system. It feels formulaic, but introductions in this genre are meant to reassure the player that the game they’re playing is worth investing time into. Tales of Berseria did nothing original or exciting with its introduction besides introducing a few plot elements that didn’t become relevant until much, much later in the game. The lengthy introductory statement is only an echo of how Berseria handles its story over the course of the game.

    Though the narrative may drag on at certain spots, the fantastic cast of characters and the careful attention to their writing keeps the story chugging along at every turn. The main cast is kept small with six playable characters, which helps the group chemistry avoid being bogged down by an overly large party. They each have unique personalities and goals, but their character writing truly begins to shine as their motives, ideals, and even their worldviews are challenged by the events of the game. Though each of the characters are completely distinguishable, their dialogue constantly pinballs around a core set of themes. It’s not unusual for the most outlandish, off-topic, or outright goofy conversations to come back to an allegorical or philosophical discussion about what’s going on in the world. The main cast and even some of the supporting characters have an intimate depth to their writing, which the narrative was sure to examine deeply.

    Exploring Berseria’s gorgeous segmented world was usually entertaining, thanks to a few key factors that keep the experience from ever feeling like a chore. The game doesn’t feature the most graphically intensive or systemically taxing world, but focused art design and a wide color palette secure the adventure’s captivating appeal. To compound the fantastic character writing, little snippets of optional dialogue called Skits pepper the game with tons of lighthearted conversation. Skits do everything from simple comedy to extra world building, and often provide welcome insight as to what the characters are thinking or how they feel about certain things. Many areas have plenty of hidden chests, secret bosses, special enemies, and unique drops that encourages additional exploration as well.

    Borrowing the series’ signature Linear Motion Battle System, Tales of Berseria ties pages of menu systems behind an extremely hands-on and empowering action battle system which allows players the freedom to approach combat using whatever tool they have at their disposal. At the simplest levels, players build decks of combat techniques called Artes that tie to the face buttons of the controller. Each button can chain a combo of up to four Artes that activate sequentially as you form combos on the battlefield, meaning you can effectively employ up to sixteen different Artes at any given time. Each party member can learn many different Artes unique to that character, and with a maximum of four characters on the field during battle, Arte synergy can be exploited to maximum effect in countless different ways.

    Artes are classified as either Martial Artes, which strike for physical damage, or Hidden Artes, which deal magic damage. Additionally, Artes can possess many different attributes, including elemental damage, status effect inflictions, and character stat buffs. Naturally, enemies possess both weaknesses and resistances to certain elements as well as either Martial or Hidden Artes. On top of this, another thing to take into consideration is the Arte’s actual animation, including striking range, timing, direction, and travel distance. Well-timed Artes can be an excellent way to attack multiple enemies at once, maneuver to a more advantageous position, or outright dodge attacks altogether. Given how Arte decks can be customized and rearranged on the fly to allow players to adapt to any situation, exploiting an opponent’s specific weakness or behaviors is not only possible, but encouraged.

    Combat revolves around the use of the Soul Gauge, which acts as a pseudo-stamina bar as well as a way to meter your aggression in a fight. Each Arte has a set cost to perform, and running out of Souls could leave you unable to block, vulnerable to attack, and prone to status effects. However, spending your maximum Souls in a fight might allow you extend a combo beyond its natural duration or even deploy powerful attacks such as a vicious Break Soul or a devastating Mystic Arte. Spending Souls to attack and gaining them back through well-timed aggression is the central mechanic governing Tales of Berseria’s battle system. Smart usage of the Soul Gauge is absolutely vital for bringing out the maximum potential of the game’s battle system.

    Unfortunately, the mechanically complex gameplay offered to the player is not mirrored by the mechanical complexity of any of the game’s various enemies. The amount of strategy required of the player during battle begins and ends with planning a repertoire of Artes to capitalize on an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and even the game’s numerous bosses fail to provide a mechanically engaging experience. The result is a battle system that evolves very slowly over the length of the game. However, the vast variety of Artes and their wide range of implication keeps battles from feeling tired because it places its skill ceiling firmly in the hands of the player and their capabilities, rather than masking it with optimized equipment and skill sets.

    That’s not to say skills and equipment aren’t important – they’re absolutely vital for developing your character’s combat capabilities, but they do so in a different way. In addition to the traditional stat bonuses, each piece of equipment has a specific passive skill tied to it, and if a character wears that piece of equipment in battle long enough, they learn that skill permanently. This not only sublets the necessity of carrying obsolete pieces of gear for their unique skills, but also provides an intense and constant sense of progression as your characters learn new skills and build their collection. Naturally, each skill only provides small, incremental bonuses like tiny amounts of health regen or increased damage against certain enemy types, but as a character’s collection of mastered passive skills grows, their impact on the battlefield transforms from a welcome bonus to a noticeable boon.

    The raw amount of item and equipment drops is integral to developing a party, but it does have certain logistical drawbacks. Your inventory capacity fills rapidly, and selling sprees and dismantling sessions quickly became a necessary chore. Thankfully, the game has multiple systems in place to help make the process of deciding which gear to keep and which to scrap easier. Each character has a checklist showing which skills they’ve learned and which they haven’t alongside the piece of equipment they can learn it from. Additionally, at the shop or dismantle menu, the HUD provides all the necessary information relating to a piece of equipment, including which characters can equip it, which have learned its skill, and which have not. In a game with such a variably complex loot and mastery system, I was extremely grateful for such a simple quality of life addition.

    It would be dishonest of me to pretend that Tales of Berseria doesn’t drag on for a wildly unnecessary amount of time, but it would be equally dishonest to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Berseria calls to mind the narrative habits of epic poetry: it drags on to get to a main point, but once said point is achieved, you learn to appreciate the filler in a completely new light. The main themes of this game – the struggle between emotion and logic; between free will and imposed control; between wish fulfillment and acceptance – eventually tie what would have otherwise been a messy narrative together so tightly that I can forgive a few missteps. But it’s important to note that this gratification doesn’t kick in until very late into the game. The same must be said of the battle system: its true depth only begins to shine after you put in the effort to practice and understand it. If you’re not prepared to invest long hours into this game, Berseria will probably come off as a boring mess of cliche writing complimented poorly by a repetitive battle system and a painfully average soundtrack. If you are, Berseria will certainly reward the patient player with a cast of truly memorable characters and an engaging and rewarding battle system.

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