JRPG Journey 2021: Tales of Berseria (May)
April’s games: Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2
June’s game: Radiant Historia
Besides Pokemon, Tales of Symphonia was the first JRPG I played. It’s still the game that comes to mind first when I think “JRPG”, and for good reason. It’s got a compelling story full of twists, beautiful music, a large cast of characters with interesting stories to discover, tons of sidequests and optional content, a fun battle system that expands as you play, lots of frills that add flavor — such as the grade system, the wonder chef, and those crazy Katz, and varied, memorable locations, all wrapped up in an endearing presentation that’s very Japanese, in the best way. Those skits especially opened my young mind to the appeal of anime-esque storytelling, tropes and all. I love Tales of Symphonia, and it made me an instant fan of the series going forward. I wanted to play every Tales game that came after, and while I haven’t quite played them all, I’ve played most of the main series titles ever since.
I’ll admit I haven’t played Legendia — yet — but Tales of the Abyss was another masterpiece, and hell, I bought an Xbox 360 to play Vesperia on launch day. While that game didn’t match the experience Symphonia gave me, I loved it for what it was, and the magic continued. Same thing for Graces. Where it lacked in storytelling, characterization, and even side content, it made up for by having the best battle system of the series, and still the best third-person combat I’ve ever played. It’s actually my favorite Tales game.
However, for the past decade or so I’d been feeling a little down on the series. It’s like an old friend you haven’t seen in years wanting to catch up. You go to meet with them, and things go.. OK, but you find it hard to connect like you used to. The conversation feels forced, things are a little awkward, and the chemistry just isn’t there anymore. That’s how Tales has felt for me since Xillia came out. For friendships, that’s OK. People grow apart. C’est la vie. But Tales, that’s my beloved JRPG series. Seeing it change so much, grow more streamlined, lose the world maps and much of the sidequests.. it’s different now, and while that started with Graces, I felt it hard with Tales of Xillia.
Don’t get me wrong — I do like Xillia. It’s a fine game; I had fun with it, but it was the first to lack the magic that made Tales.. Tales for me. I didn’t bother playing Xillia 2, since I’d read it’s set in the same world, and I’d had enough of Xillia’s setting by the time I finished. Zestiria… well, you probably already know how unpopular this one is. I like it more than most Tales fans, but it was the farthest cry yet from how the series established itself in 3D with Symphonia. I can’t remember any of the characters or a single thing that happened in the plot, and I finished Zestiria! It’s.. bizarre that it took so long to make, yet felt so barebones, incomplete, and disappointing.
That’s why up until this year, I kept putting off playing Berseria. There are plenty of other JRPGs I needed to catch up on, and even though I still enjoy Tales games well enough, I didn’t want to be ultimately let down by another one, at least compared to the greats like Symphonia, and Abyss.
Tales of Berseria was developed by Bandai Namco Studios and released in Japan in 2016. It came to the West in 2017, and when it did, I heard nothing but great things. It supposedly made up for what Zestiria lacked, but.. I wasn’t so sure, since a lot of fans really loved Xillia, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to play a prettier version of Xillia. With Arise coming out this year though, I decided it was finally time to give Berseria a shot.
For the first few hours, I thought the magic might be back. The serene opening at Aball is a classic JRPG staple, a perfect way to introduce you to Velvet Crowe and her simple life. Then you’re hit with the shocking sacrifice and betrayal that sends her down her path of rage, and all systems are go. It’s a hell of a lot fun breaking out of Titania, and the next few sections — the Icecaps, Hellawes, and Beardsley — hold up to that standard.
Buuut after that, things got a little boring. Vortigern is a slog through samey-looking hallways, the Danaan Highway is a dull field, and the battles started to feel repetitive. All the way up through the Vesper Tunnels, I was thinking, OK, this is looking like another Xillia. Fun enough to keep going, but lacking that spark that makes past Tales games shine. No sidequests, boring locations, lots of rote combat.. hell, the story was the only thing keeping me interested.
Oh-ho-ho. How wrong I turned out to be. While the problems I mentioned did get fixed, and I’ll address them later, I’ll start with the story and characters, since they’re the best part of the game. Velvet’s quest for revenge kept me playing through the early sections, but her character, is a bit one-note. She’s out for revenge, and that’s about it, for most of the game anyway. And that’s OK! That’s all she needs to be for this story. Ain’t nothing wrong with a simple revenge tale, and she does get some growth by the end. It’s the other characters, though, that really bring it.
I like Rokurou fine — his story is fairly simple too, but he was fun from the start, balancing Velvet’s intensity with a constant dry sense of humor. Young Phi was tropey as all get out, but showed immediate growth that never stopped, which I appreciate. Eizen’s a cool cat who only gets cooler, and while he has the weakest characterization of the main cast, what he contributes to the plot makes up for it. He’s the reason the gang has a pirate ship, after all. And Magilou — ohhh, Magilou. While she doesn’t join your party until much later, she pops up constantly to throw a wrench into your plans or otherwise make mischief, never revealing her true goals but always providing some crucial bit of information or assistance your party needs. She’s a joy to watch.
Her English voice actress is wonderful as well, and does a great job of portraying the zaniness of this character archetype that’s common in anime but is rarely captured well in dubs. That ain’t the case here — I’m usually a “subs over dubs” guy, but Magilou is THE reason I stuck with the dub in Berseria and never looked back. (Although Velvet is a standout as well.) It’s a fantastic performance that’s surprisingly nuanced at times, and I’m thrilled her VA will play the protagonist in Tales of Arise.
However, my interest in the game truly picked as Eleanor became more involved in the story, and she eventually became my favorite character. I love a good redemption arc, and watching Eleanor go from strict acolyte of the Shepherd to full-blown traitor. I won’t get into it much more here, but she demonstrated a lot of personal growth throughout, and if for some reason you’re watching this before you’ve played the game, go play it and experience her arc for yourself.
It’s Eleanor’s combat mechanics that really got me having a lot more fun with the game. Up until she joined, I’d mostly stuck with Velvet, since Rokurou’s style was too different for me to want to learn, and the other characters didn’t feel as fun. Velvet, on the other hand, is overpowered as hell, and that’s what had me feeling bored. Even on higher difficulties most battles were a cinch. Mash buttons, abuse Therion form, and you win. Now, I wasn’t JUST mashing buttons, I did set up element-based combos and take advantage of monster weaknesses, but that only made fights easier, and less fun. Using the right element wasn’t a challenge, and Velvet’s break soul is so overpowered that fights went by TOO quickly. I want to have to think a bit, use a little strategy, and the game was missing that for a solid 20 hours.
Enter Eleanor. I liked her mechanics from the start — a break soul that’s easy to activate but not super OP like Velvet’s, a solid mix of artes for stunning, dealing damage, and healing, and strong melee damage as well as the ability to hit from afar. That was perfect for me. I settled into a rhythm of maining Eleanor and switching to Velvet when I got in trouble. This was a nice way to keep Velvet out of the fray, which prevented battles from finishing too quickly, and you even get additional grade for switching characters. It’s also one of the best ways to heal!
As I got better at the combat, I realized the game rewards you for using ALL of the mechanics. In fact, that’s the whole appeal of the battle system. Build up your souls to let you build up your BG, to let you do strong attacks, which helps build souls again. If you’re low on health, use artes that absorb HP, or switch characters for a slightly different combat style. Once I understood this, I rarely needed to use items. In previous Tales games I would see this as a negative, but in Berseria it felt like a reward for getting better at the combat, and it was nice to have items available in case I messed up and needed them. That’s the ideal implementation of items in a Tales game, for me anyway.
The flow of combat never gets old, at least not during the 85 hours I spent with the game. You’re given new options as you progress, even as far as in the final dungeon, so it always feels like you’re doing something different than you were 10 hours ago. I can’t say that about any other Tales game, and it’s brilliant enough that I’d rank Berseria’s combat among the best in the series.
Alright, now to hit on some of the negatives, cuz Berseria sure ain’t perfect. There’s only one place to start, and that’s the dungeons. They’re the weakest part of the game. I wouldn’t mind them being so boring if they were shorter, but many of them are huge for no reason. The game’s already long enough, and there’s plenty of enemies to fight in the fields. The Tales team could have made equipment take half the time to master, and the dungeons half as long, and that’d feel great.
There’s also nothing interesting about the dungeons — just a bunch of samey looking hallways and rooms, with the occasional torch or panel to touch to let you progress. Nothing here can accurately be called a puzzle, and that’s the one major aspect of the Tales series I miss. Sure, the puzzles in Symphonia and Abyss could be long and occasionally annoying, but there can be a happy medium in between those and the dull dungeon design of Berseria. The best thing I can say is at least they’re not as brain dead as what’s found in Zestiria. Ughhh, boy.
The music is another of the game’s aspects I’ve seen criticized most. People tend to say Zestiria had great music, while Berseria’s is forgettable, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe it’s because I haven’t played it in years, but I don’t remember any of Zestiria’s music, and I don’t even remember thinking it was particularly great at the time. Berseria’s though, is.. mostly not memorable either. There’s at least a few great tracks though, like Hellawes (hella-veez), Taliesin (tally-esin), Aball (a-bahl), and The Calix. Apart from the music, the sound design stands out when listening in headphones. It’s never been done better in the series. There’s lots of background voices and effects when wandering through towns, and battles are mmmm.. delicious on the ears.
The game’s visuals aren’t amazing, but they are occasionally stunning. Not in the, “oh my god this looks like real life” kind of way, but in the “wow, this is a gorgeous piece of art” kind of way. The opening settings in and around Aball are particularly great, as well as the seaside views of Taliesin and most of the other towns. Berseria does look like a PS3 game, though, because it is one. It was only released for PS3 in Japan, but it’s clear that’s the console it was originally designed for. That’s alright by me. I’ll trade more detailed visuals for 1080p at 60 frames per second any day of the week, and Berseria looks and plays great — notwithstanding a few slowdowns in battles with lots of enemies at once.
Also, this isn’t an excuse, but Tales games have always been behind the times visually, so I wasn’t expecting anything amazing here. Berseria’s visuals are.. OK overall. I AM hoping Arise steps things up in that department, since it’ll be the first native PS4 game. It’s kind of hilarious that it’s coming out long after the PS5’s release, but hey, that’s Tales for you.
Getting back to what makes the game great, I’m impressed by how much variety Berseria has. There’s plenty of fun minigames, and while I’m not the type to spend too much time on those, they’re a nice change of pace. There’s ship travel and even a whole ally deployment system, reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, a sort of mini-RPG where you can dispatch ships to explore and bring back items and treasure. It’s not very deep, but it’s a fun way to break up the flow of the main game. I wouldn’t mind if every JRPG included something like this.
You’ve also always got different options available in terms of where you can go and what you can do. This keeps Berseria feeling fresh. At some points in the story, you might be on a linear path to a town, and that’s it. But, after a few cutscenes, you might have access to your ship and have a few destinations available. Then, you might have just one field to explore, but it’s a big field with some optional areas. After the next story beat, you might be able to freely explore every location so far, have new conversations with NPCs, and buy new items. Then you might be back on a story-focused linear path, but you always know you’ll be seeing something different soon. And of course, by the end, the entire world opens up, tons of sidequests become available, and you’ve easily got another 10 hours of optional content before finishing the story. While I wish the sidequests were sprinkled in sooner — there’s only a few you can do before that point — that would go against the scenario design I’ve described, and I’m happy to spend hours on sidequests no matter where they’re at in the game.
The amount of people to talk to and dialogue available is impressive, even for a Tales game, and most of it was interesting. Most NPCs will have four, five, or even more new dialogue bubbles pop up at various points, and it’s all up to you to re-explore and find out what’s changed. This is the kind of stuff I love about Tales and JRPGs in general, and I’m glad the series is moving back to its roots in this respect.
I can’t forget the Katz orbs, which give you a reason to re-explore areas you’ve already been to, or at least makes them not a chore. I don’t -really- care about the cosmetic rewards for these, but collecting them alone is enough of a prize, and by the time I was getting tired of walking through old locations, I got the hoverboard, which speeds things up and gives you a whole new system of movement. Berseria just keeps throwing new surprises and mechanics at you, all the up until the end, and it’s what I appreciate most about the game.
And despite the story being deadly serious, Berseria is stacked with humor, whether it be Magilou, her perverted malak Bienfu and the rest of the crazy Normin, the Katz, or general party banter. There’s even a whole secret sidequest with the Turtlez that had me laughing out loud at some points. And oh man, the skits are glorious. They are used a little too much in place of real cutscenes, but as a fan of hand-drawn animation, I.. almost prefer them. Static skits have been a thing of the past for a while in the Tales series, but Berseria jacks up the amount of movement on-screen during them to another degree.
I could go on.. I haven’t even mentioned the equipment upgrade system, which is well balanced and stays fun, unlike in many JRPGs, and provides useful buffs in combat. Alright, alright, I guess I did just go on, but I’ll stop there. Even knowing how much praise it’s received, Berseria was much more than I expected it to be, and it restored my faith in the Tales series. My hopes are high that Tales of Arise will be another fantastic entry.
Check back next month when I’ll discuss Radiant Historia, which is frequently heralded as one of the best DS RPGs. Been looking forward to playing this one.