Hard to explain the story of Tales of Berseria without spoiling it like the western trailer did. So let’s skip the details and just say that the heroine Velvet travels seeking vengeance against a man called Artorius, who happens to have been her stepbrother. Velevet and Artorius’s entwined fates take a great importance since she’s so determined to slaughter the man who’d come to be the older brother she’s never had.
Tales of Berseria main topic is resentment and Velvet is the right incarnation of that. Transformed into a gôma (demon, former word to designate Tales of Zestiria’s hyôma), she manages to keep a human appearance, save her now ghostly black hand. That cursed arm allows her to eat onter gôma and humans, which she will do without faltering if it serves her purposes. Locked in a the highest security jail in the world, she’ll eventually escape thanks to the help of a Seirei (former name of Tales of Zestiria’s Tenzoku) called Shirizu.
It’s a personal thought, but the major problem I see in this latest Tales is that it struggles to go beyond the theme of vengeance : the main story has too few plot twists and doesn’t show moral values as strong as in past episodes. There’s no transcending the basic setting to go towards a more complex truth. The narrative is kinda even and didn’t always keep my interest on 70 hours of play.
While the main story can disappoint in a whole, it is well structured despite the lack of major events in the first stages of the adventure. Tales of Berseria sets a few interesting secondary themes like child/parent relationship, focused on Eleanor. The young Templar has a major role in the story and will be at the center of the most emotional moments. She is the character representing principles and values, herself driven to cause irreparable harm while being tormented by her past.
The other interesting aspect of the narrative is that it explains who Tales of Zestiria’s world (it takes place hundreds of years before the latter) was formed. It does it extremely well because it makes you experience the genesis of key-elements of the former in remarkable fashion. In particular, the birth of the Kamui was a powerful scene, maybe the climax of the game. You also come to witness the rise of the dôshi (the hero of the people, Sorey’s role in Tales of Zestiria) who is… Artorius himself! The “bad guy” of Tales of Berseria is actually the savior of the world because he’s nearly eradicated the gôma that threatened humans. Hero or not, Velvet’s hate will never falter against this man who took everything from her, and she doesn’t care if the whole world turns against her. This is the greatness of Tales of Berseria’s narrative : you actually fight against what you were in Tales of Zestiria. Good is evil, and evil is good. This clever point of view of the story is most interesting to experience.
Cutscenes and the general direction support the narrative in a quite efficient way, but here again it’s towards the end that you’ll be really blown away. Some real time cutscenes are among the greatest in the series, like the duel between Rokurô and Shigure, or the final confrontation. The extreme precision with which battles are drawn is something you rarely find in JRPGs, at least not at this level of quality. Tales of Berseria also has I think more convincing villains than the previous game. The tokutô taimashi, the elite templars at the head of the seiryô (totalitarian Church founded by Artorius) are formidable opponents and have close ties with some of your characters. Those characters have a sort of powerful aura in them, a charisma not especially coming from their “wickedness” but more more in their strong beliefs and the honor they put in them.
Your party won’t disappoint either, because as always BandaiNamco’s character design team makes an amazing work to describe and give an unforgettable personality to the heroes. It kinda came as a surprise, but the most fascinating characters has actually been Aizen : the lieutenant of the valorous pirates you’re journeying with is victim of a curse that makes him the most unlucky person in the world. Every time he casts his coin representing the goddess on one side and the reaper on the other side, he gets the reaper side! The famous skits of the series are of course back and they’re full of hilarious joke often related to his bad luck. Besides, the way he corresponds with Edna through letters is extremely fun too, but also touching when you know what fate awaits the brother and sister.
The battle system is a variant of the one seen in Tales of Zestiria : we’re still in real time and the action is still based on dodging. L1 is used to enter defensive state and trigger sidestepping and such, so as to replace yourself when attacking. By default, the character moves freely on the battle zone, so he can escape danger more easily. This time, X, Δ, O and 口all have one unique combo or magic. For example, Velvet performs a kick combo of fire element on O while while X makes her draws her hidden blade. Eleanor has a more hybrid attack style, composed with efficient spear combos and high-end magic. Note that you can modify all those combos anytime by inserting the skills you prefers to any of the buttons. You’re not even forced to stay on the same buttons : you can mix them to create further combo combinations.
The general architecture of battle too is close to Zestiria’s. There’s something called Soul gauge divided between small blue spots that sets the number of hits you can chain. Above this number, the gauge turns red and you may get countered. You therefore have to keep a minimum «stock» of blows at all times. The maximum level of Soul can go up and down, which might be trouble for the player. You can get Soul points in the following cases : by stunning an enemy, destroying an enemy or picking a small blue square on the battle area (in this later case, they pop if an ally is KO or when you dodge). Precise and reactive players who will manage to keep a high level of Soul at all times and fully enjoy the fight. But if you have less good reflexes, the system is highly punitive.
I’ve put some thinking into this all long my 72 hours of play, and I keep thinking that the system is not ideal, even more so if you compare to Zestiria or Xillia1&2. It’s certainly exhilarating when you have the upper hand in battle because chaining combos and Breaksoul feels dynamic and awesome, but at the same time it’s really unfair to the player if he makes mistakes because he finds himself lacking Soul. In such case, getting back in the fight is difficult and you often have to wait because you can perform long enough combos. The other downside is the boss battles : while you always have some chance to get back Soul against countless small enemies, it’s however quite rare against a solo boss, who by the way is resistant to stun. As a consequence, the boss fights, which are the pinnacle of any JRPG, here in Tales of Berseria actually are the less exciting ones. BGs are back and are still used to unleash the powerful Mystic Artes, but you need to perform Breaksoul to earn them. So no Soul → no Breaksoul → no Mystic Artes. Worse, you lose BGs when you are KO… a sad vicious circle that makes boss fights almost a chore.
By pushing R2 longer, you can perform the Breaksoul I’ve been talking about. This is a special ability unique to each character and that adds some strategy to this Tales of. For example, Rokurô can launch a powerful counter after a successful guard on an enemy’s physical attack. Magilou is a nightmare for magical creatures because she can cancel and absorb magic from casting enemies, herself launching a magical counterattack too. Eleanor launches the enemy upwards to follow with an aerial combo. Breaksoul being able to break enemy guard, it is key to victory because opponents are highly liable to defend. Breaksoul also makes you recover HP and BG, but costs a Soul point. The tactical intend of this system is very clear and the swift character changing makes it quite relevant. Note that there sometimes is a second Breaksoul (like Eleanor’s), which heals you even more and allows for longer combos, then ultimately to the amazing 2nd Mystic Artes.
Velvet will call the demon in her arm to steal a enemy skill. Similarly to Final Fantasy’s Blue Magic, the attack that Velvet will launch depends on the type of enemy encountered. The boss in the video gives a sort of cross-shaped blue flame whereas by «stealing» Ents, Velvet will scratch the ground violently, causing a mini-earthquake. Those powerful skills have cost : Velvet’s HP will gradually diminish when her black hand is deployed.
The equipment menu is also much like in Tales of Zestiria, but the whole system has totally changed. Now the characters can learn passive skills from the pieces of equipment, provided they keep those on them long enough. Pretty much what you had in Final Fantasy IX for example. Upgrading equipment is a major part of Tales of Berseria’s gameplay : you can dismantle old gear to get raw materials and reinforce new weapons and armor. Each time you upgrade, the piece of equipment receive bonus stats, additional passive skills and greater Soul & BG upper limit.
In terms of side content, Tales of Berseria has quite a lot in store. First thing, you can send your ship explore far waters. It can come back with new recipes, ingredients or even the much desired swimsuits for your characters. Those may not be extremely pretty compared to the DLC outfits, but at least they’re free. You can also earn “treasures” which are easter eggs to former Tales of games. That said, it’s less compelling than Tales of Zestiria’s “discoveries”.
Tales of Berseria has a couple of poor mini-games, except for one : it’s a card game very much like the Japanese game koi-koi, made with cards representing former Tales of characters. You draw a card each turn, and you try to regroup them by game or by role. A quite interesting mini-game that reminds us of Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Xillia 2. Another optional event, “dangerous” battles (when you encounter two enemy symbols at once) sometimes lead to even more dangerous fight featuring rare monsters. The game also contains hidden islands interesting in one particular aspect : that’s the only place where you will be able to use your PS4 share. BandaiNamco unfortunately keeps that retarded mentality of denying player the ability of sharing their experience of the main story.
Finally each character has his/her own sidequest in which you’ll have to revisit every town and every dungeon. Rokurô continues his quest for power by chasing powerful beasts, Magilou will organize comic performances, Laphicet tries to make a legendary elixir, Aizen is looking for present for Edna… More amazing still, Millia and Jude from Tales of Xillia will infiltrate Velvet’s world in a rather surprising form!
Exploration is a little disappointment in Tales of Berseria. Level design is nothing special, and dungeons are significantly less interesting than Tales of Zestiria’s. Only one had you solve a real puzzle to advance, the only one that made exploration a little exciting. Graphically too, there’s no revolution in sight : still developing on PS3 at the same time, BandaiNamco keeps a worn out 3D engine. Characters still get beautiful models, animations and moves are precise and lively, but the environment around you looks mediocre at best. Dungeons in particular are seriously bland, and are direct copies of what we’ve seen in Tales of Zestiria. Only advantage of this new Tales of, teleport bottles can get you into town in a flash.
To conclude, still a fascinating Tales of to experience despite the somewhat flattish main story. Scenario structure, direction, cutscenes, characters and sidequests enrich the game experience more than enough to spend long hours of play. I still consider it a little less good than Tales of Zestiria because the battle system is not perfect and exploring not as interesting.