The 16th entry in the venerable Tales series of JRPGS has fans salivating. Eugenia Woo finally got her hands on a copy and found a beautifully designed game let down by stilted plotting.
Ever since Tales of Phantasia in 1995, Bandi Namco (formerly Namco Tales Studio, formerly Wolf Team) have basically been operating an assembly line of palatable JRPGs. We’ve been kneeling at the end of that line with our mouths open, screaming incoherently for more. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all the games have been resounding successes, but that doesn’t usually stop us consumers.
Everyone who’s followed any Square Enix franchise for more than a couple of titles can probably attest to the strange compulsion that overtakes the long-time fan: sure, the crossover games and the spinoff titles are just sweet-smelling bags of shit but you’re sure as hell going to preorder them anyway. And so what if the graphics are dated? “We’re playing for nostalgia, right?” I whisper to an empty room, clinging to my copy of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. Nothing stirs. Defeated, I’m in the middle of sadly placing the game down next to my Hanzo dakimakura when Bandai Namco bursts through the door, biffing me with a copy of Tales of Berseria and screaming “IT’S ALL BETTER NOW.” [note: that was an extreme dramatisation of me buying myself the game on Steam for my birthday]
Tales of Berseria is obviously darker than the other Tales games from the get-go, and I don’t just mean the environmental shading, but it’s the fact that you’re introduced to the narrative in a much more interactive way compared to the titles of the past. It’s not like Bandai Namco has been in the habit of only making G-rated games, but this newest one is definitely a departure from the overtones that made both incarnations of Tales of Zestiria arguably bland. The one difference that you’ll notice almost immediately as a player, though, is the fact that Tales of Berseria is the first game of the franchise to have a solo female protagonist.
You play as Velvet Crowe, all dark hair and wide eyes and a 5-second girls’ love interaction with your best friend. A hunky swordsman with a mysterious past and a loli-styled witch that’s off her rocker also number amongst your various companions (all of a rather demonic bent). You’re about as far away as you can get from the original party make-up and opening cinematics of the rest of the franchise. However, I’m not naive enough to believe that any change is good change.
Yes, everything about Tales of Berseria feels like it’s a step in the right direction – it’s given itself a new coat of paint and flipped some narrative elements dear to the franchise on its head – but this feels less like a real change of creative direction and more like a necessity that the devs have reluctantly adopted to keep up with the times. Velvet is a refreshing character, there’s no denying it. She’s got sass, she kicks ass, and she’s not beholden to anything or anyone barring her insatiable thirst for vengeance. Without giving up too much information, her life, once the title screen fades, is basically a long series of unfortunate events. However, while the usual evolution from Relatively Carefree Teenager to Jaded Hero takes at least two arcs in the usual Tales games, Velvet gets all of her growing up crammed into the first hour.
Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting Bandai Namco to reinvent the wheel, mostly because when a game studio makes a big deal out of having a Strong Female Protagonist it’s usually just a nice way of saying that they wanted more opportunities for fanservice. In the Tales games, women have historically played a supporting role. They’ve been deuteragonists, served as minibosses, and generally been shallow in their untouchable mysteriousness. They fade in and out of the scene, or they cling faithfully to the protagonist for reasons that are underdeveloped and predictable. Tales of the Abyss had Tear, martially skilled but emotionally stunted, and her narrative purpose was just to link the spoiled brat of a main character to the Great Evil (and to carry his ass through every single fight).
This isn’t to say that I’m not happy about Velvet being the star. She was a welcome change! I was tired of being an unassuming bloke who needed literally everyone around him to hold his hand as he struggled through the big, bad world.
However, is Velvet going to be lead the way in fixing the lacklustre representation in JRPGs? Probably not. She’s definitely not a cookie-cutter anime cliché, and it’s not just because the events that shape her are much more adult than previous titles. However, for all the emotional weight behind the narrative twists and the thawing of Velvet’s cold heart, the delivery of the plot remains stilted.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison to group Tales of Berseria with the JRPGs of 2016 and 2017, but the animated dialogue overlays delivering the bulk of the storyline on the go (both important and seemingly inconsequential points) make it very hard to feel immersed and invested in the scheme of things. I didn’t want to miss any part of the story so on my first playthrough I sat through every single one, and the amount of irrelevant information was overwhelming. I’m all for experiencing banter between party members, but having the game pause every time Velvet wanted to reflect on an apple got really exhausting.
Another part of Tales of Berseria that underwent a noticeable change was the combat system. Visually, everything is a treat. The skills look good, the combinations are fluid, and there’s almost little to no delay in execution between you pressing a button and Velvet dishing out a roundhouse kick to make a Wudang master jealous. However, while it’s a vast improvement from Tales of Zestiria, here the combat is, most of the time, reduced to mashing a single button for success. It felt like an unnecessary oversimplification. Considering that the formula of battles has stayed true to the franchise, fights start to all blend into one homogenous blob soon after you’ve unlocked all your basic combo abilities. While there’s a mechanic introduced that trades Velvet’s HP for battle prowess, what’s intended to be a balancing act on the knife’s edge of death ends up being just another resource to manage by time you’ve cut your teeth on the local wildlife.
All in all, there’s a lot to like about Tales of Berseria and not a lot to hate. The complaints that players are going to have aren’t game-breaking by any means, and while it might sound like I had a lot to gripe about, none of those things stopped me from finishing and enjoying the game. Sure, the game felt like one step forward in most regards and then two steps back in others, but Velvet was a breath of fresh air in a franchise that’s long rested on its laurels. All the things that I initially enjoyed about the Tales games were polished and refined in this release, and I can appreciate that they tried something new, even if the execution left something to be desired.
Velvet is a memorable protagonist and while some of her appeal stems from the shock value of her circumstances, it doesn’t detract from a cohesive narrative and a cast of likeable anti-heroes. For all of its shortcomings, Berseria is the best Tales game to come out of Bandai Namco in years, and my only regret is that I couldn’t engage emotionally with the story enough for it to be as rewarding as I’d hoped.
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