When Tales of Zestiria came out, I absolutely fell in love with the story and characters, even if the gameplay itself was obtuse, unnecessarily difficult, and downright frustrating. Regardless, I immediately claimed it as my favorite Tales game, even if so many others are technically superior in all aspects. Zestiria garnered a special place in my heart that cannot be taken by any other. One came close, however: it’s immediate successor, Tales of Berseria.
Being a prequel to Zestiria, the games are similar in many ways, some good and others… not so much. As a result, this review will actually feature both in about equal measure. But while on the surface level, Berseria might share many similarities with Zestiria, once you graze beneath the surface, you start to see just how much improved in Berseria.
For one, the story is immensely better. Zestiria was a classic Good Vs. Evil story, “Like a bad play where the heroes are right, and nobody thinks or expects too much.” Blues Traveler’s words are very fitting for Zestiria, and it is a damning statement. Even if I personally found the world and story of Zestiria gripping, it’s easy to spot the numerous cliches. Sorey and friends are set on a journey to “save the world” from the ruin you don’t often actually see outside of cutscenes. The beautiful world sat in stark contrast to the terrified way people spoke of it. Not so in Berseria, where many areas of the world are clearly in states of decay. The world of Berseria is teetering on a ledge between doom and salvation, and even salvation would be doom. Where in Zestiria, the villain was a stock standard Stoic Evil Behemoth of a Man who had barely any presence in the story itself and a backstory that the game literally told you in a thirty second cutscene with no dialogue (it’s built on for about 5 minutes at the VERY end of the game), in Berseria, the bad guy is a Villain With Good Publicity such as Tales is known for, who genuinely wants the best for the world but was broken by his own experiences into utilizing methods that would make his goal ultimately meaningless. He is constantly in the background of the story, even if not directly involved in whatever current situation the party is dealing with.
One of Berseria’s big selling points was the first female protagonist in franchise history (not including Milla Maxwell of Xilia, who shared the position with Jude Mathis). Velvet Crowe is arguably one of the strongest characters in the Tales series, with writing that develops her well over the course of the story and a performance by Cristina Valenzuela that sells every moment. The prologue begins with her as a happy, cheerful girl who’s friends with the whole village and cares for her family deeply. After three hours, she is a broken, vengeance-fueled demon (quite literally) with the blood of the entire village wet on her hands. She is beholden to no such lofty goals like “saving the world” or “helping my friends” when she begins her journey. She wants only to kill the man who destroyed her world. At one point, one character refers to the party as a “troupe of villains,” and this indeed holds true to the very end of the game, as even though they ultimately “saved the world,” Velvet’s legacy is as the first “Lord of Calamity,” a term players of Zestiria will recognize immediately.
All the characters in the game are actually very well-written, especially on the party’s side. Rokurou Rangetsu is a demon who joins the party early on, claiming a debt to Velvet that beholdens him to her cause. He lives for the thirst for battle and aims to kill his brother for reasons he’s not immediately willing to share. Eizen (a returning character from Zestiria) is a pirate who joins the party searching for the captain of his crew. He is cold and ruthless (or so he likes to think). Laphicet is a malakim with, initially, no personality of his own, who joins the party due to an attachment he feels for Velvet. He’s also a Zestiria returner, though you might be surprised by who he is. Magilou is a witch who doesn’t care about the party at all and only travels with them because she finds it fun. She is an entirely mysterious character you learn little about, but is an absolute delight to have on your screen. Finally, Eleanor is a praetor for the villainous Abbey, who finds herself attached to the party after they’re forced to work together to survive. Aside from Velvet, Eleanor is probably the character who grows the most over the course of the story, and I found myself just as invested in her arc as I was in Velvet’s.
The most palpable improvements to Berseria were made to the combat system, however. Gone is Zestiria’s awkward Fire Emblem-esque weapon triangle, replaced instead by… nothing. Because it was unnecessary. The equipment system is far less obtuse, as well. Instead of a confusing mess where you had to combine items with abilities in specific slots in order to transfer them or mix two abilities to create an entirely new one (seriously, 60% of my frustration in Zestiria came from that), it has a more Graces-esque style of just using items to level the gear and unlock set abilities on the gear. It’s far more stream-lined and easy to grasp and I love it.
When it came to level and monster design, however, I have to call Berseria out for it’s laziness. Several locales are just retooled Zestiria locations (one particular early meadowy area I immediately recognized as a swamp from Zestiria, for example), and many trees, buildings, and such look exactly the same. Monsters were even worse about it, with probably about 50% of the bestiary being ripped from the game’s predecessor. And yes, the dreaded Marmot made a return (incidentally, being the spark that made me realize what was happening). Although, given that the game had a production cycle of about a year, I am willing to forgive this, while still acknowledging it happened.
However, character design is extraordinarily hit and miss, as well. Characters like Eizen and Laphicet have very memorable and sensible designs that clearly define who they are, others like Velvet and Magilou are far from sensible. Magilous’ “book skirt,” in p[articular, has become an endless fount of comedy for detractors of the characters, and I have to say… the book skirt is awful. I bought some of the DLC costumes just to get rid of it. Meanwhile, Rokurou wins the award for Least Visually Interesting Design In A Tales Game Since Genis From Symphonia. He’s a samurai. He wears purple samurai clothes. How cool.
Speaking of the DLC, however, this has become a major point of contention for me when playing recent Tales games. Zestiria made a handful of costumes DLC, which worried me then, but Berseria has taken the idea and ran with it. Gone are the days of cool sidequests where you might be rewarded with a nifty bartender outfit for Guy or even an epic black and red palette swap for Sorey. If you don’t unlock a costume via the story in Berseria, it’s DLC. Period. And there is SO MUCH DLC. They clearly had a lot of interesting ideas for cool outfits for all the different characters, but having to pay for them just feels gross. It’s a business practice in games that I’m becoming more and more disgusted with, where you take things that would have otherwise been in the base game, and force people to pay for it.
Ultimately, Berseria is a great game and you can’t go wrong picking this one up. It’s easily a contender for the best game in the series, and I personally would place it at the top. However, I cannot move past the hostage-taking of costumes, and I would like if, for the next entry, they made entirely new assets. Zestiria and Berseria taking place in the same world a mere few hundred years apart allows it some leeway, but going forward I would like to see both of these practices disappear.
Developer: Bandai Namco
Console: Playstation 4
Genre: Japanese RPG
Final Score: 8