Just from the title, there are a few things you can expect from a Tales game: a lengthy story, melodramatic writing, dated visuals, and a real-time battle system. For the most part, Tales of Berseria sticks to the same formula. The story is long and punctuated with both predictable and unexpected plot twists, the writing can swing from tender moments to cringe-worthy ones, and the real-time combat is engaging but becomes stale near the end. Where Tales of Berseria differentiates itself from its recent entries is its mature story and characters.
Velvet Crowe, the protagonist, is introduced as a wholesome young woman taking care of her younger brother in a world overrun by demons and an evil presence known as Malevolence. After her brother is sacrificed in order to quell the evil in the world, Velvet is transformed into a demon and locked away in prison. The opening hours are slow, but after they come to a close, Tales of Berseria quickly spirals into a story of revenge. When we revisit Velvet years later, she’s no longer the innocent, wholesome girl from the prologue. She is angry. What’s striking about Velvet, as opposed to past Tales protagonists, is that she’s driven by rage and vengeance. Velvet isn’t trying to save the world. In fact, she is trying kill the man who saved it.
The darker tone makes up for Tales of Berseria’s slow opening hours. While the series has never shied away from heavy themes, it’s refreshing to play as a character in a Tales game who’s willing to do whatever it takes in order to get what she wants. She’s not afraid to kill, steal, and threaten when it’s necessary. Her apathy can be exhausting at times--even frustrating--but her motives are believable. The same can be said about the supporting cast of party members. Eizen is an infamous pirate trying to find the captain of his ship, Rokurou is a demon trying to slay his brother, and Magilou is an unpredictable witch who’s always looking for trouble.
As with the previous Tales games, the best way to get to know these characters is through optional skits. These are fully voiced conversations between your party members that show off some of the game’s best writing--and some of its worst. They can be funny, serious, awkward, witty, random, or just boring. In one entertaining scene, Rokurou and Magilou bet on whether or not Velvet will break before the journey ends, while in a far-too-lengthy skit, Eizen drones on about his pirate creed.
However, the standout character is Eleanor. Unlike the rest of the team, Eleanor is virtuous. She tries to help people and do what she thinks is right. But after she follows Velvet and her crew into an otherworldly dimension, Eleanor’s forced to work with them in order to escape. Throughout most of the game, she’s at odds with the company she keeps and finds herself stuck between two very different worlds. This foil creates an uneasy tension, and, at times, adds a much-needed reprieve from Velvet’s cruelty.
The other half of the experience comes in the form of combat.The trademark Tales real-time battles return, but not without some changes. Encounters take place in an open 3D space where you’re free to move, attack, and block at your own pace. Tales of Berseria removes the Technical Points bar and replaces it with the Soul Gauge--which is similar in that it dictates how long you can chain together combat and spell artes. However, unlike in previous games, you can steal souls from your opponents by knocking them out or stunning them. The Soul Gauge doesn’t change the flow of combat too much, but it does add a bit more fluidity to it. This system forced me to rethink my normal tactics; rather than targeting smaller enemies, I emptied my Soul Gauge on bigger foes and then focused my attacks on smaller ones in order to absorb souls.
Tales of Berseria's combat allows for plenty of experimentation. The game offers a wide variety of artes (abilities) across all six party members, and as long as you have enough souls, you can chain any of them together to create unique combos. Tales games have always allowed for this kind of experimentation, but linking artes hasn’t felt this fluid or interesting before. Once you have three or more souls, you can unleash a break arte. These drain your Soul Gauge but can have a devastating effect. As long as you time your break artes and carefully choose your hidden artes, you can keep the momentum of battle alive.
Unlocking artes and experimenting with new combos is initially delightful, but when new artes begin to dry up about halfway through the game, combat becomes increasingly repetitive and somewhat rote. Near the end, I found myself focusing more on avoiding enemies rather than trying different characters or testing out new artes.
Like Tales of Zesteria and Tales of Xillia, Berseria doesn’t have an overworld. Instead, you travel from town to town by trekking through large, sectioned-off areas. These landscapes aren’t all that inspired, either. Throughout the 50-hour adventure, you’ll visit grasslands, tundra, meadows, and mountainous regions which could easily be confused with locations from previous Tales games. It would’ve been nice if these areas followed suit with the darker themes, but they don’t. There isn’t much to see or do in these areas, either, apart from fighting enemies and hunting for treasure chests. After venturing through these sections a few times, I found myself fixated on the minimap whenever I had to retrace my steps.
Dungeons consist of long corridors that occasionally branch off, simple puzzles, and dozens of similar enemies. Apart from a palette swap, these multilevel dungeons look identical from floor to floor. Textures and objects are reused from corridor to corridor, making it a pain to navigate. The puzzles don’t require much thought, either. In most cases, you flip a switch or light a torch, and a door opens. These puzzles require minimal brainpower and usually had me backtracking through dungeons just to hit a switch I missed.
It doesn't help that Tales of Berseria looks dated. At times, it’s indistinguishable from 2013’s Tales of Xillia. Textures lack detail, side characters look bland, and, outside of battle, animations can be stiff. The art direction can go a long way at times to mitigate the poor graphics, especially in some later dungeons, but don’t expect to blown away by it.
Tales of Berseria’s weak presentation and dull world design may not excite, but they only account for a piece of an otherwise enjoyable tale. The refined combat, and the darker tone, paired with the sinister characters, makes for a more engaging experience overall . In these ways, Tales of Berseria actually takes the series in an intriguing new direction.