Once in a while, the first hours of a game promise more than what's to follow can deliver, and that's the case with the latest instalment in the Tales series. Tales of Berseria hits the ground running, offering a unique "baddie" perspective to a standard role-playing game, but it can't quite keep up the pace till the end.
Velvet is a woman forged by a personal and deeply tragic story, and during the early hours she transforms from an ordinary villager into the vampire-demon hybrid you see on the cover wearing highly impractical battle gear. The anti-hero label is strong with this one, as so much of her reasoning would better fit a villain than the classic role-playing protagonist. The main storyline of vengeance takes Velvet through many different areas while expanding the motley crew with combatants of different skills and aspirations.
The narrative starts to hobble after the strong start, however, with poor pacing and an overflow of throwaway dialogue. The major beats are illustrated with well-drawn anime clips, but you'll spend most of your time with scenes rendered with the in-game engine. There's also a motherload of classic talking heads conversations with static characters, and these often seem to overstay their welcome.
The main plot of deceit, creation of new gods, and a church-run police state offers an interesting platform for the action, though, and the twists keep the motivation up even when the game stalls in other areas. The characters are familiar from Japanese storytelling traditions; you've got the samurai-type swordsman, baby-faced innocent boy, cynical antiheroes, and so on and so forth. After the shocking start, Velvet's character development keeps running in circles for a while, but not indefinitely. The at times genuinely funny comic-relief comes in the form of Magilou the (Fabulous) Witch, whose interaction with the more serious members of the group kept us entertained.
The barrier between tragedy and comedy gets smashed on a constant basis. If you're accustomed to Japanese games, this might not be a big deal, but for others the constant switching between two extremes might be too much to handle. Also, the in itself enjoyable cosmetic item system can interfere with an emotional scene, if one of the characters is wearing a huge plushie-type outfit in an otherwise sad moment.
The numerous combat encounters against fantasy monsters are handled in real-time. The combo-heavy system allows fights against inferior opponents to be over in a few seconds, while harder encounters (against bosses, for example) can drag on quite a bit. Each face button can be mapped with a series of strikes with different characteristics, which are then executed in order by pressing said button. Keyboard and mouse is also a possibility, but feels counter-intuitive and cumbersome compared to a controller. Combos can be enhanced with Soul Break strikes, which can keep the momentum up and offer a powerful special strike as it concludes. On top of that, you've also got characters "tagging in" from the sidelines, blocking, dodges and so on.
The combat might have layers upon layers, but they're all very stat-heavy and don't add to the mechanically monotonous button mashing much, and some of the strikes also seem to target a wholly different enemy than the one locked on. Berseria might look like a brawler at times, but it lacks that sort of finesse and fluidity. The recently released Final Fantasy XV employs a real-time combat system as well, but manages to deliver a more natural and impactful version than Berseria's.
The visual aspects of the game are lagging behind as well. For starters it looks like a last-generation game with fuzzy textures, basic lighting, and areas lacking any detailing or stand-out architecture. The characters themselves are fortunately up to snuff, brimming with personality. The positive side of modest looks is that the game boots up very swiftly, and you don't have to stare at loading bars for long, adding to the enjoyment quite a bit.
The user interface is filled with minor annoyances. Comparing weapons and skills is a drag and some of the text boxes have scrolling text in them instead of taking advantage of the plentiful empty space (or just by phrasing the message in a more concise way).
In terms of environments, the early hours are spent in a more linear fashion. Once the world opens up a bit, it unfortunately gets filled with big empty nothingness. The many dungeons are often very bland and maze-like and the open fields are dotted with basic enemies with little thought apart from simply giving the player something to grind experience and materials from. The collectable items and chests are spread out across the map in a similar fashion, so you'll be spending quite a bit of your playtime running from one dead-end to another just to collect all the shinies. This would have been an opportunity for the developer to inject some dialogue instead of using it in a disruptive manner.
The early notes in Tales of Berseria were promising, but this sixteenth game in the series couldn't quite maintain its strong start. The main storyline is intriguing thanks to the new, demonic viewpoint, and the characters are well-written and voiced in both English and Japanese. Combat mechanics are deep, but mostly by being stat-heavy and not by making it more interesting to play, and there's no inherent enjoyment drawn from taking on hundreds or thousands of enemies. Tales of Berseria is by no means a bad game and is sure to offer a long and enjoyable experience for Tales and JRPG fans alike, but the next iteration must shed its last-gen aesthetics and mechanics to keep up with times and offer something truly innovative for players.