Tales of Berry Sauce
I am a rather ardent fan of Namco's Tales series, which is one of the most venerable JRPG franchises not published by Square-Enix. Like many gamers in the West, my first foray into Tales was with 2004's Tales of Symphonia. Since then, I have played through all of the main titles that have been released into the English-language market. Unfortunately, the games in the series after Tales of Vesperia have been somewhat lacking. There has always been something about each game that has held it back from greatness. In comparison to ToV's relative polish, it felt like Namco had started to phone it in.
Some people may disagree with my thoughts, but I found that each of these games contained serious flaws:
- Tales of Graces F: Not only did it have an annoying story and characters, but its world design was uninspired.
- Tales of Xillia: There were many poorly executed plot cliches, and the villains had stupid motivations. It was also too short.
- Tales of Xillia 2: There were even more poorly executed cliches. The game was also built off of reused content from ToX.
- Tales of Zestiria: The backstory had many confusing holes, and the game was plagued with both technical issues and poor overall design choices.
These games were still fun, of course, but none of them made me want to play through again them again on New Game+. In contrast, I've played through Vesperia dozens of times, both on t he XBox360 and PS3 versions. I did honestly find ToZ to be the best of the post-Vesperia bunch, despite its issues. The characters were fairly decent, and the story wasn't a total convoluted mess like both ToX games. The biggest issue was the overall game flow. Namco attempted to give the game an outward appearance of being more open world in nature, butthe game suffered heavily for it. Had they stuck to the more traditional maps and focused on cleaning up the holes in the story, I think it would have ended up a lot better. Fortunately, Namco seems to have learned its lesson, because Tales of Berseria feels like it was made in response to the problems with the previous game. Serving as ToZ's much needed prequel, it manages to explains much of the confusing backstory, and fixes almost all of the problems that had been plaguing the series as a whole.
Simply put, Berseria is the Tales we've been waiting on for nearly a decade.
Before I get into the game proper, I do have one big complaint about it. Graphically, this is best looking Tales yet, but it does not look current gen; by any measure. This is a port of a PS3 game (the PS3 version is Japan-only), though Namco appears to have put a bit more effot into boosting the PS4 and Steam versions this time around. The stylized graphics do help you ignore the last-gen graphics, but you'll still be disappointed if you were hoping for the series to move into the current generation. I'm honestly a bit disappointed that the series is being held back by old hardware, even though Japan still has a decent PS3 install base.
Getting that out of the way, I can move onto the actual game. As previously stated, this is a prequel to Tales of Zestiria, and is set roughly 1,000 years into the past. Many of the same thematic concepts are used, and some of the same locations are present in the game, though it is a clear that there were big changes to the world between the two titles. I would recommend playing through ToZ in order to fully appreciate everything that goes on in ToB ,but it isn't absolutely necessary. The game stands on it's own, but some of the characters and plot points are better understood if you've played Zestiria. Essentially, ToB is the story behind the conflict between the first Shepard and the first Lord of Calamity. The catch is that in this game, you're the latter.
Overall, Berseria does a much better job of explaining the Empyrians and the origins of the Shepard. More importantly, the backstories of a couple of the seraphim party members from ToZ are fleshed out significantly. The story surrounding Zaveid, Edna, and Eisen becomes a major part of the game's plot, for example. The world these games exist in feels significantly better after completing ToB, even though the ending has a bit of a tragic bent. The only big hole it leaves open are Lailah's origins. There may be some vague clues regarding her origins if you read between the lines, but it is hard to tell if they coincidences or intentional hints.
Ultimately, what makes this game significantly better than the previous few Tales adventures are the party members. In a character-driven series, having an enjoyable main cast is absolutely crucial. From the beginning, the game focuses on making sure the protagonist is very well understood. The introductory part of the game is a bit slow, but it explores how Velvet's family was ripped away from her by her brother-in-law Artorius. This provides a frame of reference that explains why Velvet has given up her humanity in order to seek vengeance, and justifies the extreme lengths she's willing to go to in order to achieve her ultimate goal. While she keeps her rage bottled up well most of the time, taking on a usually uncaring and stoic demeanor, it is always tediously close to boiling over. Most people in the world see Artorious, who becomes the first Shepard, as the savior of humanity. Velvet simply sees him as the guy who killed her little brother. The end result is that Velvet is a badass anti-hero who is willing to take on the most powerful organization on the planet in order to avenge her little brother, burn down towns, and commit general acts of violence. When people start referring to her as the Lord of Calamity, she willingly takes on the title and uses her infamy to her advantage to sow further discord and chaos.
While Velvet is not an inhuman monster (though she's more than happy to portray herself as such), even her soft sports are a bit warped. When she kidnaps a young malak, she soon starts projecting onto him because he reminds her of her brother, even going as far as naming her new recruit after him. This seems just a bit unhealthy, though it works out in the end because this is a JRPG and even the toughest traumas can be overcome with a few words of encouragement from your friends. I would go as far as saying that Velvet has an otouto complex. She's not exactly a well balanced person, but I don't think the game attempts to portray her as such.
Along the way, Velvet assembles a team of rogues to help her bring the Abbey down. There's a demon samurai who wants to kill his elder brother, the malak pirate (Edna's brother, Eizen) who hates the Artorious' organization for using his race as slaves, and an insane witch who abuses her Normin minion These people have their own grudges, and are basically using Velvet's personal war with the Shepard as their ticket to getting their own taste of revenge. The malak Velvet kidnaps quickly turns against his former masters as well, because they were using him as a tool. They party also captures an exorcist later on, who under extreme duress, ends up developing a bit of a case of Stockholm Syndrome. While genuine camaraderie is fostered between this group, every generic NPC basically considers the Lord of Calamity and her crew a bunch of terrorists.
Of course, this is still a JRPG, and it plays the grey area very hard to justify the death and violence that Velvet's team deal out. The group starts out villainous, but they morph into unsung freedom fighters by the end of the story. There is a long-standing JRPG trope wherein any organization that resembles the Catholic Church is ultimately evil, and it ends up being used heavily in this game. Artorius' ultimate plan is to use the power of the Empyrian Innominat to sap the entire human race of free will, turning the populace into a bunch of mindless automatons. This achieves his vision of an ideal world. While Velvet is still out for revenge until the bitter end, she ultimately winds up saving the world from a fate worse than death.
The story is still cheesy in that Tales sort of way, but it is above par when compared to the last several games. Just like with Vesperia, allowing the party to have a rebellious streak allows for a more satisfying experience when compared to the typical naive teenage swordsman and his staff-wielding childhood friend (like we saw in Star Ocean 5). Velvet and Eizen are both royal badasses on par with Yuri Lowell. The combat is also well refined and is a significant improvement over the battle system featured in ToZ. While I do feel that mystic artes feel a bit watered down (they did in Zestiria as well), the overall feel and flow of battle is very good. Velvet's consuming claw mechanic is awesome to use, giving you the sense that you're controlling a powerful character without actually being too overpowered. In ToZ I avoided a lot of battles because of the overall clunkiness, but in this game I found myself wanting to enter combat frequently on order to wreck things with Velvet's demon claw.
Overall, Tales of Berseria is a game I can absolutely recommend. It is a wonderful return to the former greatness for the Tales series. Let's just hope that Namco doesn't spend another 10 years coming out with another one that is as good.