Tales of Berseria is a JRPG developed and published by Bandai Namco in 2016-2017 for PS3, PS4 and PC. In the Holy Midgand empire, a land beset by a demonic plague, Velvet Crowe is living a peaceful life caring for her sick little brother. But her peace is soon disturbed, as her village gets beset by Daemonblight and her brother-in-law Artorius sacrifices her brother for a ritual meant to save the world. Angry, Velvet lashes out against Artorius, but this only earns her a daemonic arm and three years in prison. After escaping with the help of other outlaws, Velvet vows her revenge against Artorius and the order of daemon exorcists he has formed during Velvet's imprisonment.
Going into Berseria, I knew it was a bit of an edgefest, but I didn't think it'd just work off the same framework as Berserk (the name really should have clued me in). It's ultimately different (and a lot less depressing and horrific), but the comparison still holds water. You've got a protagonist who gets betrayed by someone close to them for the sake of a world-changing sacrifice, which costs them an arm and leads them to undertake a journey with a bunch of misfits to get revenge where they struggle to maintain their humanity. I'm only bringing it up as it might prove interesting to Berserk fans hungry for an ending and because I couldn't help but highlight the similarities.
But let's focus on the story itself, starting with our "heroine" Velvet. At the start, she's a kind soul whose eventual breakdown is heartbreaking to see. Once she has hardened up in prison, she turns single-minded, selfish, pragmatic and very angry. All the love she had for her brother essentially turns into rage and she'll do anything she can to get closer to killing Artorius, including theft, terrorism, murder and hostage-taking.
It's an interesting approach to have a team of anti-heroes fight the world order for their own ends. The whole game feels like a course-correction from Zestiria, which the game is a distant prequel to. Justabout everything you'd associate with the heroes from that game gets turned on its head and used by the antagonists of this one. There's even a lot of background lore connecting the two games, which is appreciated, even if most of it isn't important to Berseria.
The story of Berseria ends up being better (it made me feel things!), but there are still some things that let me down. Act 2 of the story (the ever popular "gather the things before you can get to the final boss" arc) really drags its heels, especially if you take the time to indulge in all of the optional skits and conversations. I respect the dedication, but we're at a point where having tons of voiced dialogue just for the sake of it isn't as impressive as it once was. There were so many skits where they went on like 25% longer than I thought they should, which is time that really adds up.
I think a lot of the optional dialogue feels so superfluous due to the party composition. Since few of them have any proper connections to eachother, it's kind of difficult to accept them sticking together as much as they do. The game even points this out with the party's resident troll/witch Magilou (who is so terrible she rolls around to being my favourite character), whose reasons for sticking with the party are initially questioned and then ignored for the longest time. People just assume she'll get bored and leave at any moment. It's a miracle she only betrays the others the one time.
But she still adds more to the proceedings than Rokuro, a himbo swordsman from "Japon" who just likes fighting. His whole plotline could be exorcised (heh) from the game and nothing would be lost, it's that superfluous. He's fun enough as a guy for the others to bounce off of during conversations, but I wish he had more to him. I'm only asking for a single good scene where he floors the others with wise words or something, nothing much. Hell, I think the party's annoying mascot Bienfu might be more important to the plot.
Now, when I started the game, I assumed that I wouldn't be able to stay engaged with Velvet's roaring rampage of revenge for a whole JRPG, since her feelings are based on years worth of time spent with her brother, which the player isn't privy to. And I suppose act 2 proves that to some degree.
Thankfully, once you push through that part of the game, it becomes a lot more interesting, as Velvet's relationship with the young Malakhim (spirits used as tools by the exorcists) Laphicet (named after her brother as a sort of replacement goldfish) starts to blossom. They both learn things from eachother, which makes for some really good scenes between the two. The game didn't go exactly in the direction I wanted it to go at the end, but I suppose leaning into Velvet reclaiming her ability to express love was the correct thing to do. It's ultimately wholesome, proving that despite the similarities, it's not just a Berserk clone after all.
As you may gather from the name "Liberation Linear Motion Battle System", things are now even more freeform than they were in Zestiria. Instead of basing your attacks on the direction of the left stick, you can now freely mix and match 16 different artes assigned in groups of 4 on the 4 face buttons (plus 4 more while blocking). This completely separates movement from combat input, making it easier to position yourself favourably before starting a combo.
Sadly, as a result of this, side-stepping and back-stepping is a lot more cumbersome to execute, as shifting from running around in 3D space to stepping in 2D space takes a few precious moments of re-orientation (not helped by the more lax camera, as it's best suited for 3D movement), which makes the already strict timings that much harder. As such, I basically never used dodges and instead relied on blocking, which is plenty strong thankfully. They really should have made dodging freeform as well (like Trickster dodging in DMC). It feels so weird to have this one relic of the previous combat systems left when it really doesn't belong.
The stamina system introduced in Graces (called the Soul System in Berseria) is a lot different this time around. So much so that it dictates the pace of combat even more. Simply put, you start each battle with 3 souls to your name and depending on how the battle goes, you can go down to one or up to 5. This is very important, as the amount of souls you have directly correlates to how long your combo is, meaning that running around with 1 or 2 souls feels incredibly debilitating.
So how are souls lost and gained? Well, while you can pick them up from a fallen ally or rarely have them spawn after a successful dodge, they are most reliably gained automatically by killing enemies, proccing status effects or being in range of a Break Soul attack committed by a boss. Consequently, dying or getting hit with a status effect will rob you of a soul.
As such, the key word of the combat system is momentum. They way things play out reminds me a lot of online games where the bigger your lead, the easier it is to maintain it and the harder it is for the loser to turn the tables. There is a comeback mechanic (status effects trigger more reliably at low soul counts), but very often a battle will be decided in the first 3 seconds. Suffice to say, getting slapped with a status effect and losing one soul to an enemy's first attack because you got unlucky really blows.
Now, that usually happened because I didn't respect an encounter enough to start by being defensive, but due to how encounters work, I found it completely natural to assume that enemies in random encounters are complete chumps. And that's because a regular encounter is beyond easy and pays out absolute garbage experience. Only by triggering combined encounters can you get decent experience and let the combat system have enough time per battle to be fun.
During a combined encounter, the enemies come in wave after wave and are a lot tougher. But as long as you can maintain your momentum and keep up the cycle of using up and reclaiming souls, you are basically unkillable, as spending souls heals you (and is the best way to heal, as healing spells are very weak). But a few missteps and some bad luck means it'll be hard to recover, especially if you're assaulted by multiple spellcasters and you don't have Magilou there to absorb their spells.
Her spell absorption skill is a Break Soul ability, which is unique to each character, making them temporarily invincible and restoring health when used as previously mentioned. Beyond whether a character is a spellcaster or not, what really separates them are their Break Soul abilities, as these are the character's main gimmick. Some are contextual, while others can be triggered any time, for either the full effect or a limited effect. Velvet's is the most complex and the most powerful, making her a sort of in-battle easy mode, especially since her Break Soul always works unless you miss, which is rather unlikely due to its wide range.
By expending one soul, Velvet will release her daemonic arm and consume a piece of an enemy. This will cause her to become Therionized, which has a few effects. First of all, she'll become unkillable, but her health will start draining. She'll also get a buff based on what type of enemy she consumed. But battles are so chaotic that caring about what type of enemy to consume is rarely important. If her health drops to 1 or you use up all your stamina, Velvet will do a finisher that's effective against the type of enemy she consumed.
This is important, as the weakness combo system makes its return and is a bit of a pain to make use of without Velvet. Each enemy can have multiple weaknesses (being of multiple types or having multiple elemental weaknesses) and multiple resistances. In order to do good damage (and make the destructive Mystic Artes even stronger), you need to hit every single weakness in a single combo without accidentally using an element the enemy is resistant to.
For bosses, this is extra tricky, since they usually have a lot of weaknesses and resistances. Your party members help of course, leading you to being able to randomly get a weakness combo going without the best strategy from time to time. But to really be effective without just resorting to going on a feeding frenzy with Velvet, you need to really know how to use your character of choice.
And let me tell you, setting up your artes is a bit of a nightmare. Not only do you have to balance how fast an arte is, how well it connects to another arte, but there's also what status effect it causes (stun is really good as opening status effect, for example), how much of the Soul Gauge it needs, where in the combo string it should be placed to exploit a weakness, which element it uses and which type of enemy it's good against. I remember when I tried to experiment by restructuring my current setup for Eizen once and immediately regretted it and spent like 15 minutes trying to restore my previous setup. The game is really missing both a practice mode and a way to save multiple load-outs of artes.
But since those options aren't available, there came a point, just like in Zestiria, where I just stopped engaging with the combat system fully. I can't tell which game is the most needlessly complex, but Berseria managed to string me along for longer, so I suppose it did a better job at introducing its many, many mechanics. The whole thing would do well by being simpler. Eliminating type weaknesses and only having elemental weaknesses like in Xillia would be a good start, as artes rarely convey which enemies they are good against outside of the menu. And I'm still not done talking, so let's get through some other things before we finish up the combat section.
As has been standard in the series for a while, spellcasting gets quicker the further into a combo it's performed. As such, I found every character to be pretty fun to use, which leans into the character switching system. By spending one bar of Burst Gauge (which is mainly used for Mystic Artes and refills by using Break Souls), you can swap in another character, even if your current one is dead. The game is actually not that lethal (which is reflected in how weak healing is), but it's still really good how incentivized you are to swap characters if things go south.
Characters outside of battle revive and heal slowly and keep their souls and Burst Gauge, making it really useful to switch them in and out from time to time. Couple that with their unique abilities and it's really fun to keep the variety going, assuming you're in a position to do so. A lot of bosses really spit in the face of the intended back-and-forth of spending and earning souls, as they are incredibly resistant to status effects. Them using Break Souls is supposed to balance this, but for that to work, you need to be in range of the attack, which isn't optimal if you're a spellcaster. And there's even a boss whose Break Soul causes a status effect, which immediately nullifies the soul gain!
So when you have someone like Rokuro whose Break Soul is a parry, you really do not have the necessary wiggle room to both practice timings and get enough damage to justify the souls spent, as getting them back can take forever during boss fights. This especially sucks in the lategame where you need to have or spend a large amount of souls in order to use a higher-tier Mystic Arte.
It's at those points where I often just disregarded everything but blocking and positioning, swapped to Velvet and just button-mashed my way through a fight. I see where they were trying to go with all of this, but the ghost of Zestiria still haunts the combat system. If they could further emphasize the character switching and simplify how artes are used, I think the game would be better off. There is actually an autocombo system in place, which links together 4 artes which combo into eachother well. So maybe they realized how messy this all is and will attempt to streamline things for the next game.
Beyond leveling to learn new artes, the game has a special equipment system to facilitate character growth. Just like in Vesperia, you can learn support abilities (most of which are simple stat multipliers with a few interesting ones on top of those). The difference here is that these abilities aren't restricted by AP like in Vesperia, meaning all of them are active at once. In what I assume is an attempt to balance this, actually learning these abilities takes longer though.
In order to master equipment and learn an ability, you need to earn Grade in battle, which is dependant on your performance. But actually doing good in battle isn't as important as you might think (you just need to make sure that no one dies more than once or twice and that you don't use items), as what really matters is what you're fighting. Regular encounters give about 2 Grade, combined encounters go up to about 5 and bosses go up to about 50.
But with bosses being in limited supply and certain equipment needing hundreds of Grade points to master, it's basically impossible to keep up with new equipment unless you go out of your way to grind in an area, which can randomly trigger mini-bosses of increasing difficulty which give out the Grade that's missing from standard progression.
This happened in Vesperia as well, so it wouldn't be a big deal to be slightly behind the equipment curve, especially since equipment here doesn't strictly get better as you go along due to how their stats and extra abilities are distributed.
But on top of all of this, there's an upgrade system not unlike Zestiria's. I say that, but I can't really remember the details of that system, so I probably ignored it just as I did here for the most part. It works like this in Berseria:
Evey piece of equipment has a rarity (I think it goes from 1 to 18), which separates equipment into distinct tiers. Each tier needs its own main upgrade material, which is best gained by dismantling equipment of the same tier. But to get duplicates, you're expected to kill tons of enemies in a certain area, though there are battle arenas housing most enemies belonging to a single type, which is a good source of duplicates.
So if you want everyone to have say upgraded armor of rarity 6, you're going to need to dismantle tons and tons of duplicates to get the material you need to feed into what you want to upgrade. Seeing as the special abilities you unlock and upgrade are more important than the stats gained, this could be sort of ok, as it would force you to make sacrifices and prioritize certain characters.
But the real issue is how these two system interact. Through the equipment mastery system, you're incentivized to swap stuff out constantly. But the upgrade system tells you to focus on certain pieces, but doing so wastes grade earned, as you can only master a piece of equipment once. Seeing as focusing on the former saved me from grinding against weak enemies and having to manually dismantle dozens of equipment pieces, I went with just mastering new pieces and mostly running around with +0 stuff.
As far as stats are concerned, this worked out fine, but the real kicker is that the sum of your equipped upgrades is used to determine how much extra Blast Gauge you get in battle and even if you get an extra soul! It's so bad to be punished no matter what you do choose to do, unless you're crazy and like to grind excessively so that you can retain your sum of upgrades while still switching to new equipment.
Why the hell you couldn't just carry over upgrades between equipment you swap out is beyond me. It'd be so easy to simply control the availability of material so that you'd still need to choose which character should get to upgrade what class of equipment. It's all just a grindy mess and I hate that it's seemingly like this just to trick people into spending an extra 15 hours on the game when they really shouldn't.
Coming off of the bland areas from Xillia 2, which have been recycled multiple times across the two games, Midgand was a quite welcome change. It consists of a group of islands with interconnected paths, making it less of a series of gigantic fields like in Zestiria. Exploration isn't very interesting, since there are only a couple of optional areas, but it's still nice that everything connects without feeling either too big like in Zestiria or a bit cramped like in Graces.
And with the addition of the Geoboard (which doesn't play Superman by Goldfinger, nor let you grind on bridge rails, so minus points for that) and teleportation bottles, it's pretty easy to get around. Which you'll want to do in order to fight side bosses (that don't give exp!) so that you can earn Grade and unlock special passive uppgrades (that mostly just increase the pool of random abilities for equipment, sadly).
There are also a fair few sidequests, especially in the lategame. Most simply revolve around fighting a special daemon, but they're given enough context and budget to be worthile. Some even play into party member quests or let you fight cameo characters, which is always a nice addition. And since they game has a good quest log and world map, it's not that hard to find and complete them.