Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC, PS3 (import only)

Bandai Namco’s Tales series has fallen on hard times. After the blockbuster release that was Tales of Vesperia on the Xbox 360, we got Tales of Xillia 1 and 2, which were largely mediocre, and Tales of Zestiria, which has gradually come to be known as one of the sloppiest Tales games of all time. This slow descent has turned what once was a prestigious name in JRPG development into the fast food of the RPG landscape, a series of perfectly passable titles with no real substance to them.

The latest release, Tales of Berseria, attempts to break this pattern of mediocrity. By refining its battle system, overhauling its environments, and focusing on a non-traditional story, Berseria succeeds in being the least Tales-like Tales game in recent history. While its efforts don’t quite put it on the same level of award winning Tales games of the past, they are at least a step in the right direction.

Let's be bad guys

Tales of Berseria takes place in a world where a mysterious disease has been turning normal people into bloodthirsty demons. You play as Velvet Crowe, a kind hearted and optimistic girl who lives in a small village with her brother. You get to play as this stereotypical bright-eyed JRPG protagonist for about the first hour of the game, until her life is destroyed when she becomes a demon herself and her brother is killed by an Exorcist. She then embarks on a journey, not to save the world, but for pure, cold-blooded, black-hearted revenge.

This narrative is Berseria’s biggest strength. You aren’t playing as some spikey haired kid with unshakable morals and an unstoppable desire to help others, like Zestiria’s Sorey. You are, for all intents and purposes, a bad guy. You aren’t afraid to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get what you want. Your party members are similarly flawed, corrupt, and violent, usually joining up with your cause for selfish reasons. Meanwhile, the exorcists and the church are filled with the types of naive moralistic characters you are used to seeing in JRPGs, and they are cast as the antagonists. It feels much like a darker take on Tales of Vesperia’s narrative, wherein there is this stereotypical JRPG plot with stereotypical JRPG protagonists and it’s all pushed to the background while you, a more pragmatic hero, actually manage to get stuff done.

Uneven writing 

While the plot as a concept is entertaining, the writing is hit or miss. At times the game has you cheering for Velvet, hating the church, and staring wide-eyed in awe at the carnage you just caused. Other times, the game has you cringing through bad puns, forced jokes, horrible one liners, and grating voice clips that make you want to mute your system.

Nowhere is the game more cringe worthy than in the iconic Tales series skits, tiny side conversations meant to give you more insight into your party’s assorted characters. On the upside, some skits now come with dynamic animations which are much more enjoyable to watch than still character portraits. On the downside, most skits are far too long and have nothing to do with the main plot. While you can ignore them for the most part, there are one or two skits that really tie the narrative together. This gives the player the awkward choice of watching all skits and suffering through the bad ones or watching no skits and risking being a little lost in the plot.

Tales of Berseria’s narrative is nominally connected to Tales of Zestiria’s, taking place 1000 years in Zestiria’s past. While seeing some actual continuity between Tales games is neat, the plot isn’t really better for it. Most of the connections feel something like a forced retcon of Zestiria’s history. Then again, Berseria handles Zestiria’s lore far better than Zestiria did, but you can’t help but wonder if Berseria’s plot was held back by the mediocre groundwork that Zestiria set.

Despite all these flaws, Tales of Berseria’s plot is far better than what we have seen in any of the three games that came before it. But plot is only half of a Tales game. The other half is battle, and once again Tales of Berseria takes steps in the right direction, but doesn’t quite make the final leap into greatness.

Deep combat, but challenge is lacking

Once again battles take place in real time, with an action or fighting game feel to them. “Normal attacks” have been totally removed from the system. Instead, every face button on your controller is mapped to a certain arte. Pressing the buttons in sequence allows you to string together custom arte combos that you pre-program in the menu.

In order to use artes, you need to spend points from the soul gauge, which is Berseria’s most interesting battle mechanic. Attacking enemies with their weakness, causing status effects, knocking them down, or defeating them, let’s you to drain the enemy’s soul, increasing the length of your soul gauge and with it the length of your combos.

However, you can also decrease the length of your soul gauge in order to use a “break arte” a special ability that can turn the tide of battle. Every character has specific break artes each with a unique functionality. Velvet, for example, can unleash her demonic powers which drains her HP over time, but also vastly increases her power and allows her to gain stat boosts depending on which enemy she is fighting.

Berseria’s battle system is fun, in general, but doesn’t quite reach the level of refinement of earlier Tales games. While you can spend a ton of time customizing your combos and improving your artes, battles never get difficult enough to require it. You can mash your way through just about every battle in the game without fear, and any battles that do give you a challenge don’t require any strategy deeper than “use the arte that the enemy is weak to.” Increasing the game’s difficulty level gives you a bit of a challenge, and you might actually have to hold the “defend” button once or twice, but that’s it.

The fault largely lies in Berseria’s equipment system. Once again skills are tied to equipment, though the whole “skill grid” system from Zestiria is thankfully gone. However, equipment is still randomly generated and most of the skills generated are boring stat-ups and useless modifiers. These unimpressive skills barely modify your artes, and when artes all feel similar then there’s no reason to choose between them, hence the button-mashy battle feel. You never get the feeling of “building” your characters around a certain strategy the way you did in past Tales games.

Multiplayer

Then there’s the elephant in the room: multiplayer. You’ll be happy to hear that after three consecutive games that practically removed four-player multiplayer functionality, it’s finally back. You and three friends can take control of Velvet and her companions without any drop in power. On the contrary, having a full party of four humans and no A.I. makes the game even more laughably easy. But it won’t matter because the sheer fun of chaining your moves together with your friends and barking orders at your party’s healer makes up for any and every battle flaw. Every multiplayer fault from Zestiria, from the bad camera to the stiff party controls to the odd way that the sound faded out, has been fixed. Tales of Berseria is easily at its best with a room full of friends and the difficulty cranked up to maximum.

And there are a ton of little improvements that make Berseria a more enjoyable experience all around. The maps are less sprawling, and more attention is paid to the main plot instead of sending you on a million little fetch quests. Menus are far less complicated and there are far fewer throwaway mechanics to deal with. Costumes and appearance modifiers are plentiful and aren’t stuck behind DLC pay walls.

The good and the bad

But for each improvement, there is an equally distracting flaw. Dungeon puzzles are dry and uninteresting. The game has no overworld, instead forcing you to wander through vast empty plains with nothing to do but fight monsters. The graphics look noticeably last-gen, and animations for any character outside the main party and antagonists are minimal.

And that’s the general feeling you get when playing Tales of Berseria. It’s better, but not great. Bandai Namco listened to fan feedback and fixed nearly every flaw we complained about in recent Tales games, but there are still all these other flaws that somehow creeped into the formula. It is undeniably the best Tales game to release since Vesperia, but longtime franchise fans might still find themselves pining for the Tales of old.