The Tales franchise has always been a little over the top, relying heavily on an addictive, combo-heavy battle system to gild far-fetched and tonally unbalanced plots. Tales of Berseria is beholden to well-worn mechanics of combat and exploration, but this 17th entry in the series evinces an inspired maturity that may serve Tales well in the future, especially when trying to compete with more experimental franchises like Final Fantasy. The game taps into an exciting and almost primal darkness by inverting some of the series’s usual tropes. Not coincidentally, this is the first Tales game to revolve entirely around a female protagonist: Velvet, a daemon whose quest isn’t to save the world, but to take revenge upon her old friend and mentor, Artorius Collbrande, a man largely perceived to be the hero of the Holy Midgand Empire. There’s a reason villagers refer to her as the Lord of Calamity.
Outside of the game’s prologue, which doubles as a tutorial, there are no mindless fetch quests here. Instead, players looking for extended content can challenge the higher-level Code Red monsters and battle arenas lurking just off the beaten path of each new zone, a task that aligns with Velvet’s murderous desires. Even the light-hearted skits, voice-acted scenes that serve to cleanse the palate between the too-frequent battles are more focused than usual. They serve to remind us that even a daemon swordsman like Rokurou or an innocent malak (a creature of magic) like Phi are every bit as human as those who would condemn or co-opt them. These multi-faceted scenes also keep the revenge narrative from becoming as monotonous as the dungeons. There’s not much depth to the pirate pugilist Eizen’s search for his kidnapped captain until the skits fill in the blanks, first outing him as an unabashedly geeky scholar and then ruefully noting that he initially set out so as to put distance between his Reaper’s Curse and his innocent sister.
Tale of Berseria’s characters earn their depth, layer by messy layer, but the strength of these characterizations only makes some of the game’s more surface-level choices all the more apparent. For example, characters earn statistical advantages by equipping an item until they’ve mastered its inherent skill, but doing so is just a matter of grinding battles, a decision that saps the game of its momentum. And the dungeons are worse: Nearly 20 hours pass before there’s so much as a single switch-puzzle to shake things out of their linearity, and 30 hours elapse before the game provides players with a hovering geoboard to help speed along the constant backtracking.
Tale of Berseria also takes shortcuts in its depictions of the various regions in which players spend the majority of their time. There’s plenty of wander but little wonder, because instead of, say, showing players the majestic coral growth of the Manann Reef or the powerful geysers of the Burnack Plateau, the game hangs back, only ever having its characters talk about these sights. The game’s strengths may lie in its dialogue, but its almost willful refusal to get up close to the wonders of its world can feel embarrassing. There are a few creative designs, like the freight-carrying gondolas of the beachside city Taliesin, but they can only be glimpsed in the distance. What players are actually left to actually interact with in any meaningful way essentially comes down to a corridor, whether it’s covered in snow or autumnal leaves.
Thankfully, though, the majority of Tales of Berseria is intent on generally going wild, both figuratively, as the story follows an increasingly unhinged Velvet, and literally, via the game’s combat. The series’s returning Linear Motion Battle System (LMBS) is now dubbed the Liberation-LMBS and is more free-flowing than ever, allowing players to chain together nearly 20 different abilities at once. New mechanics like Break Souls and Switch Blasts also encourage players to experiment with each character, as the former unlocks unique, guard-shattering abilities, and the latter allows inactive allies not only to be instantly swapped in, but to extend the combo meter in the process.
“Sometimes you have to say what’s in your heart, even if you’re bad at saying it,” suggests one of Velvet’s rivals, powered-up and possessed by her emotions. Tales of Berseria follows this advice for better and worse, and the result is a great, heart-filled tale that may not always know how to best tell its story—or is occasionally limited by the series’s trappings—but nonetheless always pushes through to bigger and better things.