Fans of JRPGs should be no stranger to the Tales series. On sheer numbers alone it's comparable to the likes of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star, to name but a few. Spanning sixteen main entry titles, not to mention multiple spin-offs and sequels, its longevity is well deserved. Since its debut the franchise had performed well in Japanese sales, and built quite a following here in the west, thanks to its innovative combat systems, signature music, and engaging and immersive storylines.
Admittedly the story this time round is a little cliché, a terrible betrayal leading to the hero losing someone they love and vowing revenge, but it’s what Tales of Berseria does with that cliché that makes it so wonderful. Within seconds of starting the game a tone is set, and it's far from being a happy one. In the first hour or so, players get to experience how Velvet, the main heroine, goes from being a kind and loving teenager to a cold and merciless woman obsessed with vengeance. Set to a backdrop of murder, disease, and the increasing isolation of mankind, Tales of Berseria has set itself apart as the darkest game of the series before it’s even really started.
Despite being a prequel to Tales of Zesteria, Velvet’s story takes place in the past, far back enough that those who haven't yet played Tales of Zesteria can enjoy it, there aren't any spoilers for the previous game to worry about either. In fact, aside from a few small cameos, the game distances itself from Tales of Zesteria in more than just plot; the play style has changed quite drastically, while still remaining the same format the series has become famous for. The slow, shuddering combat for the previous game has been replaced with a slick combo-based system for much smoother, and faster, battles.
In older games special skills and melee attacks were split between the X and circle buttons, the attacks changing depending on which direction you were moving when you pressed. This allowed you to set up to four skills per button. While customisable, it always felt like you had to limit yourself to whichever attacks were most versatile and not which were strongest. Abusing elemental weaknesses could be a pain, particularly if you never set an attack of that element. In Tales of Berseria however, attacks and magic are all thrown in together under the name of ‘artes’. Magical abilities cost more stamina, or souls as it is known in this iteration, to use than their physical counterparts, but pack much more of a punch. You can weave these powerful skills seamlessly into combos, attacks flowing into one another fluidly rather than the stuttering one-attack-at-a-time players of the series have seen before. These combo chains can be mapped to all four of the face buttons, giving you a total of sixteen available skills at any time, which you can change on the fly even in the middle of combat.
Equipment abilities also make a comeback, with equipment having random bonus attributes like health up and experience gain increase, but now each piece of equipment has a main ability that all items with the same name share. This master ability can be kept, permanently affixing the bonus to the character instead, by mastering the weapon. This is done much like leveling, with your performance in battle being awarded points towards the equipment’s mastery instead of traditional experience points. This system rewards players willing to go that extra mile and obtain one of every equipment type, without being absolutely essential. Though you’ll master some equipment through basic use, the abilities remain optional, you’ll certainly never need to master everything in order to beat any of the game's bosses, it just makes it easier.
Though Tales of Berseria is set in the same world as its predecessor, it shares very little visually with it. Towns and cities are all new, and made all the better for their more compact map layouts.Tales of Zesteria had some stunning landscapes, with capital cities spread over multiple screens, complete with winding alleys and passageways. This ended up being a detriment to the game, however, as sparse NPC distribution and lack of direction could have players seeking out objectives for long periods of time. Tales of Berseria uses smaller maps, granted lacking in grandeur and scale, but the more dense population with more interactive NPCs, leaves even smaller villages feeling more full of life than even the major trade hubs in the previous game.
Character development has also come on leaps and bounds, with better character interaction and more frequent conversations between party members, allowing players to become more invested with the supporting cast this time around. Velvet’s plight may be the main focus, but each party member and enemy you face comes with enough of their own plot to draw you in. As a result the overall story feels deeper and richer, than previous titles. It's no longer about gunning towards the end goal - even if the end goal in this title is a lot clearer than it has been in the series of late. You’ll find you want to explore and learn about your party members, seeking out those hidden cutscenes from staying at certain inns or completing side quests, to get a better understanding of their motives and struggles.
All in all the game is brilliant, certainly building on past success and learning from mistakes of the past, but it's not perfect. The fluid and innovative combat can be a bit tricky to master, with targeting being non-existent it takes a while to get the hang of not wasting all your stamina by punching the air slightly to the left or right of your enemy. The visuals have been updated to be more in keeping with the concept art, using a softer colour palette and designing scenery to seem like it's straight out of a painting, but this only works at a distance; up close everything appears to have an almost sticky and oily sheen to it, leaving it looking like plastic rather than the watercolour aesthetic the game seems to be reaching for.
The problems are few compared to the overwhelming positives that Tales of Berseria has to offer, however. Overall it's still beautiful, the combat is more fun than it has been before, and with more fun and engaging mini games, like card battles, and collectable items to find, it's a strong contender for the best Tales game to date.