Act. Like. A. Dove.
I try not to be the kind that drops one sentence, trying-really-hard-to-be-impactful statements, especially when it comes to video games, but here we go:
The Tales series is back.
Yeah, Tales of Hearts R was good...for a handheld RPG. But depending on which diehard fan you ask, the mainland series of Tales games has been in decline since Abyss, or Xillia, or Zesteria, so on and so forth. Each entry felt more lackluster than the last, the charm seemed to dissipate...it just wasn't a Very Good Time.
With Tales of Berseria, it feels like Namco slapped its hands to its face and said "this is the one." It feels like they pulled all the stops to help both themselves, and the fans, remember what was so great about the Tales series in the first place.
The game is a distant prequel to Tales of Zesteria, and does a great job of it, answering a few questions and connecting a few disparate plot threads between the two games. It also benefits from a simple tale (heh) of revenge. The protagonist, Velvet, finds her brother murdered and goes on a quest to find the murderer and do him in in turn.
This simple backbone of a plot allows the characters in Berseria's cast to shine. They're the best group of characters I've seen from the series in a while - even the side-characters will find their way into your heart eventually. Velvet's furious determination, Rokurou's straightforwardness, Eizen's habit of geeking out, literally everything about Magilou - their quirks and ticks give them personality, and by the game's end, you'll love every member of the party.
This love will also stem from the game's writing. I don't know what happened between Zesteria and Berseria - I can only assume new writers were hired at some point - because the dialogue in this game was the most engaging of any Tales game to date. Conversations in skits and with NPCs could range from favorite meals to philosophical discussions on what it means to be happy. And on that latter point, the game handles these heavier topics with a sense of deftness and subtlety that I never expect from a video game. It actually gets the "morally gray" aspect that people want in games right. The material itself isn't particularly groundbreaking, but it's thoughtful, and for that, I have to give credit where credit is due.
When you aren't laughing aloud at skits, you'll most likely be fighting, and Berseria found its footing with an engaging combat system. You can chain four Artes together with any of the face buttons, allowing for 16 (!!!) moves to be accessible to you at any time. This simple change makes the action feel more fluid than ever. You can use Break Souls to launch a strong attack, that enhances your character's attributes and allows you to chain your combos together further. Doing so, however, will leave yourself with one less Break Soul as a result, which you need to perform attacks - think Tales of Graces. This risk-and-reward system creates a push-and-pull feeling of momentum. Pull off the right moves to gain Break Souls, and you find yourself quickly turning into a whirlwind of death as you move through enemies across the battlefield. It never felt tough, but I felt this worked to the narrative's favor: Velvet is a bit of a menace, and it shows in the gameplay.
Most importantly, the system benefits from being as extensive or as simple as you want it to be, based simply on how much time you feel like putting into learning it. Which is good, because I was not at all engaged with the game's strange, obtuse equipment system. It goes the Final Fantasy IX route of having you gain attributes that are tied to how often you use equipment, which I always found to be a tedious affair. If you're playing on Normal or lower difficulty, you can safely skip it, and save yourself a headache.
On the subject of negative notes, I'm just going to say it: Velvet's outfit is awful. And this isn't a call about overt sexualization in video game designs or what-have-you - that discussion has been had before, by far better writers than I. It's a simple matter of design. It makes no sense, it looks garish, makes her stand out completely, and for a series that's known for engaging female character designs - including in this game! - it's disappointing. I slapped a DLC outfit onto her as soon as possible...which in retrospect, might have been Namco's intention. I concede defeat, Tales crew.
That said, when the harshest negative you can think of is one bad character design, you've got a pretty darn good video game on your hands. Tales of Berseria is worth a purchase and much better than I was expecting. I enjoyed every minute of it and walked away by the game's end having enjoyed the time I spent with the cast. Like I said at the beginning of this review: Tales is back. And it's a great time to jump in.