I think I owe Final Fantasy: Lightning Returns an apology; as much as its narrative was a casserole made from weeks-old vomit and rat droppings it had a real desire to be different. Its battle system and associated mechanics were in retrospect pretty unique and a lot of fun in of themselves. The tension in battles and the extensive customisation were great hooks to keep me motivated and there doesn’t appear to have been anything like it before or since, because whilst Tales of Berseria has a superior set of characters and marginally improved story beats, it nevertheless has a rather alarming lack of imagination and ambition. Bandai Namco appear to have taken every possible shortcut to avoid anything approximating effort or creativity with this latest tales game and have hacked out a lazy and overlong adventure where what few sparks exist within the characters are stamped out by relentless boredom surrounding them.
The tale in question is that of Velvet Crowe; a kind if overprotective young woman who suffers the murder of her little brother and vows revenge upon the man who did it. That the culprit was a close friend and a now much revered hero makes the kick off to Berseria all the more enticing as it threatens to subvert the moribund clichés and tropes that often afflict video game protagonists. Trouble is taken to depict Velvet as a good and kind-hearted woman for the first hour or so and whilst the initial pacing is somewhat sluggish it gives the betrayal and its aftermath all the more impact. Having been transformed into a demon and having spent the following 3 years in prison feeding upon her weaker brethren Velvet escapes to begin her revenge, an obsession that has twisted her tender soul into a font of hatred and cruelty.
It is this aspect of the narrative that is Berseria's one claim to uniqueness and Velvet herself is far and away the best thing it has to offer. Her internal conflict sparks a agreeably schizophrenic dimension to her personality where various emotions and desires fight for supremacy. It is to the game's credit that it never truly commits her to being the villain or the hero but rather allows both elements to find their voice and give us a protagonist who is flawed, vulnerable and irreparably damaged.
If there is anyone to claim the mantle of hero it would be Laphicet, a small boy Velvet meets early in the game. Reminded of her slain brother Velvet forms an immediate attachment to him and he acts as her anchor to what good is left within her. Their relationship is the driving force behind much of the character development that takes place and it is between them where all of Berseria's best moments take place. It is a real shame that the writing is so inconsistent, for when it rises to the occasion, when it understands that good drama doesn't need to be loud or overwrought, it creates scenes of real beauty.
There are other positives; the exorcist Eleanor, with her genuine goodness and purity of heart makes for an engaging third corner in the relationship triangle, where her own connection to Laphicet causes Velvet no small measure of anxiety. The other party members are charming in their own way but unfortunately their own stories and motivations are never quite as interesting so as to make you care to any great degree. Whilst Bienfu, a small, top-hat wearing companion of unknown species is unbearably obnoxious.
It gives me no pleasure then to say that beyond Berseria's few great character moments what remains is largely inept and reads like a laundry list of some of the worst cliches and tropes of the genre. So of course we get an antagonist obsessed with creating the world anew, of course we have to have cry shouting, random name shouting and each character doing their little monologue before the final battle. Exposition has to be reiterated over and over, characters can't allow events to occur without discussing them at torturous length and contrived new plot elements will rear their heads at random times to justify sending you to this location or that. It's a mess, and the game is much too long with hours and hours of non-essential padding to the overarching plot. The writing similarly is all over the place and veers between quite good to stunning levels of awful. It's infuriating as there is clear evidence of intelligence in amongst all the cringe-worthy literary detritus.
Unfortunately the gameplay does little to alleviate matters, in fact it simply exacerbates the already treacle like nature of the narrative. The combat is repetitive and the combat is all there is. There are no real puzzles to solve beyond insultingly easy button pressing in the game's many copy paste dungeons, there are a handful of mini games but for vast majority of the 50 odd hours needed to finish you'll be engaged in Berseria's flashy but slightly awkward battle system.
Combat takes place is walled off arenas and in real time. You can switch between characters and use various AI setups to manage those party members not under your direct control. You pull off a variety of combos, each attack, or Arte, using a different element to hopefully exploit each enemy's weakness. However the length of your combos are limited to the number of souls you have which in turn are tied to the hits you give out and those you receive. It's a unique system but not one I would argue as being elegant. You can block but the inability to cancel out of animations mean you'll likely not have your defences up when you most need them. Similarly the dodge is largely ineffectual and things often come down to whether you've levelled up enough and have decent weapons equipped.
That said the combat is generally easy and not much of a challenge on the standard difficulty. Extra rewards are offered for cranking the challenge up a notch but the prospect of even longer battles isn't particularly enticing when the combat itself can be such a chore. It's not terrible but it's nowhere near good enough to carry the game by itself.
Some of this could have been forgiven if there were something nice to look at but Berseria can barely muster the energy with its drab and outdated visual design. Not being technically impressive when it comes to graphics is no crime at all; Hyper Light Drifer, Darkest Dungeon and a many others have shown how art style is often far more important than pure polygons, but there's no excuse for such bland design. Dungeons are drab, textures are plain and reused with no shame at all and every cave is pretty much the same save for a coloured crystal or some other token attempt at variety. A few of the outdoor environments are somewhat pleasing to the eye, but Berseria feels much more like an HD remaster of some older game than it does as a new full price release in 2017.
I wish I could have been kinder to it as there are moments in which Berseria becomes truly captivating. Velvet Crowe is one of the best protagonists I've had the pleasure of inhabiting in a genre overrun with fresh-faced dullards, but alas she cannot save Tales of Berseria from being the lazy and overwritten slog that it is. Perhaps fitting then that she carries such a sense of wounded betrayal, because dear sister, I can relate.