Great Cast, Great Story, Good Game
Tales of Berseria tells a surprisingly nuanced, funny, and affecting story with passable action-based combat filling in the gaps.
Its main strength is how it rides the line between following JRPG tropes while also playing against them. Your central protagonist is a young woman named Velvet Crowe who lives an idyllic life in a cozy little rural village. Of course, within an hour something bad happens to said village. The end result of these bad happenings is that Velvet is transformed into a half-demon and her only desire is to find the man she believes is responsible and murder him, then devour his soul with her horrific demon claw hand. It so happens that this man is also the leader of the Abbey, a massive church who are also the defacto government. It probably doesn't take much for anybody with even a passing knowledge of JRPGs or anime to recognize that the church is up to no good. However, the Abbey represents the last line of defense against an apocalyptic threat terrorizing the land. That threat is, well, demons. Velvet IS one of those things, and her blind drive for revenge further muddles the morality of the situation and makes for some entertaining and unique anti-hero scenarios.
For instance, the first major town your party will visit is the snowy hamlet of Hellawes. This town is being terrorized by a lizardman who lurks in the nearby cave and interrupts the town's shipping businesses. You eventually find yourself in the cave, where you... become uneasy allies with the lizardman, who turns out to be a sailor himself. At his behest you return to the town, set fire to the port, and make a getaway on a stolen ship. As you float off across the horizon, one of the party members laughs to herself, noting that destroying the port has likely ruined the town's economy for years to come. Oh yeah, and in the confusion Velvet accidentally kidnapped a child. He's the new party member.
It's a lot of fun to be on the other side of the JRPG morality spectrum like this, and to inhabit characters who have their own concrete goals and care little for the typical, generic heroics of helping those in need. Likewise, the villains' motivations are equally sound-- they want to save the world, and their plan makes some amount of sense considering the stakes. By the way, twenty hours later the lizardman is one of your reliable pals and the surrogate father to an orphaned little girl. Such is the duality of life in Berseria.
The cast of characters is a particular highlight. Being anti-hero types, none are interested in banding together for the heck of it. Each one has their own distinct motivations to group up, and none are above leaving the party if sticking around is no longer to their advantage. While you'd expect a confederation of anti-heroes to be a brooding pack of Shadow the Hedgehogs, the number of facets to each character makes them outright loveable; their stories and personalities are both fun and dramatic. Velvet can be cold and bitchy, but she can also play the beleagured straight man. Rokoru, a demonic samurai, belies his clearly dark presence with an affable and friendly nature, but isn't very nice when he's in a mood to kill. Magilou, a particular standout who claims to be a cute witch, serves as a goofy comic relief, but her sense of humor skews towards the eerily sinister. Throughout the 50 hour journey you get to see many sides of each character. With the help of cute little puppet theater skits that appear now and again, you'll learn how each character is enlivened and bound by their personal philosophies, how they view the opposite sex, whether they prefer cats or dogs, what kind of food they like, and so on. After 60 hours I felt I had a complete picture of them all.
If the storytelling has any weaknesses, it is its penchant for throwing a lot of fantasy jargon at you that can get confusing quickly. Correspondingly, some of these concepts feel like they cheat somewhat. The powers, abilities, and limitations of Malakhim, the game's magical race of blond humanoids (and sometimes teddy bears), seem almost made up based on whatever is currently convenient to the plot. Some of the endgame sidequests have VERY questionable translation errors, but that is by no means the case for the rest of the game.
You've probably noticed I've talked entirely about the story and characters so far. That's because the gameplay mechanics are... well, they're alright. Better than bad.
Combat is weighed down by a surplus of confusing, poorly-explained systems, but it essentially comes down to meter management. I can't speak for the higher difficulties, but on normal you can get away with button mashing most of the time. You control one character while the rest of your party joins in as AI controlled teammates, each of whom's AI can be tweaked to inform when they choose to heal, who they decide to target, when they should burn meter, and so on. At any time you can switch player control to other party members, and this is perhaps the most impressive part of the combat. The six party members all have their own movesets, their own playstyle, and their own systems. I spent almost all of the game playing as Velvet, who has no access to the game's spells (or 'Malak Artes'). She can, however, burn meter to use her horrific demon claw hand to swipe at enemies, receiving a buff in the process. Another party member may have almost no physical prowess and rely entirely on spells, with their meter burn being a defense boost. Rokurou, the samurai demon, has a playstyle based around counters. I could see it being rewarding to replay the game as a 'Rokurou run' and such. There are no favorites played by the designers. There's a robust number of moves to select from no matter who you're playing as, even if their faces aren't on the front of the box.
By 'selecting moves' I am referring to the game's entirely customizable combo system. While I appreciate the choice on offer, this can be problematic since there's no guarantee that your strings will gracefully flow into one another. For instance, if the third move in your string ends with you in the air, it's going to be awkward for your fourth move to be a lateral punch with a long wind-up. You're not given a whole lot of information on what each move does besides a short blurb of text, so you're forced to experiment. Unlike your average character action game, there's no safe space to practice your combos. You can only fight when you're in combat, so any and all experimentation is made to be done under duress, against enemies that are actively blocking and trying to stuff your combos. Additionally, combat has a very slippery feel to it sometimes. Neither you or the monster will really stay in place as you fight, leading to finishers that often land past the enemy you were trying to hit. This is extremely frustrating with tiny, quick enemies. The RPG styled elemental attributes given to each move also forces your hand. If the tiny guy is weak to Earth, and your Earth-flavored combo is slow, you just have to deal with it. As far as I can tell, the combos use a queuing system with absolutely no cancelling. Some of the moves take a very long time to execute, so you have to commit. This includes blocking and dodging-- if you're in the middle of your own attack and you see incoming danger, you're eating it. It makes the block and dodge come across as unreliable at best. There's a perfect dodge mechanic where your stamina will increase by one segment if an enemy's attack it dodged at the last possible moment, but it's not a thing you're likely to do on purpose very often in my experience.
Like I said earlier, though, the game is extremely easy on normal. Killing monsters and winning battles can replenish some HP, so it even until late in the game it was uncommon for me to be walking around at less than maximum health. Once I did start sporadically dying, I found that the game drowns you in revive items called Life Bottles (heads up, the in-game text blurb mistakenly makes these seem like regular healing items) and your spellcasters are always available for a revive as well. I only suffered a total party wipe once, if I recall correctly. It's not exactly a shining endorsement to say that the combat is flawed but mindless, but I found its mindlessness to be something of a boon in some ways. Combat will take up a significant amount of your time as you play, but each individual battle is over quickly. It's just engaging enough to appease your lizard brain, but not taxing enough to become horribly tedious after hundreds of battles. Mileage may vary.
Outside of combat, there's a loot system where weapons and equipment can be broken down into and upgraded with materials. In the opening hours of the game this came across as an obnoxious skinner box that required constant babysitting, but before long it coalesced into something that only needed to be dealt with now and again. As far as loot systems go, it's inoffensive and vaguely enjoyable in its own right. There's also an odd cooking system that allows you to craft meals for buffs in battle and an item farming menu that has you sending ships out into uncharted territory to recover rare items. All about the levels are collectible orbs which unlock special treasure chests containing decorative fashion items you can attach to your character models. There's an almost Create-A-Wrestler level of freedom in customizing the fashion items' placements. If you want a character to have an upside down hat embedded inside their face for the entire game, cutscenes and all, you're allowed. My point is that there's a ton of supplementary content in the game to sift through. I've seen some complaints that Berseria has too much backtracking, but I feel that a majority of it is tied to the amount of this side content that you wish to engage with. The game offers you a pretty generous helping of fast travel options without making on-foot exploration less meaningful. You also find yourself being given means to more quickly traverse previously explored maps, such as a speedy magical hoverboard that can do sick jumps across previously impassable gaps.
Tales of Berseria was my first Tales game and I kind of loved it a lot. I can't quite claim that its gameplay is top notch, but it's certainly not unenjoyable. The story and characters are excellent, and the game leans on its strengths effectively by providing a lot of story and characters.