You can always count on the Tales series to keep to its roots. While the latest Final Fantasy might have divided opinion with its more Westernised open world direction, Tales of Berseria is a far more typical Japanese role-playing game that continues – and develops, in some meaningful ways – the genre's traditions. Right from the opening cinematic, Berseria introduces you to a much darker tale; crunching guitars lend a heavier tone and kick in over the beautiful anime veneer with shots bathed in a darkened blood-soak red beneath a crimson moon. This isn't the same happy-go-lucky-heroes-save-the-world kind of story that we're used to seeing.
Instead, you take control of Velvet – the series' first female lead, and a strong-headed protagonist driven by a desire for revenge. You see, Velvet hasn't had it easy. Her pregnant older sister died during an event known as the Scarlet Night – an eventide defined by the deathly glow of the moon when demons run riot, and an occasion that almost takes her and her younger brother's lives in the process. They're saved at the last moment by their brother-in-law, Artorius, and go on to live together as a family. In the meantime, Velvet has been making the best of her situation, looking after her feeble brother Laphicet, farming, and helping keep beasts out of the village.
Unfortunately, the Scarlet Night returns, leading to further loss for Velvet on multiple levels, turning her into a half demon who is thrown into prison after unknowingly butchering the village population before her newfound nemesis. When she breaks out of prison years later, she's not the same person that she once was. Driven mad by an unquenched thirst for revenge, her escape catapults her into a world that has forever changed and is now ruled by those she hates most.
Unlike other Tales games – or most JRPGs, for that matter – you don't play as the saviour here. Velvet is very much an anti-hero, bent on destroying those credited with saving the world. You gather together a band of comrades, and these are some of the best in the series yet; characters who have incredible complexity and depth, and who have unique personalities and drives that make them stand out from previous titles. The ability to lightly customise your team by changing hairstyles and fitting them with fashion items like glasses and hats acquired by collecting gems also allows a freedom of expression outside of armour and skill-boosting equipment. It's a nice touch.
This darker tone also allows for an examination of the psyche on a level that the series has never had before, making way for new kinds of characters – some of whom contrast nicely against each other, and it's not always harmonious in the camp. The title's less generic because of this, but it still sticks by the anime handbook wherever possible. The contrast between different personalities serves to enhance the story, encouraging a questioning attitude towards right and wrong, dark versus light, emotion and reason – a fact emblazoned on the game's box.
It's not just the tone of the game that's changed, though, since there's now a new battle system designed to match the darker vibe. Every move in combat now uses up some of the Soul Gauge – a series of up to five dots which build up when you exploit an enemy's weakness, but which disappear when the enemy gets the best of you. To keep the Soul Gauge healthy, you must learn to master defensive manoeuvres as well as offensive ones. This means the battle system is a little less button-bashy than in prior titles, encouraging a tactical awareness of the enemies in the field. It might be best to save some of the weaker enemies for a mid-battle boost to the Soul Gauge, for example, rather than taking out the weakest enemies first and saving the strongest for last.
Stringing together techniques now feels far more fluid than ever before, but that's only the case if you manage the system carefully. Run into battle and mash away on the X button and you'll soon run the Soul Gauge down and be forced to defend yourself against open attacks. In addition to stringing together combos, you can also expend entire sections of the Soul Gauge in exchange for powerful Blast attacks. Knowing how to incorporate this mechanic, especially in longer battles where it's harder to recover the gauge, becomes essential for anyone playing the game on medium to harder difficulty levels.
With a new nimble battle system, a superb cast of characters, and an engaging storyline, it's a real shame that other aspects of the release have been somewhat left behind. While charming in its anime style, the graphics are starting to look quite dated, as though they've never left the PS3, and there's little indication that the game has been improved all that much for those purchasing this PS4 version. Edges are rough, textures are sometimes muddy, and locations are often a little uninspired. No clearer is this the case than in dungeons, which feel like they've been cut and pasted together, interspersed with insultingly basic puzzles that force you to backtrack and artificially extend the length of the adventure.
But while the graphics are dated, they're by no means abrasive. This is a stylised anime look, and it still has its moments of beauty – it just seems like it might be about time to move exclusively to current-gen hardware. Animations, however, are top-notch ,with evil grins, confused stares, and soulful eyes easy to spot without the need for dialogue. And, just in case you were worried, Japanese voices are included here, but the English track is worth giving a shot – it's one of the better ones out there, with voice overs that match the cast's unique personalities nicely, and convey emotion admirably well.
Tales of Berseria takes a positive turn with a much darker theme, a great cast of characters, and perhaps the best storyline that the series has seen for quite some time. The fast and tactical battle system is also a definite step up, but the game is starting to look dated and needs to lose its last-gen shackles. For those disillusioned fans of recent Final Fantasy outings, however, Tales of Berseria might just be the game that they're looking for, with a more traditional Japanese RPG setup that sticks closely to what it knows, while offering a new and exciting narrative direction.