Hey hey folks, and welcome to my critique of Tales of Berseria. Just a friendly reminder that if you haven’t completed the game, there might be spoilers in this video. If you wish to avoid them, please press pause, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.
Near the end of Tales of Berseria, Velvet, the main character utters the line “My heart is ugly and full of contradictions”. This is the culmination of her character arc. What started the game as vengeance against Artorious for what happened to her and her brother devolves into more doubt and despair as her actions keep hurting people. As callous as she appears, this is taking a toll on her, and in showing that her quest was all for nothing because her brother willingly sacrificed himself, Innominat, one of the Gods of the world, hopes to drive her despair high enough to be able to feed on it and resurrect, robbing humanity of emotion and thus eradicating all suffering. Velvet’s path of vengeance is not one a hero would take, and it wasn’t until late in the game that it dawned on me that she wouldn’t have a happy ending because it would feel wrong to reward such a character for their actions even if they end up saving the world in the process.
Innominat’s plan, robbing humanity of free will, and Velvet being called The Lord of Calamity, plays into an observation I’ve had about Japanese role playing games for some time. They always seem to boil down to a battle between order and chaos. A band of heroes fighting a God who wants to control humanity for their own good. It’s a fight for free will. When Velvet utters that line about her heart being ugly and full of contradictions, she’s come to realise that the ability to follow her path, no matter the consequences is what makes her human, and that’s not cause for despair. It’s not that she’s ok with all the people she’s hurt in her quest for vengeance, but she acknowledges the full breadth of her emotions. This allows Velvet to grow and us as players to want to follow her story to its conclusion.
The phrase “ugly and full of contradictions”, and the theme of control versus free will are wonderful metaphors for what I wish to talk about in this critique, and that is Tales of Berseria’s battle system. A quick overview is required before I discuss it in more abstract terms. It’s a button masher. The four face buttons of the controller are linked to four separate four-move combos that the player can construct themselves or allow the CPU to craft. The A button’s combo by default is titled ‘you decide’ and pressing it will execute any attack that the CPU thinks is relevant based on your distance from an enemy, and whether or not there are multiple enemies around it. Each move has a cost to perform, and this is what the star gauge in the bottom left corner of the screen is for. At this point we have 4-hit combos that can be cycled through continually as long as we have the resources to execute them. Often killing an enemy will refill your star gauge and add another star onto it. If you want to kick things into a higher gear, that’s where Velvet’s consuming claw comes in.
By entering claw mode, Velvet’s combos no longer cap out at 4. You can button mash indefinitely. Kind of. To stop you staying in this overpowered mode, a couple of things happen. First, your health starts dropping. Slowly to begin, but the longer you stay in this mode, the faster it will drop. You can unleash the claw to regain health, but each use of it will remove one star gauge. If your health reaches 0 or you use up all your star gauges without recovery, Velvet will perform a specialised final attack before reverting to normal mode with only 1 health. At this point you can either sub out Velvet for another party member, use a healing item, or run away from the enemies and wait for a healing spell to be cast. As you might imagine, one of the tricks to performing well in combat is knowing when to enter and exit Velvet’s claw mode, and making decisions based on where your health and star gauge are at all times. Even with this understanding, there’s still a lot of button mashing, and I feel like I have little control over what Velvet is actually doing.
Which is the perfect segueway for talking about auto mode. You can set the AI for your party, how they act in certain situations, and then turn over to auto and watch the computer play through the battles for you. By default the game is set to semi-auto. This means that when you press the attack button, your character will get in range before executing the attack. In manual mode, you have to make sure you’re in range. Early on there was a joy in letting the CPU control Velvet every now and then. Many of the moves look flashy, and watching the computer chain them together, entering and exiting claw mode with ease was exhilarating. I think I started to understand how claw mode worked thanks to watching the CPU. After a while though I did begin to wonder what it means to play a video game that plays itself.
In my impressions video I talked about loving the characters and the motivation of Velvet. That held true until the credits. For me, the gameplay was the least enjoyable aspect of the game, and the combat the least enjoyable aspect of the gameplay. I would go through phases, often during a single play session, where I’d be playing the battles and thinking to myself, “there’s no reason for me to control this” and then after a while of letting the computer take over I’d say, “I want to play now. I want to feel like I’m actually doing something”. I think the combat was getting in the way of the story and the characters. Now an easy criticism to make of my feelings is why not just watch a Let’s Play if I’m only there for the story? I’ve talked before about how I feel that there’s a magic in playing a video game that watching it cannot capture. How even cutscenes are more impactful with controller in hand. I still feel this way. Also, I thought that if I had to watch someone else play through thousands of battles, I may as well be in control myself, even if I’m not.
Let’s unpack this thought of “there’s no reason for me to control this” while playing. Auto mode is deceptive. I talked before about combos. Even if you tap different face buttons, your combo will continue, jumping to that button’s combo until you stop attacking and the combo resets. In auto mode, the CPU would often pull off multiple first or second tier combo moves in a row. It would access moves that are flashy and perfect for the situation. Moves that I would never see hitting the ‘You Decide’ button while playing through the fights. I wondered if there was a difference between button mashing combos that the CPU chooses, and letting the CPU control combat in its entirety. It just doesn’t feel like I have any semblance of control, even in semi-auto mode. Maybe it’s because I’ve played Demon’s Souls where each attack is purposeful and measured, and I’ve played Bayonetta where the difference between button mashing and using the right move at the right time is in player understanding. Those games give you full control over what you do and when you do it. A player can set up their own combos and execute them at the right time in manual mode, but nothing about the way the game teaches the player the combat system facilitates this style of play. It tells the player “Yeah, there is a level of intricate setup and execution that can happen, but why would you want to do that? Just sit back and let us take care of everything. Enjoy the story”.
Returning to that idea of control versus free will. I think I’ve laid out that even while in control during battle, I felt that it was only superficial. It was about when to give the character I was controlling orders than actually executing attacks in real time. As I spent most of the game with Velvet, the only time I got to control any of the other characters was when she was forced out of claw mode, and I swapped her out to heal. Each character has their own quirks and special moves. I enjoyed how brutal Eizen’s punches were and Rokurou’s sword combos. Even Magilou’s bouncy magic was fun to see in action. I think I’d love to play a turn based version just so I would have control over each character, enjoying the whole party in combat as much as I enjoyed their dialogue during vignettes. Saying that though, there is also a joy in letting your party members run around and attack with their own autonomy, and it would be hypocritical of me to complain about how the game takes away a chunk of my free will and then hypothosize about doing the same to everyone else in my party.
Wrapping up, I think that the point I’m trying to make is ugly and full of contradictions. I can’t square my feelings about constantly wanting more control in the battle system, and then wanting to give it up by letting the CPU take over. Maybe I did myself a disservice not programming my own combos and executing them in manual mode. I’m reminded of FOOS, which stands for first order optimal strategies. The general idea is that once a player discovers a strategy that works, even if that strategy is boring, they will prefer it over experimenting with what might be more complex and rewarding game systems. Why? Because humans will always take the easiest option if it works. Over thousands of battles my optimal strategy was to let the CPU take over, and when that got boring, I let the CPU decide what attack I was going to use. Earlier I asked what it means to play a video game that plays itself. It either means having the player give up control is the optimal strategy, the gameplay is not engaging enough, its complexities are not taught well, these complexities are not needed to complete the game, or the gameplay was never the focus in the first place. In Tales of Berseria, these are all valid answers.
Thanks for watching. This is my first completed Tales game. I read they overhauled the combat system for this one, so fans of the series, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments, not only on how the combat may be different in other games, but your take on my experience with Berseria. If you enjoyed the video, please press the like button, share with your friends, and subscribe to the channel for more critiques, and I hope you’re all having a wonderful day.