Tales of Berseria
Or: How to Care About Saving the World
I’ve always rooted for Namco-Bandai’s Tales of series. Despite having possibly the most awkward name of any game series, despite having game after game where I saw sparks of brilliance mixed with cringy crap, despite the extremely self-aware tone that borders on obnoxious at the best of times, I love it when it succeeds. It’s one of the only series I can truly play with my girlfriend, having a multiplayer RPG battle system that lets us each control our favorite characters. So we’ve gone through all of the major console releases together, back just about to Tales of the Abyss, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I love and hate about the games.
And while there’s an awful lot in both categories, one sticking point I always come back to is the Final Boss Problem. These games want to be about big ideas: choice vs. fate, the individual vs. society, the desire to rebel against institutions that control us. But they are also JRPGs, and by nature of their core mechanics, their stories always have to revolve around pivotal battles, especially with “Big Bad” antagonists, even if there’s really no good reason for them. It warps the whole story and often jackhammers in tropes that don’t make any sense in context.
The final boss of Tales of Vesperia is the perfect example. Spoilers, obviously, but I honestly can’t think of anything in this scene that they would take away from the overall game, because it’s just so disconnected. To summarize, the world is going to be destroyed by a giant monster. Duke, the morally ambiguous white-haired dude whom you’ve bumped into all game, has decided the way to destroy the monster is to kill all humans, because of course it is. Our Heroes have found a better way, by destroying all the Blastia in the world (the “do magic” devices, basically). The party tries kinda half-heartedly to stop Duke by talking to him, he drops some pretty eh truth bombs about how humans are all evil at heart, you get it. Final boss fight ensues, the Good Guy Method saves the day, yadda yadda, Duke says maybe there is some hope for humans after all.
It’s a total nothing ending, made worse because the game had so many interesting plot threads that it dropped to get here. Yuri, the main character, was born poor into a society where corrupt politicians and military officers ruthlessly exploit and kill their lessers. He plays the dark mirror to Flynn, a friend who joins the military with Yuri to change the system. While Flynn perseveres and works his way up the ranks, Yuri resigns and eventually takes justice into his own hands, killing the oppressors that the system cannot. The two clash throughout the story, and the game clearly feels Yuri is in the right, but it never fully commits; the sideplot eventually falls off after the two beat each other up and laugh about how life sure is crazy, huh?
The end of the game even juuuust barely touches on the fact that Yuri and friends (and a few high ranking government officials) are basically unilaterally deciding to destroy the basic cornerstone of all human technology in this universe. Yuri’s distrust of authority and hatred of this oligarchical society are put on hold, and maybe with good reason, but the game never really grapples with the inherent hypocrisy of his action, nor does Yuri see any serious consequences for his vigilante killings, justified or not. The final boss sequence does nothing for Yuri’s character arc, tells the player nothing about him or his companions, and thus feels completely unsatisfying outside of just “completing the game.”
The game can’t focus on the most interesting elements for its big finish because it just does not have the tools to depict them in gameplay. A character grappling with a corrupt system and eventually becoming disillusioned with it is compelling, but you can’t make a 2,000,000 HP end-boss out of the concept of capitalism. A punch in the face is cathartic, but it takes a lot more work to turn it into something meaningful. It takes a player connected to the protagonists, and protagonists connected to their ultimate struggle, not just saving the world because, shit, that’s what you do in these kinds of games.
Enter Tales of Berseria, (as of this writing) the most recent entry in the Tales series. It’s another game about Big Ideas: is it right to sacrifice a few to end the suffering of the many? Can selfish revenge be a force for good in the world? Are human emotions inherently sinful? But, more importantly, it’s also a game about something much smaller in scope: family. The main antagonist, Artorius, is the brother-in-law of protagonist Velvet. The game opens with him killing her younger brother, Laphicet, turning her into a demon, and imprisoning her for three years in an island fortress.
The entire conflict of the game is immediate, and it is brutally personal. While Vesperia starts very small too, it sort of meanders into its lackluster Save The World quest, and the two never seem to be connected by anything but coincidence and circumstance. Meanwhile, Berseria unrelentingly hammers home themes of family and trust over and over again, exploring Velvet’s broken optimism, her feral rage at this man who entered her life, married her sister, and acted as a father to her for years. Along the way she meets (kidnaps) a small magical boy with an uncanny resemblance to her dead brother. She names him Laphicet, and much of the game revolves around Velvet’s inability to separate this boy from the brother she lost and the man she wants to kill more than anything else.
There are much bigger reveals that I won’t spoil, but the entire game anchors all of the big themes it wants to hit on with deeply personal and surprisingly nuanced character development, all around Velvet and her family. The game treats Velvet like a real person with real (if dramatic) motivations. Her rage clouds her judgment, pushes her to more violent, unhinged acts, tears her apart until she finally breaks, and as the player I got to experience every second of it with her. I cheered her victories even as I feared their consequences, I worried for her as she desperately tried to keep it together, even when her entire world was completely shattered again in the final act.
And in the end, it came together beautifully. It gave me that final boss battle that it knew it needed to, but it earned that final punch by making it the epic showdown for the fate of the world a fight between Velvet and Artorius that she’d been begging for the entire game. By this point, Velvet’s rage has been transformed, not erased but honed by the events of the story to allow her to become something greater than she was “supposed” to be. Maybe she saved the world just like everyone else in these games, but I wanted her to win in a way that I never really felt with Yuri, or Asbel, or Luke, or anyone else.
Tales of Berseria manages to pull you into its world-saving adventure because its characters are allowed to be wonderfully small sometimes. I love saving the world; hell, I’ve done it so many times that I’ve come to expect it from games like this. But Tales of Berseria is special because it’s filled with a deep sense of empathy, for Velvet and for everyone else, even Artorius. In the end they can’t talk out their differences, and they fight just like every other game, but this time it’s a perfect conclusion to a hell of a roller coaster, instead of a perfunctory multi-stage test of mechanical skill. The result was the best game in a franchise I already loved.