I have always enjoyed a good anime adaptation game. I’ve said before that I find most anime based video games disappointing because the bulk of them end up being basic fighters and just ignoring the things that actually made the anime good outside of just combat sequences. The fact that the only well-known Naruto games are all just clones of Mortal Kombat really depresses me. That’s why I rarely play any anime based games today. The other thing that limits the amount of anime games I play is that up until now I had never seriously played a game based on an anime I hadn’t seen before. Berserk and the Band of Hawk by Koei Tecmo is the first game I’ve ever played based on an anime I had no interest in.
For those of you that don’t know, Berserk is actually a very popular anime. Actually it’s multiple popular anime because there are shows based on the original manga from both 2016 and 1997. Though I am very aware of the series and know a number of people who watched both of them and very much enjoyed them, I never had any interest in the franchise prior to playing this game. Berserk and the Band of Hawk is the video game adaptation of the series done by Koei Tecmo. It originally released in Japan last year but is just now being released in the west. In fact, the official US release date is February 21st of this year. The western version is only available on PS4, PSVita, and PC. If you want to play it on PS3, you will have to play a Japanese import of the game. I played it on PS4. The only reason I agreed to play a game based on an anime I had no real interest in or experience with was that it was done by Koei Tecmo. If you read my Attack on Titan review, then you know that I’m of the opinion that this was the greatest anime adaptation game ever made. It was by no means the greatest game ever made, but to date I have never played a game that stayed more true to the source material and still played well overall more than Attack on Titan. It’s that level of quality that made me want to give Berserk and the Band of Hawk a try.
A lot of aspects of this game are borrowed from Attack on Titan. Many of the same principles of development in how the game is presented visually and mechanically come from a long legacy of crafting the perfect looking game and then doing very little to change the formula. It’s the reason that so many of Koei Tecmo’s games have very similar menus and menu break downs. Like with many other games by the studio, Berserk has a number of different visual styles thrown into the game at various points. Along with the gameplay graphics there are at least three different visual types of cutscenes. The opening cutscene, which is pretty much a given for all their games at this point, is a beautiful sequence that looks noticeably better than the rest of the game. It’s a set of fast-paced battle sequences filled with blood, gore, and violence. Right out of the gate you know this isn’t going to be the poetic style of war you get in games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms XII. What I will say about the opening in this game compared to other games I’ve seen from this studio is that it still looks a bit more like a game and less like a cutscene. But it’s still worlds better looking than the actual gameplay which also looks pretty good.
Within the game there are two other types of cutscenes. There are ones directly connected to the gameplay. These usually happen right before or right after battles. They look pretty much just like the gameplay but with a much higher render quality and far less distractions on-screen. A high amount of detail, smooth movement, and a healthy color pallet. The gameplay is very similar to these types of cutscenes in general. I never know what the exact right words to describe it is, but the gameplay definitely looks like a game instead of an anime. I think a large part of it comes down to the type of anime Koei Tecmo tends to adapt. It still has a serious feel to it but the graphics lack the dark, depressing tone that the anime has. There’s a large amount of detail, but it’s mostly on the surface. Rock textures are a great example of this. They have a skin that looks like what you would expect a rock to look like in a game, but not what rocks actually look like. One thing I will say about these cutscenes is that the characters’ mouths move very well and match up great with the voice acting, which by the way is all in Japanese, as is tradition for Koei Tecmo.
The final type of cutscene is pulled right out of the anime. They’re basically just clips from the show. Hand drawn moving pictures that in no way match the visual style of the rest of the game. Attack on Titan also had a number of varying types of cutscenes but for me it didn’t work as well here. I think a big part of the problem is that this game and by extension the anime, has a much simpler story and dynamic. Or at least that’s how the game comes off considering I didn’t actually watch the anime. When it comes down to it, this whole game is either battles or scenes just before or just after battles with the occasional banter in the middle. But there’s no sort of organization to the cutscenes and what’s shown in what form. Or at least I couldn’t spot any. You see the same sorts of occurrences happen in all types of cutscenes. People talking after battles, battles ending, or battles being planned. I think some more organization or fewer types of cutscenes would have made this game seem more coherent plot wise, but I understand that they wanted to provide actual clips from the anime for authenticity even though the game in no way looks like the actual anime.
The gameplay looks pretty much like Dynasty Warriors. The whole time I was playing it I felt like it was a much less complicated version of Hyrule Warriors. You have hordes of enemies, target objectives, win conditions, loss conditions, a very similar HUD to the aforementioned games, and a large amount of surface detail for everything on the screen. The HUD is life and special bar in the bottom left corner, dialog pop up boxes in the bottom middle, kill count in the bottom right, and mini-map in the top right of the screen. You can toggle between a map of the whole area or a zoomed in one of your near vicinity. All enemies have red life bars floating over their heads and some of them have names. All allies have blue life bars floating over their heads and all named characters also have their names floating above in white text with a blue outline. Named enemies have the same but with a red outline. You constantly have notifications in various text types jumping up on the screen in the center and in an objective box on the right depending on what’s happening. The gameplay is fast paced with you slicing through multiple enemies at a time and yes you do get covered in their blood.
The menus are your standard Koei Tecmo style. Very readable semi-block text, rounded block menus, and lots of layers of menus. In this particular game they used a slightly serif font with a black and grey texture as the text color. All in all, Berserk is a good-looking game. It doesn’t have the same character that the anime seems to have and honestly that takes away some of its originality because of how similar it looks to other games by the studio in that respect, but it’s overall a clean-looking title that runs perfectly.
A far as gameplay is concerned, this is your traditional horde hack-n-slash game. There are multiple characters that you unlock as you progress through the story and only specific characters are available to use in a given battle/mission. Each character feels slightly different but they pretty much play the same. You spam square for regular attacks and hold triangle for charge attacks. You also have sub-weapons which are projectiles and items. Sub-weapons have unlimited ammo, but there is a reloading time that occurs after you finish each “magazine” for lack of a better word. The only items you get are for healing or buffs, but healing are the only ones you ever really need to use. At least on normal difficulty. Characters differ in things like speed and reach and you will favor certain characters over others, but it’s not the sort of game where you will dominate with one character and fail miserably with others. You have a frenzy mode which is basically god mode. You fill up the bar by killing enemies and then you press circle to use it. During this temporary boost you do more damage and take considerably less damage but you are still vulnerable to knock back attacks from bosses. During frenzy you can charge your “death blow”. When this is full, you do a special attack that hits basically all enemies in front of you and deals a ton of damage. Frenzy mode is kept up based on the kills you get but it’s always slowly dropping. Each time you use frenzy it levels up, making it stronger than before. It can get to a maximum of five in any one battle but it resets at the start of each mission. The gameplay is pretty straight forward and easy to pick up.
The story mode is broken up into plot based battles. Each battle has a difficulty rating up to 10, but the game also has four general difficulty levels which can be changed in the options menu at any time. Your objectives are always defeat the enemy and that usually means kill a bunch of guys until a boss shows up and then kill the boss. There are also side objectives for every battle that raise your score if completed but they are usually optional. Some missions are more complicated and longer than others. A battle may have you taking a castle where you have to destroy target objects, take certain areas, and kill certain higher ranking officials before the battle is won. Other levels might just have you kill a bunch of guys as quickly as possible. Certain battles are super quick and can be completed in under 10 minutes. During battles you can find items and money which can help you get better gear and heal yourself. You can also ride a warhorse in certain battles. This gives you increased movement speed and you take much less damage, but your accuracy goes way down. I often found myself getting off the horse to fight named enemies. You can lock on to named enemies but the lock on system doesn’t work very well. I often found myself having to lock on and off multiple times while trying to stay focused on the same enemy. Most of the time you fight armies but every so often you must face a large beast which is essentially a special boss fight scenario. These require you to focus a lot more on dodging and chip damage than just hacking through like normal. Probably the most challenging part of the game.
Before each battle, you see the battle preparation screen. This menu gives you a bunch of information about field layout, support, and objectives. It also lets you visit the shop. You can pause at any time during battle as well and look at the status of the field. This includes a larger map with force disbursement of both enemies and allies, your optional objectives, the status of all forces, and named characters on the field.
At the end of each battle you are awarded a score based on time, hits, and missions cleared. You also get money awarded for your achievements and items and gold collected on the field. Money is used to buy gear in the shop. You can purchase materials, accessories, and enhance gear. Healing and temporary buff items can only be found on the field and saved for use in later battles. They must be equipped in the battle preparation screen but you can choose not to take any. In the store each item is a one-off so you can’t just buy the same item a bunch of times all at once. New items are added to the shop each battle. The enhancement system is pretty standard. You use materials that you buy in the shop or find in battle plus gold to enhance accessories. Each accessory can be enhanced up to level nine and then combined to create superior items. Different materials allow you to enhance different parts of an accessory. So it’s important to plan carefully when enhancing because you can’t take it past level nine.
Accessories have three stats plus special buffs. Attack, defense, and technique are the main stats of every accessory, but they also add things like additional range, horse skills, improved frenzy, or rapacity. Character levels are the most important part of your stats though. Each character has vitality, attack, defense, and technique. Each of these raises slowly as you level a character up. Characters all have their own separate level experience so it’s important to swap around who you play with for a well-rounded team. While certain missions can only be played with specific characters the first time around, you can go back and replay any level with any character and the experience counts. Even when you play in Free Mode or Endless Eclipse Mod the experience is still cumulative to the character’s total experience. Free Mode lets you play any mission with any unlocked character including those who have nothing to do with the story at the time of the mission. At any time during a battle you can save and quit the game. You can reload the quicksave to the exact spot you left the battle in.
Endless Eclipse Mode is one of those supposedly never-ending challenge dungeon modes. You can use any character and fight your way from level one to as far as you can get. Each level of the dungeon nets rewards and experience. When you die or quit you go back to level one. Every five levels you can visit camp to change items and visit the shop. This mode is kind of interesting because it’s linked to the story mode. You can only go down so many levels depending on where you are in story mode. As you get farther in the story you unlock the ability to reach more levels. Every 10 levels net a special prize going all the way to 100.
Over all I really enjoyed the gameplay in Berserk. This wasn’t a super original game and as I said before it feels a lot like a simpler clone of Hyrule Warriors, which is also by Koei Tecmo. But it’s that more straight forward and simpler gameplay that I prefer about this to the Warriors type games. This is much more about the fighting and single completion objectives rather than having to run back and forth all over a battlefield. You just progress forward, kill enemies, and you win. It’s a very traditional hack-n-slash scenario and I appreciated that.
Koei Tecmo doesn’t ever play around when it comes to sound. In a lot of ways this game impressed me audibly a lot more than most of their other games I’ve played. The music is mostly epic war music, but not in the Final Fantasy techno sense of the word. It’s very traditional instrumentals of drums, horns, and things like that. Marching music is an appropriate description. But there are also softer tracks and upbeat adventure songs as well. There are 65 tracks in the game’s music library which you unlock as you progress through the game. While the music is quite good, the sound effects in this game are great. The slicing, war cries, and other standard battle sounds are good but what I really appreciated was the more subtle sounds. The warhorses neighing, footsteps, and the clinking of armor in the cutscenes is a great example of this. The sound production in even just the anime style cutscenes is spot on. This game isn’t perfect but it definitely has nearly perfect sound. Even the voice acting sounds great. But what I will say is that the voice actors are a bit stale in this one. You don’t get as much emotion from them as I’ve gotten from the voice actors in other games from the studio. But I haven’t watched the anime so that may very well be exactly how the characters are read in the work the game is adapted from so I have no way of knowing for sure.
While the gameplay isn’t very complicated, this is made up for by the fact that Berserk comes off as a very story focused game. From the very beginning, the game pushes itself as being more about plot than anything else. The game goes as far as encouraging you to play the game on easy when you first start it up as a means to best experience the story. There are many cutscenes, lots of dialog during battles, and between battles there are short little moments of banter between various characters that are optional to view. Much of the dialog in the game is pointless. But I think that’s the point. You are getting glimpses at the everyday lives of the characters and not all of that is important or exciting. Characters fight, fall in love, and hate each other.
While there are many characters, both playable and not, the game focuses mostly on Guts and Griffith. Guts is the main character that you play as for most missions and is present in basically every cutscene. Griffith is the leader of the band of mercenaries that Guts joins. Again, I haven’t seen the anime so I can’t say how true the game is to the source material. But I can say that the game doesn’t have a super interesting or creative plot. It’s the story of a mercenary band whose leader wants to move up the ranks from warrior to king and his band helps him move towards this goal. Along the way some surprising things happen such as monsters, curses, and political rivalries but at the end of the day the game follows a really headstrong warrior who just runs into battles swinging a big sword following his best friend on the road to glory. There are twists and turns along the way, but I feel like people who aren’t already fans of the anime won’t take much from this game’s plot.
On the flip side, this is a Koei Tecmo game. That means tons of lore and unlockable content to read in the gallery section not to mention pages and pages of tutorials, manuals, and gameplay advice. Berserk actually has a ton of replay value overall, as is the case for most games from this studio. There are 40 trophies, including a platinum. The gallery has 50 characters to unlock, tons of pictures and event sequences to unlock, several pieces of equipment to find throughout the game, and six scenes of 36 pictures each that must be unlocked one picture at a time by completing missions. There are even 18 different warhorses to unlock. And remember that you also have a 100 level dungeon and Free mode both of which have character specific progress options. If you want replay value that will still require very active gameplay, this is the game for you. There’s not nearly as much going on in this game as there is in many other titles from Koei Tecmo so you might not get as much original gameplay as you get from a lot of their other stuff. But this is still a pretty loaded game. The game will also have some downloadable content which wasn’t available at the time of my writing this review. I might not say $60 was the right price for people who aren’t fans of the anime, but for $30 this would be a great buy for any hack-n-slash fan.
Berserk and the Band of Hawk is a fine game. It reminded me a lot of when I played Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage for the PS3 but with blades and way more blood. I hold the opinion that this game can’t be fully enjoyed by people who aren’t fans of the anime but it is still quite a good game worthy of the studio that has created so many top-notch titles. If you’re looking for a hack-n-slash game that isn’t too complicated with just the slightest taste of RPG elements and a decent enough story with several characters, this would not be a bad buy.
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