Howdy folks, welcome to another Pure PlayStation review. 2017 is in full swing now and the games are coming thick and fast. We’re no stranger to games based on licensed anime franchises here and developer Omega Force are no strangers to taking on these properties and infusing them with their trademark Warriors gameplay. The latest classic series to get the treatment is Berserk, the manga serial by Kentaro Miura that has spawned two separate anime series and a trilogy of movies. The game is entitled Berserk and the Band of the Hawk for those of us in western territories and our reviewer has been going hands on all week to bring you his verdict. Does it capture the Golden Age or herald the coming of a Hawk of Darkness?
On the surface, Berserk seems like the perfect franchise to combine with the over the top hack and slash of the Warriors games. After all, it centers around the story of the mercenary Guts who, in essence, is a man with a sword the size of his body that likes nothing more than swinging it around (his sword, cheeky). It’s true that there’s something mesmeric about walloping legions of men with a six foot hunk of steel but a hefty heap of padding and an unsatisfying conclusion means that Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a mixed bag. This is especially true for newcomers to the story. If you’re just looking for a game where you can bathe in the viscera of your enemies, however, it’s definitely worth a try. Keep reading with me and I’ll try to map these highs and lows in a bit more detail.
The story of Berserk will be familiar to fans of Kentaro Miura’s work. The game covers everything from the Golden Age Arc to the Hawk of the Millenium Empire Arc, even venturing beyond where last year’s anime adaptation left off. Personally, I had only experienced the original 90’s anime adaptation before playing so I was eager to see where the story went and how the game would handle some of the darker themes. For those who haven’t encountered any of the other adaptations of Berserk, don’t worry. Enough of the story is preserved to give newcomers a narrative to follow, at least for the first half of the game.
The story mode of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a game of two halves. The first portion covers the Golden Age Arc and uses beautiful ‘blended CGI’ cutscenes straight from the 2012 movie trilogy to tell the compelling tale of the lone mercenary Guts, how he ends up joining the mercenary group the Band of the Hawk, the rise and fall of the band, and his relationship with the enigmatic mercenary leader Griffith. While fans will notice some exposition of the original work’s more complex themes missing, this is by far the superior portion of the game in terms of storytelling. The story is emotionally charged and skips along at a brisk pace, I couldn’t wait to slice through the field of opponents in front of me to reveal the next bit of animated goodness.
Unfortunately, after these events reach their climax the story takes a short, sharp, dive off a rather steep cliff. As the supernatural elements of the tale come to the fore and Guts switches from fighting foreign armies to armies of the damned, the animated cutscenes disappear in favour of in-engine scenes that don’t quite have the same impact. Coupled with this is a lot of mystery surrounding Guts’ inner darkness and his new acquaintance and some-time savior the Skeleton Knight. It slows the pace of the story down and many of the missions in this portion of the game sometimes feel like padding between exposition dumps, throwing you up against nameless evil spirits time and time again. Then the game reaches a conclusion that is so unsatisfying I wondered if I had missed something. It essentially amounts to the protagonist turning his back on his enemies and walking away. I believe it was supposed to convey a ‘character development victory’ in him choosing to protect his friends over taking his revenge but the rushed and confusing events of the final mission bury any real emotional impact here.
The gameplay that underpins Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is strong. It’s much as you’d expect from a Warriors game, light and heavy attacks combine for combos, and a special gauge fills as you rack up kills that lets you unleash powerful special moves or transformations. Some tactical nuance is introduced in the ranged sub-weapons for each character and block and dodge moves become important when taking on the huge apostle bosses or tougher combatants. The blood and guts nature of Berserk lends itself well to the style, at least visually. The huge (and later even huger) sword you’ll wield feels heavy and spattering gore, flying body parts, and some brutal sound effects all add up to some very satisfying encounters. Yes, it can become repetitive with prolonged sessions and being forced to use main character Guts for the majority of the story missions but the progress of your character’s abilities match the story progress and change over time to alleviate this sense somewhat. Essentially, if you’re not marathoning the game and you know what to expect then this shouldn’t be much of an issue for you.
Aside from the main story and its issues, the game also features an infinite dungeon run called the ‘Endless Eclipse.’ In this mode, you’ll pick a character and attempt to clear as many levels as you can. Levels are fed out to you in the form of requests, in blocks of 5 ‘layers’ of the dungeon. The items you select are locked in and cannot be changed or replenished between floors and if you quit out, you’ll have to start from scratch (although milestones along the way mean that you’ll actually only have to complete about 20 ‘layers’ to retain your progress for next time). Apart from repeating story missions in free mode, this is your main opportunity to make use of the various side characters you’ll unlock through the story. Some, like the diminutive sorceress Shierke who uses ranged magic attacks, offer a very different playstyle to Guts and the variation is welcome. It’s also fun to take recurring villains like Zodd, complete with his apostle transformation, for a spin and series fans should get a kick out of this.
The only negative here is that missions don’t tend to stray from the objective of ‘kill everything as fast as possible.’ Where the story makes some effort to script events in battles to make some sense of their context in the source material, Endless Eclipse drops all pretense and simply allows you to let loose. Given that there are tangible rewards like extra characters, warhorses, and costumes for completing various milestones in the eclipse it actually adds quite a bit of mileage to the game. The story isn’t exactly short, there’s a good 20-30 hours of content there, but anyone looking to spend an extended time with the game will be spending it in endless eclipse mode. It’s also here that you’ll find the best equipment for your character. Berserk lets you select three accessories to equip before battle, granting stat bonuses based on their attached skills. This later develops into a system where you can combine items, upgrade them, and select the most desirable skill combinations which gives it a surprising amount of depth.
The game does its best to cater to all levels of skill with adjustable difficulty settings from easy to ‘berserk.’ I found playing on normal difficulty to be a bit too easy to be fun and preferred switching it up to hard for a stiffer challenge but the four levels of difficult mean you can find your sweet spot no matter how you like it. It’s perhaps less accessible in theme though, the M for mature rating might have given it away but this is not one for the kids. The game shies away a little from some of the source material’s more risque aspects, like sexual assault, mentioning these aspects where important to the story but drawing focus away elsewhere. The brutal evisceration of enemies, torture, and even the (accidental) murder of an innocent child, however, remains intact.
Visually the game is a treat for those who like a good gore fest. In battle, Guts’ sword is poetry in motion and the animations of sweeping attacks and the hit detection thereof are top notch. Elsewhere, a few cracks appear in the veneer, enemies have a surprisingly short draw distance on the PS4 and you’ll often see the rank and file troops getting stuck on each other when huddled in a mass (fortunately they won’t stay alive long enough for this to be a lingering issue). Environments are a mix of battlefields, castles, villages, forests, and even an ethereal spirit plane, that range from busy to bland but none stand out as particularly impressive. As mentioned before, the in-engine cutscenes aren’t quite as engaging as their animated counterparts by and large but they’re all competent enough to convey the story and there are a couple of really well done scenes toward the end of the game. The music of the game is great, a thematically appropriate mix of operatic and dramatic orchestrated pieces that keep the tension high throughout and sound effects, as mentioned above, really add to the visceral feeling of combat.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a difficult game for me to rate. On the one hand, it’s an enjoyable and bloody romp through the fantastically creative universe of Berserk. On the other, it’s hampered by an unsatisfying ending (though it’s debatable how much of this can be attributed to the game and how much to the source material) and an inescapably repetitive nature. For those going into the game with their eyes open, you’ll probably have a lot of fun. Don’t expect a significant evolution of the Warriors gameplay template or an exploration of Berserk’s more overarching themes on the nature of humanity and you’ll be fine.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk PS4 Review
A bloody romp, a fun time with no brainpower required. One good story followed by one not so good story and literally infinite side content. Fans of the Warriors series will get exactly what they expect, plus extra entrails. Fans of Berserk will likely get a kick out of sundering enemies in two as the black swordsman as well as the host of accompanying characters but may be disappointed that some story details fall by the wayside.
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*Reviewed on a standard PS4
We were lucky enough to get our mitts on both a PS4 and PS Vita code for Berserk and the Band of the Hawk (the game releases for both systems on the 21st of February). So we asked the one man we know isn’t afraid to admit he owns a Vita, our resident anime fan Jason Frye, to give us his impressions on the Vita version and his thoughts as a series fan;
Jason Frye – PS Vita Impressions
As far as performance, Berserk is mostly great on the Vita, except for two issues. First, I did experience two crashes while playing. It did not happen during a mission, so, after restarting the game, I just had to skip through a cutscene or two. Second, the camera is normally fine. The problem is when you get knocked next to a wall or corner. The camera is behind you, so it is impossible to see anything except the enemies on screen beating you into a bloody pulp. Otherwise, the game was mostly smooth, even with all the enemies on the screen.
The loading screens on the Vita are fairly short, and I enjoyed being able to hit buttons to have Puck hit the “Now Loading” message on screen. The backgrounds were decent on the Vita, but they were generic and overused. There were some specific areas, but they mostly boiled down to woods, castle, and field. This may just be a part of this type of game.
My knowledge of Berserk comes from the anime and movies. From that perspective and for what it is, I think the story is great. It contains all the highs and lows of war, friendship, betrayal, loss, unrequited love, and figurative and literal sacrifice. It is not the most absorbing or believable story about the daily human condition that we can all relate to as we struggle on with our own personal demons, but it does have real demons, so that counts for something.
The story is understandably edited, and the first one is the most fleshed out. I really liked the well-animated videos during the first arc, and I was disappointed that they almost disappeared after it was completed. The other arcs are good enough to keep the story moving from an extremely high level, but some character’s deeper motivations and stories will certainly be lost. There is a lot there, and they covered what was necessary to keep things as smooth as possible for the player. If anything, it made me want to delve into the manga for more backstory and details around the third arc, as well as more info on the Skeleton Knight and the Angels.
One last thing, after the first arc and before the second arc gets going, you have about three (or more) missions to fight thieves. This felt like padding in a game that did not need it, especially since Guts is kind of a jerk. He literally says that the weak will be dominated by the strong, so he has no reason to help them. Tonally, it did not feel right, and it was a waste of time, since it was not important for the story at all.