"Fool that I am," said he,"that I did not tear out my heart the day I resolved to revenge myself." - Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Tales of Berseria pulls very few punches in its opening moments. After establishing a calm, quiet life in a rural village for protagonist Velvet Crowe, the story quickly switches gears. Her brother is murdered by her own mentor, and in a fit of rage she becomes a demon of vengeance, killing townspeople before being locked away in a cell for several years.
In her cell, Velvet bides her time. She waits, feeding on less fortunate prisoners conspicuously dropped into her domain. She hears stories of the world's savior Artorias, whose ritual that night saved the world. Only she knows what it cost, and regardless of the outcome, she has only one goal in mind: to kill the world's savior, to quench the rage building inside her and avenge her late and last remaining relative.
Playing the villain isn't a wholly revolutionary concept in video games; recent games like Tyranny and Nefarious have done so, exploring the concept of playing as a member of the dark side. For Tales of Berseria, and the Tales series as a whole, Velvet Crowe's journey for vengeance is a stark departure from an otherwise traditional thread.
One of the longest running Japanese role-playing game series, the Tales games date back to Tales of Phantasia in 1995 for the Super Famicom, where a young man Cress joins forces with a young priestess girl named Mint, on a quest to save the world from an evil sorcerer named Dhaos.
Tales games since have mostly fallen into a similar mold. A long journey or pilgrimage, a character is embued with an angelic or otherworldly power that also shortens their lifespan, a tomboy mage, a mentor figure who turns on you, and many other tropes populate the pages and beats of Tales' narratives.
Tales games have had an issue with stagnation in storytelling. Past entries have been criticized across outlets for cliches and predictable plots. Though Tales generally ranks third in role-playing games in Japan, behind Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, North American reception has not been as positive.
"Our main target audience for the Tales franchise is still ultimately Japan," said longtime series producer Hideo Baba in a 2013 interview with Destructoid. "So when we make a game we want to target our main fanbase."
Tales of Berseria is a departure from that norm, and is many ways a new foot forward for the series. Velvet Crowe is the series' first solo female protagonist (Xillia's Milla had to share the spotlight with counterpart Jude). Producer Hideo Baba stepped into a supervisor role, with Yasuhiro Fukaya taking the role of producer. In an interview with Wired, Fukaya discussed the design process of Velvet and her role in the overarching Tales series.
"To take a new step to the next decade of the Tales of series, we want to have new things that we haven't done before," Fukaya told Wired. "That's why we wanted to have Velvet as a main hero–it's the start of a new chapter."
Velvet also marks a break from recent female JRPG protagonists. The moe culture that permeated anime for the better part of several years meant that many anime-influenced Japanese role-playing games, like the Tales series, had similarly moe designs. These characters would appear young, innocent, schoolgirl-esque and clumsy. In contrast, Velvet Crowe is confident and determined, willing to set a city on fire or sacrifice the lives of fellow inmates to ensure an unobstructed path to her target.
Thematically, Tales of Berseria centers around the conflict of emotion and reason, between the ideal and the real. The Abbey, a theocratic order formed by Artorius during Velvet's time in prison, establishes strict rules and regulations on the populace, in exchange for protecting them from the dameonblight, a curse that turns people into monsters. The exorcists of the Abbey are ruthless but steadfast and rigid in their beliefs, adhering to a set of maxims created by Artorius.
Velvet is meanwhile consumed by her thirst of vengeance, taking corporeal form in her left arm. She becomes a unique kind of demon, one that literally consumes life to sustain itself; like a vampire, only rather than suck her victims' blood, she consumes their life-force with her giant, bestial left arm.
In turn, she loses all taste for normal foods like apples or curry—she can only taste blood. Many of the party members that join you throughout Berseria have their similar vices, often embodied in a physical item like Eizen's coin or Rokurou's family heirloom, a sword he refuses to unsheath. It becomes apparent that your crew are not the good guys, or at least, are not cut from the same cloth as the idealistic heroes of old.
In Alexandre Dumas' work The Count of Monte Cristo, the eponymous count also faces an unrelenting thirst for revenge, and the unquenchable fire it creates that often has unintended consequences. Velvet Crowe mirrors Edmond Dantes in many ways; breaking free from a captive prison, stowing aboard a pirate ship to travel the seas searching for her transgressors, clinging to revenge as her sole remaining purpose in life.
Later in the narrative, Velvet takes in a young boy, a servant of the Templars freed by her crew during a hurried escape. Having no name, Velvet dubs the boy Laphicet—the same name as her murdered brother. She protects him, watches over him, even nags him as an older sister would, and when another girl joins the party to provide an older sibling role, she grows resentful of it. Velvet is not wholly without goodness or humanity, but she struggles to reconcile her human nature with the manifest hatred of her left arm, living proof of all that was taken from her, and a debt she has yet to collect on.
At 20 or so hours in, it's unclear whether Velvet will find satisfaction or salvation, though there's been hints of her morality impeding more rash decisions. The Abbey and its Templars are just pawns in a greater game, and there's little doubt in my mind that a greater evil will be acknowledged and fought beyond just Artorius.
Regardless, as a Tales fan burned by several years of repetition and "greatest hits," it's been a joy to see the series strike out into uncharted territory with Velvet and her band of anti-heroes. If this is Tales' shot at capturing a Western audience comparable to its Japanese fans, to regain some of the notoriety it had when games like Tales of Symphonia were at the forefront of role-playing games, it's certainly aiming at all the right targets.