Update: Though I originally reviewed Resident Evil 7 on PS4 and PSVR, I’ve since had a chance to test the game on Xbox One and PC as well. Accordingly, additional information has been added to the bottom of this review. — SB, 1/24/2016
We didn’t know it at the time, but Resident Evil 4 was the beginning of the end. Though in many ways the series’ best game, it also signaled the start of Resident Evil’s transformation from survival-horror into something far scarier: forgettable, derivative action. By contrast, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has been heralded as a return to form–a classic, uncompromising frightfest. And indeed, it is. In place of blockbuster pandering, the game delivers intimate horror with a tightly focused scope and all the trappings you’d expect from a survival game. No superfluous skill trees or meaningless fetch quests, just the stomach-churning tension of guiding a relatively helpless character out of a waking nightmare.
You do gradually gather weapons as you progress, but you could never mistake this for an action game. Every time you start to feel powerful enough to kick some ass, the game finds a way to pull the rug out from under you. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, so let’s just say it respects series traditions and that there’s a lot more to RE7 than what you’ve already seen. And while the setting and characters have no obvious connections to any previous Resident Evil game, the series’ DNA can be felt in everything from the puzzles and keys to the subtle psychological tricks used to cultivate dread.
But RE7 clearly takes cues from modern horror games as well, most notably by opting for a first-person perspective. Fans of games like Outlast may recognize a lot of structural similarities in large portions of the campaign, which–outside of some optional backtracking to collect items–follows a linear and highly scripted series of events. Annoyingly, that sometimes means wasting ammo on enemies who aren’t scheduled to die until later fights, but at least those moments reinforce the tense, oppressive atmosphere that persists from start to finish. The results aren’t always explicitly terrifying, but I was pretty damn stressed out for the duration.
The experience starts to drag a bit by the end, though, as you end up performing similar tasks throughout the entire game. The campaign could have benefited from a slightly higher density of unique, memorable moments. But make no mistake: there are memorable moments, and when they hit, they hit hard. Despite its clarity of vision and prudent restraint in pursuit of that vision, RE7 still takes a few bold chances to refresh the campaign and renew the horror as you progress.
Some of these chances stem from its story, which follows series newcomer and all-around average guy Ethan Winters. After receiving a cryptic video from his wife Mia, who’s been missing for three years, Ethan ends up in a dilapidated manor deep in the Louisiana bayou, where he discovers a demented family and a whole lot more questions. Thankfully, the narrative never devolves into trite “damsel in distress” cliches. In fact, the story’s never really about Mia; it’s about escaping a nightmare.
Overall, the narrative delivers. The twists are generally predictable, but it’s still exciting to see them unfold–and the game never lingers on a reveal for too long. The writing remains thematically consistent and drives towards a clear goal, making your circumstances feel that much more dire. The same can said of the setting: every moldy floorboard, every oozing entrail, every flickering light feels unbearably real. The textures, details, and sounds are, without exception, utterly gross in the best way, and impressively, RE7 relies far more on this atmosphere than cheap jump scares.
RE7 also smartly uses each family member to different effect. The father Jack provides in-your-face terror and drives much of the game’s early combat. The mother Marguerite demands a stealthier approach, which provides some of the tensest moments and arguably the game’s best boss fight. And the son Lucas sets elaborate, Saw-like traps that’ll keep you off balance and make you wary of things you once took for granted. These different approaches add welcome variety in a way that feels completely natural in the context of the world, enhancing your immersion while mixing up the gameplay.
Outside of the family, collectible VHS tapes add even more variety. Each one contains a playable flashback from a different character’s perspective, which works beautifully as both a narrative device and a way to break up Ethan’s exhausting mission. You’ll also encounter puzzles, though unlike early Resident Evil games, these play only a minor role overall, and most are simple and easy to solve. It certainly would have been nice to see a few more intricate, challenging tests, but like the VHS tapes, the puzzles fit well within the world and don’t impede the campaign’s momentum.
There are, of course, a few things that go bump in the night as well, and for those occasions, Ethan has access to a small but diverse collection of weapons. The game contains more guns than I expected, but I never felt super-powered. Not even close. Even the final chapter mainly relies on horror and tension (with one big action sequence exception). By and large, RE7 keeps it simple, prioritizing tone over action. Only one weapon feels truly outlandish, and you’ll struggle to find more than a few rounds for it anyway–though in true survival game fashion, everything is in short supply. You’ll need to manage your limited inventory and carefully scour areas for essential items, though if you’re patient and vigilant, you’ll likely find what you need. RE7 makes item collection tense without teetering into “unduly punishing.”
Unfortunately, I found most generic enemies to be a little less capable than I would have liked. If they catch you off guard or confront you in a bottleneck, they can be tough to put down. But I could frequently see them coming, and they’re neither fast nor smart enough to catch you when you simply run the other direction. Knowing when to run away is arguably part of any horror game, but I still would have preferred something more threatening, especially since I was playing on the highest difficulty available out of the box (you do unlock a higher difficulty after completing the game).
Boss fights were also a bit of a mix. One thrilling battle recaptures classic Resident Evil boss design by throwing you into a creepy, intricate arena that allows your opponent to surprise you over and over. But another more action-oriented fight was a real struggle…right up until the game showed me a prompt explaining how to perform a power attack with the weapon I’d received specifically for that fight. As soon as I knew that, I immediately won after many failed attempts. Thankfully, the game’s pretty generous when you die, respawning you nearby with all your ammo and healing items intact. You’re left terrified and upset, but at least you don’t lose much time.
While RE7 does not contain multiplayer, you can play the entire campaign on PSVR. Fundamentally, the content remains the same, but the way you experience that content certainly differs. Overall, VR works well: the graphics hold up, aiming feels intuitive (especially since you can partially aim simply by turning your head), and horror just generally feels more real and immediate when it occupies your entire field of view. And importantly, RE7 does everything it can to deliver a top-tier experience, including a robust suite of options designed to minimize discomfort. While I can’t imagine playing the entire 12-hour campaign with a headset on, RE7 is undoubtedly an amazing option for VR fans.
By the end of the campaign, I was ready for the game to be over, but that’s okay. RE7 ends just as it starts to outstay its welcome, and after the fact, I felt like I’d survived a truly harrowing journey. The boss fights may be slightly inconsistent and certain sections might drag after a while, but RE7 is still a remarkable success. It has a clear vision and executes it with impressive patience and precision. By returning to horror, Resident Evil has once again become something special.
Update: Overall, RE7 runs smoothly regardless of platform. I never experienced any major technical problems–such as frame rate drops or game freezes–on any system. However, there are some noticeable visual differences among the various platforms.
As you might expect, PC offers the highest quality visual experience, with exceptionally believable lighting effects and extra detailed textures. The game runs smoothly even at 1440p with all the most demanding visual options selected. The graphics don’t look quite so splendid on PS4, but they’re also not a drastic step down, especially if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro with a 4K and HDR capable television. (For the record, RE7 supports HDR on PC, PS4, PS4 Pro, and Xbox One S.)
Unfortunately, the Xbox One version of the game can’t quite live up to the looks of the others. In contrast to the PC and PS4 versions, colors look washed out and muddy, while textures seem almost blurry. Certain details like hair look significantly less natural compared to other platforms, and one early moment involving a chainsaw and a window looks more like an object accidentally clipping through the geometry than a weapon intentionally slicing through solid material.
While these visual discrepancies shouldn’t be enough to completely ruin the immersion for Xbox players, the differences are noticeable. We’re currently working on a full graphics comparison video, but for now, I would recommend picking the game up on PS4 or PC, if you have a choice.
Despite the Yakuza series’ cult status, mainstream success has eluded it in the west. If you’ve never played a Yakuza game before, however, Yakuza Zero is a logical place to test the waters for yourself. It’s the series’ debut on PlayStation 4, and as a prequel to the first Yakuza game, it doesn’t rely on preexisting knowledge of its principal characters. More importantly, you should play Zero because it’s a fascinating game that combines equal parts drama and comedy, and is unlike anything else out there at the moment.
Such a statement is worth scrutinizing, so to be clear: It’s Zero’s flaws that leap out at you at first glance, be it some seriously outdated character models and textures or the repetitive nature of combat. A reasonable person would take these warnings as a sign that something’s amiss–maybe it’s not surprising that Yakuza continues to persist as a cult-classic series after all. But to get hung up on these shortcomings is missing the point. Where some elements languish from a lack of attention to detail, other facets of Zero are masterfully executed.
Take the story, for example, which jumps back and forth from the perspective of two different yakuza on opposite sides of Japan. Kazuma Kiryu is a young yakuza gangster from Tokyo with an iron first but a heart of gold. He’s caught in the middle of a battle between criminal organizations seeking to take control of a valuable piece of real estate. On the other side of the country, in Osaka, we meet Goro Majima, a disfigured yakuza masquerading as the manager of a grand cabaret. Also on the outs with his clan, Majima’s sent on a mission to kill a troublesome business owner, but soon finds himself unable to complete the job for personal reasons.
Majima and Kiryu are on the run for the majority of the game, and they stumble into conflicts with yakuza big and small on a regular basis. During story-related cutscenes, Zero takes its storytelling seriously: Nobody cracks jokes or makes empty threats. When yakuza are involved, everything is at stake, including your life, but also the lives of your family and close friends. As such, the story is relentlessly tense.
Both characters will surprise you, slipping out of harm’s way by showcasing a hidden talent or by devising a clever plan, elevating them to herolike status in short order. Extraordinary luck or ability aside, it’s the allies they meet along the way that prove to be their most valuable assets. By weaving a complex web of relationships and alliances, Zero’s story grows ever more fascinating, proving to be equal parts surprising and exciting from beginning to end. In the final act, all the cards are laid out on the table, and you realize who your real friends and enemies are–and what Kiryu and Majima are truly capable of.
Zero’s plot is definitely a high point, and it’s dutifully conveyed through effective camera work and strong voice acting. While the game is only playable with Japanese audio and English subtitles, the energy and attitude behind most characters doesn’t need to be translated. When a yakuza boss snarls your way, you believe it. Bosses–or, more appropriately, captains–are often rendered with photorealistic facial features. Some textures go too far, revealing what looks like extreme cases of clogged pores, but blemishes aside, Zero’s key characters look just as convincing as they sound.
Almost across the board, however, Zero’s other characters exhibit middling animations. Where its most prominent characters offer nuanced expressions, the vast majority of models in the game move in a somewhat robotic fashion. Likewise, most passersby look as if they were lifted from the series’ PlayStation 3 entries, if not from a PlayStation 2 Yakuza game. Given that moving through story missions is only half the Yakuza experience, this is a reality you have to confront on a regular basis.
Hand-to-hand combat is another key component of Zero that feels dated, despite its improvements over past games. Both Kiryu and Majima feature different fighting styles–three varieties apiece, no less–but Zero’s straightforward beat-em-up trappings ultimately grow repetitive. By and large, you can choose one fighting style that works for you and focus on that for the entire game. Styles are developed by spending money you collect from fights and missions to invest in new skills and stat boosts, and you can get away with experimenting as much as you like.
Zero is nothing if not a brutally violent game. You’ll grind enemies’ faces into the pavement, stick a bat in their mouth and kick the exposed end, and pile-drive thugs skull-first into the street.
Majima is by far the more interesting combatant, as he can fight with a bat or by breakdancing in addition to standard fisticuffs. Both characters can pick up weapons in the environment and use them for a limited time, but otherwise, Kiryu’s primarily a brawler, albeit at three different speeds. The enemies you face on the streets are somewhat diverse and include the likes of lonesome drunks, bikers, and lowly yakuza thugs. Thematically, the variety is appreciated, but mechanically, most enemies fight the same.
Zero is nothing if not a brutally violent game. You’ll grind enemies’ faces into the pavement, stick a bat in their mouth and kick the exposed end, and pile-drive thugs skull-first into the street. Special takedowns like these add a necessary amount of flair to combat, saving fights from becoming truly rote. While these attacks would kill a normal person, enemies in Zero are able to walk their injuries off. This is your first sign that no matter how seriously the story takes itself, everything outside of cutscenes is a tongue-in-cheek affair.
The more you play, the more apparent it becomes that Zero wants you to feel both like a badass yakuza and like a participant in an absurdist comedy. The open-world structure of Tokyo and Osaka’s fictional districts affords you the chance to interact with non-yakuza citizens through 100 optional missions that you discover by walking the streets and frequenting the game’s various stores and amusement centers. Though these missions couldn’t be more different from the main plot, that’s part of their charm.
No one will argue that a yakuza on the run has time to pretend to be a random girl’s boyfriend to impress her father or to stand in as a producer on a TV commercial, but these random and lighthearted challenges are excellent palate cleansers that often elicit a chuckle, make you scratch your head in bemusement, and refresh your perspective. You can also blow off some steam by taking on a handful of minigames, including bowling, darts, real-estate management, and ports of classic Sega arcade games like Out Run, Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and Hang-On. These events are shallow but ultimately serviceable, and the game includes enough of them to satisfy your curiosity should you grow bored of any one in particular.
Traditional for the series, Zero also doesn’t shy away from thrusting you into erotic situations, be it it in the form of softcore-porn video parlors or in a minigame that involves betting on wrestling matches between two scantily clad women. At best, you can momentarily excuse its more tasteless pursuits as a reflection of Japanese society in the late 1980s or accept them at face value as a source of titillation.
For the most part, you can avoid these erotic amusements if you want to, but there’s an ever-present air of sexism in Zero’s story beyond the aforementioned “catfights”. Stereotypically, yakuza view women as objects to be owned and manipulated, and this issue can’t be avoided if Zero aims to present a realistic yakuza tale; just don’t expect the game to address it in a meaningful way. While these elements don’t outright poison the well given the basis for their presence, they’re ultimately an unavoidable and harsh reminder of the cultural valley of that exists between the game’s setting and modern sensibilities.
Otherwise, Zero relentlessly adheres to its Japanese roots mostly for the better, and if you’ve ever traveled to Japan, the game’s sights and sounds will almost instantly trigger fond memories and feelings of nostalgia. Its fictional slices of Tokyo and Osaka are based on real-life locations but tailored to custom-fit the adventure’s scope and scale. For an open world, in terms of raw real estate, Zero’s maps are small by modern standards. But what it lacks in scale, Zero makes up for with a wide variety of activities. It can keep you busy for 100 hours and then some if you take advantage of everything it has to offer.
By weaving a complex web of relationships and alliances, Zero’s story grows ever more fascinating, proving to be equal parts surprising and exciting from beginning to end.
Were it not for the wealth of activities and side stories available around every corner, Zero would still be a riveting game for its story alone. It does a fantastic job of pulling you into the plight of its main characters and holds your attention through every step of their winding journeys. But, when you take in everything the game has to offer, Zero becomes something special. Yes, its presentation leaves a lot to be desired at times and the fights aren’t always as engaging as they could be, but the rest of the game is incredibly diverse and engaging. The sheer amount of activities at your fingertips would feel overwhelming if they weren’t so inviting–you’re never pressured to do one thing or another.
Unless you have a strong aversion to violence, sex, or middling graphics, you owe it to yourself to give Zero a chance. Its story will surprise you, its inhabitants will make you laugh at every turn, and its ambitious scope will redefine how you think about open-world games. It’s a fascinating adventure no matter how you approach it, and it’s proof positive that a game can be wildly inconsistent yet remain a great experience.
These days, it’s easy to let political frustration well up a bit. We like to think that, given the keys to the city, we’d do better than a real politician. “It’s so simple!” you might say. “Give people what they ask for, take care of them, and there won’t be any problems.”
For better and worse, Urban Empire lets you explore that idea–or, at least, more than some of its iconic cousins. SimCity, for example, lets you take the reins of a nascent city, but it came with some huge limitations in terms of what sorts of decision-making powers you can wield. Urban Empire unshackles you, but in so doing gives you a sobering dose of reality. As the leader of your city, you can push for women’s rights or abolish child-labor laws–but you’re always at the behest of a fickle city council. That addition makes Urban Empire one of the most realistic (and, at times, most frustrating) city-building simulators around.
When the game starts, you’ll have unchecked power, taking control of a political family with blessings from the emperor of the fictional country Swarelia. You can’t be removed from office, and you can’t run dry on money, either. If you get into trouble, you can run to the emperor and get a fat check and an easy bailout–though you’ll lose a bit of political clout. Beyond that, you’re free to push for whatever improvements and projects you’d like. Along the way, however, you’ll also be making decisions about how you, personally, live your life. You may choose to send your eldest child (and your future successor) to a boarding school abroad, which could affect their reputation years down the line. That gives you a strong tie not only to the city you build, but also to the narrative of your family across many generations.
You’ll also be in charge of zoning and organizing new districts, as well as deciding which types of technologies to bring to your fine city. As you progress, you can unlock sewage, electricity, and new types of roads, all the way up to robotics and sci-fi-inspired gizmos. Each new district will have an up-front cost to build out the necessary infrastructure, and then monthly maintenance that you’ll have to keep in check as you turn on more and more services. That tension between the cost of different services and infrastructure upgrades, your own goals, and the capriciousness of the council members (each of whom have their own constituents to appease) is an excellent, sturdy foundation for this management sim.
Running water for all sounds nice, but unless your city is packed tight, it’s a tough expenditure to justify. And even if you do have the money, you’ll first have to propose whatever change you want to make, and then wait a few months as the city council deliberates on the change. As they bicker, you can spend political goodwill, call in favors, or make sweeping threats to sway the parties–each of which comes with consequences. It’s a complex (albeit exhausting) system that reflects the struggles of politicians at almost every level of government.
As political parties evolve, their core values will twist and morph, until they’ve splintered into their component factions. While these shifts are unfortunately the same for each campaign, limiting replayability, they do provide an engaging challenge and an organic system for ramping up difficulty. To ram through critical legislation, you may need to play one group off another, making and breaking alliances as you go. This goes double for controversial social policies where you can’t always make an easy-to-grasp economic case. As a general rule, though, if the city is prospering and you’re well liked, you won’t have much trouble getting your work done. The issue is that as you play, you’re repeatedly reminded that understanding the city’s well-being can be so difficult as to seem random–at least at first.
Most of your time with Urban Empire will be spent monitoring your cash flow. At first, these numbers will be pretty easy to manage–a few grand each month, slotted straight into the city’s coffers. But Urban Empire begins during the industrial revolution, an era notorious for political and economic instability, and shocks to your municipal economy will come fast and hit hard, often jarring your income substantially in either direction. Those fluctuations appear random–and, to be sure, some are–but if you dig a bit, you’ll often find some sort of economic bottleneck. A district you built early on might be struggling to cope with excessive traffic, limiting productivity, or an industrial sector may need a power plant and electrical grid to stay competitive.
Urban Empire supplies you with all the data you need to find these hiccups–or, rather, it tries to. You can (and should) drill down to individual businesses and homes to see everything from the area’s political makeup to its business climate. Different edicts and ordinances will cause shifts in supply and demand, and that works in concert with your city’s external connections–like rail stations and ports–to generate the simulation of your city’s economic performance. That data can be tedious to sort through, and there’s not much in the way of tools to monitor broad sections of the city. Everything gets organized by district, and that can make it tough to determine how different areas are working together or what’s driving different types of demand.
Making matters worse is a nebulous, unpredictable blob of bugs that will, at some point, obfuscate critical information. Many edicts and technologies will show you a summary of their costs and effects if you hover the mouse over them, but that information won’t appear at unpredictable points. Sometimes you can close the game and restart to get it back on screen, but once in a while, Urban Empire will crash at the main menu. These issues aren’t killers, but they’re annoying and have no place in a retail game.
Bugs aside, one solution to overabundance of information is actually simple, and it’s something Urban Empire already does–but only for some of its features. Different tools are gated off based on your technological progress. For example, you cannot start with differential taxation. You’re stuck raising or lowering taxes on businesses and citizens until you’ve done the social research needed to tax industry–for example–at a higher rate than corporations. That keeps parts of the game hidden away until you’ve developed more familiarity with how things work. The problem is that not everything in the game works like this, and as you move through time, you’ll be saddled with an enormous amount of management that doesn’t get a proper introduction or a safe means of experimenting with different effects. This tendency causes some major difficulty spikes that take far too long to overcome.
At the same time, many of these features come across as intentional. Playing the game doesn’t quite feel fatalistic, but it does seem to bludgeon players with the idea that politicking is harder than most of us will admit. To that end, Urban Empire is quite the achievement. It’s incredible to watch your own political empire collapse or thrive based on the butterfly effect of decisions both big and small.
Urban Empire is a trying game, but there’s beauty in how it captures the many obstacles that plague political life, but it’s still marred by instances of poor execution and an unwieldy user interface. Still, if you’ve ever wanted to know what a more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek rendition of SimCity would be like, you could do a lot worse. If you’re willing to spend the time, Urban Empire has a lot to show you, but it comes with its share of annoyances.
What’s in a name? As much as you can cram, or so Square Enix seems to think with Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue. If nothing else, the awkward, mile-long moniker hints at the impressive breadth of content available: an HD remaster of the Nintendo 3DS’ Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, a short-but-entertaining coda of sorts to Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep for the PSP, and an hour-long cutscene based on the mobile game Kingdom Hearts X. It’s a jumble that suffers somewhat for its lack of any real cohesion among its three parts, but at least two of those components are strong enough to warrant a return visit to the world that believably drops Final Fantasy and Disney characters into the same universe.
If it’s original content you seek, then you’re in luck–it’s the best part of the package. Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage picks up where the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts II: Birth by Sleep left off; Aqua and her Keyblade facing Cinderella’s castle in a realm of darkness where the shadows are preying on the lore’s more brightly colored locales like Aladdin’s Agrabah.
Newcomers should beware, though. Aside from a text-based recap, it does little to prepare you for talk of characters like Ventus and Terra who haven’t been in any of the recent games. It also takes a mere three hours to finish. Length aside, it’s a rich and beautiful experience filled with effects that show off Unreal Engine 4’s ability to render realistic details on surfaces like water and cobblestones without sacrificing the overall cartoony aesthetic. It’s the best Kingdom Hearts has ever looked, frankly, and that’s a good thing, since the engine (and the final cutscene) suggests A Fragmentary Passage could be considered a visual demo of sorts for the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III.
Even if it feels a little like playing the Kingdom Hearts games of a decade ago without all the additions in between, it’s fun to play and often feels more fluid and focused. Light puzzles dot Aqua’s journey, including some that have her chasing down gears to repair a bridge or using mirrors to tinker with gravity. The smooth combat sees her whacking aside fiends with her keyblade while double-jumping, building chained attacks, and casting spells. There’s little in the way of true character progression, although various challenges allow you to earn cosmetic items like dress patterns and Minnie Mouse ears.
If you’re put off by A Fragmentary Passage’s three hour running time, you’ll be happy to know you’ll get a couple dozen hours out of the HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Considering that it’s a straight remaster from the 3DS with nothing in the way of new elements, it doesn’t look half bad. However, it’s too bad nothing was done to populate Dream Drop Distance’s overly roomy, empty worlds, a flaw that seems all the more obvious on a bigger screen. The upgraded graphics don’t come anywhere near the detail in A Fragmentary Passage, but they are a big improvement over the source material. The Flowmotion combat system that sends you zooming past enemies, bouncing off walls, and swinging from light fixtures translates well, as does handling the Pokemon-like Dream Eaters that are now accessible with a quick flick of the analog stick. In almost every instance, the transition from handheld to gamepad has been smartly handled.
If you’re put off by A Fragmentary Passage’s three hour running time, you’ll be happy to know you’ll get a couple dozen hours out of the HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the Drop system. Two characters, Sora and Riku, have independent tales that take place concurrently, but a constantly depleting stamina bar dictates how long you can play as a particular character. Once it drains completely, the game switches to the other character regardless of what you’re doing. It worked well enough on the 3DS since its mobile nature meant gameplay sessions would likely be comparatively short, but it’s just tiresome when you’re playing for long periods on the PS4.
And that leaves us with Kingdom Hearts x Back Cover, the weakest link in Final Chapter Prologue. It’s not actually a game; instead, it’s better described as a roughly 80-minute cutscene that dramatizes events from the mobile and browser game Kingdom Hearts X, apparently so players don’t have to bother playing through the actual game. As with A Fragmentary Passage, it looks fantastic, as it’s all rendered with Unreal Engine 4.
However, it lacks some of Kingdom Hearts’ charmingly goofy conceits, since it focuses on series-specific characters and omits cameos from the likes of Mickey Mouse or Jack Sparrow. The stars here are five animal-masked “Foretellers” whose heyday was ages before the Keyblade War and the events of Birth by Sleep. This might have been interesting had the runtime been extended to further examine the connection between the Foretellers. As it is, however, Back Cover amounts to little more than characters yammering about dull politics and fails to provide meaningful context for the lore. And worst of all, it ends on a cliffhanger that does little to justify the wait it took to reach it. It’s largely forgettable.
It’s a good thing, then, that Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue as a whole is more memorable than that. Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage might be short, but it’s a beautiful, entertaining episode that fills in some gaps in the lore. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance retains a lot of the fun that made it so popular on the 3DS, even if its Drop system grows tedious. And for all of its comparative drudgery, Kingdom Hearts x Back Cover is at least visually appealing. It might be an overall confusing entry for newcomers to the series, but on the whole, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue indicates that we have much to look forward to in the long-overdue Kingdom Hearts III.
Just from the title, there are a few things you can expect from a Tales game: a lengthy story, melodramatic writing, dated visuals, and a real-time battle system. For the most part, Tales of Berseria sticks to the same formula. The story is long and punctuated with both predictable and unexpected plot twists, the writing can swing from tender moments to cringe-worthy ones, and the real-time combat is engaging but becomes stale near the end. Where Tales of Berseria differentiates itself from its recent entries is its mature story and characters.
Velvet Crowe, the protagonist, is introduced as a wholesome young woman taking care of her younger brother in a world overrun by demons and an evil presence known as Malevolence. After her brother is sacrificed in order to quell the evil in the world, Velvet is transformed into a demon and locked away in prison. The opening hours are slow, but after they come to a close, Tales of Berseria quickly spirals into a story of revenge. When we revisit Velvet years later, she’s no longer the innocent, wholesome girl from the prologue. She is angry. What’s striking about Velvet, as opposed to past Tales protagonists, is that she’s driven by rage and vengeance. Velvet isn’t trying to save the world. In fact, she is trying kill the man who saved it.
The darker tone makes up for Tales of Berseria’s slow opening hours. While the series has never shied away from heavy themes, it’s refreshing to play as a character in a Tales game who’s willing to do whatever it takes in order to get what she wants. She’s not afraid to kill, steal, and threaten when it’s necessary. Her apathy can be exhausting at times–even frustrating–but her motives are believable. The same can be said about the supporting cast of party members. Eizen is an infamous pirate trying to find the captain of his ship, Rokurou is a demon trying to slay his brother, and Magilou is an unpredictable witch who’s always looking for trouble.
As with the previous Tales games, the best way to get to know these characters is through optional skits. These are fully voiced conversations between your party members that show off some of the game’s best writing–and some of its worst. They can be funny, serious, awkward, witty, random, or just boring. In one entertaining scene, Rokurou and Magilou bet on whether or not Velvet will break before the journey ends, while in a far-too-lengthy skit, Eizen drones on about his pirate creed.
However, the standout character is Eleanor. Unlike the rest of the team, Eleanor is virtuous. She tries to help people and do what she thinks is right. But after she follows Velvet and her crew into an otherworldly dimension, Eleanor’s forced to work with them in order to escape. Throughout most of the game, she’s at odds with the company she keeps and finds herself stuck between two very different worlds. This foil creates an uneasy tension, and, at times, adds a much-needed reprieve from Velvet’s cruelty.
The other half of the experience comes in the form of combat.The trademark Tales real-time battles return, but not without some changes. Encounters take place in an open 3D space where you’re free to move, attack, and block at your own pace. Tales of Berseria removes the Technical Points bar and replaces it with the Soul Gauge–which is similar in that it dictates how long you can chain together combat and spell artes. However, unlike in previous games, you can steal souls from your opponents by knocking them out or stunning them. The Soul Gauge doesn’t change the flow of combat too much, but it does add a bit more fluidity to it. This system forced me to rethink my normal tactics; rather than targeting smaller enemies, I emptied my Soul Gauge on bigger foes and then focused my attacks on smaller ones in order to absorb souls.
Tales of Berseria’s combat allows for plenty of experimentation. The game offers a wide variety of artes (abilities) across all six party members, and as long as you have enough souls, you can chain any of them together to create unique combos. Tales games have always allowed for this kind of experimentation, but linking artes hasn’t felt this fluid or interesting before. Once you have three or more souls, you can unleash a break arte. These drain your Soul Gauge but can have a devastating effect. As long as you time your break artes and carefully choose your hidden artes, you can keep the momentum of battle alive.
Unlocking artes and experimenting with new combos is initially delightful, but when new artes begin to dry up about halfway through the game, combat becomes increasingly repetitive and somewhat rote. Near the end, I found myself focusing more on avoiding enemies rather than trying different characters or testing out new artes.
Like Tales of Zesteria and Tales of Xillia, Berseria doesn’t have an overworld. Instead, you travel from town to town by trekking through large, sectioned-off areas. These landscapes aren’t all that inspired, either. Throughout the 50-hour adventure, you’ll visit grasslands, tundra, meadows, and mountainous regions which could easily be confused with locations from previous Tales games. It would’ve been nice if these areas followed suit with the darker themes, but they don’t. There isn’t much to see or do in these areas, either, apart from fighting enemies and hunting for treasure chests. After venturing through these sections a few times, I found myself fixated on the minimap whenever I had to retrace my steps.
Dungeons consist of long corridors that occasionally branch off, simple puzzles, and dozens of similar enemies. Apart from a palette swap, these multilevel dungeons look identical from floor to floor. Textures and objects are reused from corridor to corridor, making it a pain to navigate. The puzzles don’t require much thought, either. In most cases, you flip a switch or light a torch, and a door opens. These puzzles require minimal brainpower and usually had me backtracking through dungeons just to hit a switch I missed.
It doesn’t help that Tales of Berseria looks dated. At times, it’s indistinguishable from 2013’s Tales of Xillia. Textures lack detail, side characters look bland, and, outside of battle, animations can be stiff. The art direction can go a long way at times to mitigate the poor graphics, especially in some later dungeons, but don’t expect to blown away by it.
Tales of Berseria’s weak presentation and dull world design may not excite, but they only account for a piece of an otherwise enjoyable tale. The refined combat, and the darker tone, paired with the sinister characters, makes for a more engaging experience overall . In these ways, Tales of Berseria actually takes the series in an intriguing new direction.