By Tom Tolios / February 24th, 2017
|Title||Berserk and the Band of the Hawk|
|Release Date||February 21, 2017|
|Genre||Action, Hack & Slash|
|Platform||PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Windows|
|Age Rating||M (Mature)|
I’ve already written a rather lengthy impressions piece about the Japanese version of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, which you can read here. In that article, I give my thoughts about the game’s mechanics and aesthetics, as well as whether or not I believe the product is a satisfactory adaptation of Kentaro Miura’s manga masterpiece, Berserk.
To summarize, I felt that the Japanese version of the game stayed too close to the Musou formula. Berserk is a robust IP, and conforming it to the Omega Force floorplan robs gamers and Berserk fans alike of the mystique and allure the source has held for nearly 30 years. Unlike Attack on Titan or Hyrule Warriors, which weren’t afraid to take chances with the blueprint, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is as conventional a Musou clone as it gets. It looks like Berserk, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Part of the reason for this is because of tired mechanics that just aren’t a good fit for a series with so much heart and passion. But beyond the stale hack and slash monotony that is antithetical to Berserk’s character driven action, the attempts to adapt the narrative are lazy and haphazard. The cutscenes during and after stages alternate between animation from the 2012 Golden Age Arc movie trilogy and character models from the game engine itself.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk’s interpretation of the plot is a highly truncated and sanitized version of the source material’s events. There is no nudity or graphic depiction of the suffering the characters are forced to endure, as was so viscerally presented in the third movie of the film trilogy, although the details are very well expressed and verbalized by the characters so there is little doubt as to what happened. And the game doesn’t flinch away from acknowledging certain incidents, such as Guts’ infiltration of Windham Castle on Griffith’s secret order, so I must be thankful for that much.
One of Berserk’s most enduring traits is its meticulous attention to detail and visual consistency; even as Miura’s art style has evolved over time, his transitions are gradual and organic. This is in stark contrast to the game’s jarring and banal interpretation of the storyline, which one would consider charitable to describe as ‘routine’. Koei Tecmo and Omega Force don’t understand what breathes life into Berserk and it shows in their clumsy presentation of its chapters, but this is hardly a sin exclusive to this publisher or developer; there has never been a truly satisfying adaptation of Berserk to other mediums. How this continues to be such an elusive goal remains a mystery, but that’s an article for another day.
I suppose the first thing I should address is whether or not anything was changed during Berserk and the Band of the Hawk’s long boat ride west (and yes, that’s a reference to the manga). Sad to say that if there are any alterations to be found, I couldn’t locate them. I spent almost 200 hours with Berserk Musou, unlocking all the modes for the different characters and capturing all the various side objectives to complete my image gallery. Gameplay and progression are identical for the western release as far as I can tell.
One thing I didn’t address in the impressions article was the boss difficulty, which is more on the ‘cheap’ side and less on the ‘challenging’. Once bosses trigger their Frenzy mode, they spam it like a scrub that just discovered the invincibility button. Their attacks have massive area of effect and effortlessly break even the most well buffed Defense stats, oftentimes sending you hurtling across the arena and stunning you. Their Death Blow attacks seem to go on forever, juggling you incessantly.
If all of those issues weren’t enough, most of the bosses have projectiles so that they can keep the pressure on. It would be one thing if they were vulnerable during cool down periods, but such balance is not to be found here. Worse yet, many of them have invincibility frames after their Death Blow attacks are finished. Ideally, most games would reward you for taking advantage of this window of opportunity, but not Berserk and the Band of the Hawk. And what’s worse is that once the boss’s Frenzy Mode ends, they’ll go right back into it as soon as they can. Oh, and once you’ve been knocked down and stunned, there is no opportunity for you to reset. If the computer AI wants to, it can just bludgeon you into oblivion even when you’re on the ground.
On the easier difficulty levels, it’s just a time sink and an annoyance, but on the more challenging settings these enemies are virtually unbeatable. One could argue that patience will win the day but in the end, I just don’t feel it’s worth the PSN trophy to bother. There is no sense of accomplishment to be gained here. It’s a staggering lack of balance and feels criminally untested. I wonder what Hidetaka Miyazaki (Dark Souls, which is famously inspired by Berserk) thinks of this game?
One last thing as it regards gameplay; I recommend that during Story Mode, you play any character you can other than Guts when the option is available. This is not because I feel Guts is a bad character. Far from it, in fact. But the mechanics are so mind numbing and offer so few thrills that it’s easy to grow bored with Berserk and the Band of the Hawk. Changing characters in Story Mode as often as possible legitimately helps boost the engagement level because you’re trying different things and experimenting with varying fighting styles. The end result is the same, but mixing up the character selection really helps keep things a bit more lively.
Although I addressed the music and sound for this game in my impressions article, I’ll briefly revisit those conclusions here; the soundtrack is conventional but gets the job done. There are many orchestral arrangements that do their best to convey the epic scope of the game’s events but they feel rather unremarkable to me. Any time a property is licensed for a video game, I feel as though it’s incumbent on both the developer and the publisher to give us music that is taken from the source. While Berserk and the Band of the Hawk’s OST is workmanlike, there are no recognizable tracks here and I find that unfortunate. Susumu Hirasawa has donated generously to the musical identity of the anime adaptations and previous video game releases, and it would have been nice to hear some of those songs in this game. Licensed material feels like a more authentic experience when music from the source is used and while Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is trying to be its own entity, this game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The absence of both Hirasawa and Golden Age Arc’s composer Shiro Sagisu are sorely missed, and what is used in their stead just feels like an uninspired clone to me.
The sound effects are visceral and satisfying when you are wreaking havoc on your foes, with plenty of crunching and slashing to whet your appetite for destruction. I know that much has been made of the ‘clanging’ noise of Guts’ signature weapon, the Dragon Slayer, in the 2016 anime series, but I didn’t had a problem with it then and I’m happy to hear its crashing din ringing out here with every angry swing. It’s not even described as a sword by anyone in the world of Berserk or even the manga-ka Miura but as ‘a slab of iron.’ It shouldn’t sound like a conventional blade because it isn’t one; has its own identity and is practically a character unto itself, and I feel that its sound design is more than adequate. However, enemy attacks and movement are practically inaudible most of the time, even when dozens of them are circling, as is typical of enemy behavior in any Musou game. You can sometimes hear the dull shuffle of their heavy feet but there isn’t all that much weight to any of it. I don’t consider this a knock on this game but more the Omega Force sound design in general, which has never strayed from these seemingly inherent generational weaknesses.
As for the localization, it’s pretty good although calling this game Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a colossal misstep. Not only is it a terrible title in my opinion, but by the time you are finished playing this game’s campaign mode, the Band of the Hawk itself is a distant memory as Guts will spend more time with the people he meets after that mercenary group is no longer relevant. A title that encompassed the totality of the experience would have been preferable. Maybe not Berserk Warriors, but maybe something like Berserk: Way of the Black Swordsman or Berserk: Path of the Struggler, maybe Berserk: Mark of the Brand. Anything that captures more of the essence of Guts’ dark journey rather than on characters in a chapter that ends up buried under the layers of the events that follow.
The fonts used are attractive and evoke the romanticized sensibility of the medieval fantasy that is Berserk well enough. The sentence structure and vocabulary are a good fit for the IP, and it actually added to my experience playing in a translated form. There is a lot to be said for a game’s dialogue boxes, loading screen flavor text and menus and their capacity to either enhance or distract from the game experience, and Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is good enough to earn a positive mark from me in this aesthetic category. There were a few odd word choices here and there, and I found myself doing a double take now and again but overall, I feel the successes vastly outweigh the few failures that I found. There is no English language voice acting in this game, which some will lament but I take no great issue with.
In conclusion, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is not a great adaptation of the source material and rather than being an innovation on the Musou formula, it falls deep into the rut that many of the more average games in that family find themselves stuck in. There is some value to be had if you want to see how Omega Force interprets the fighting styles of characters like Griffith, Judeau, Casca and all the rest. I just wish that they could have found some way to imbue this game with more of the visceral spirit of the hero that the Skull Knight calls the Struggler. Berserk has endured for three decades for a reason and I fear that Koei Tecmo and Omega Force just didn’t spend enough time considering that. This is a Dynasty Warriors game reskinned. That’s fine if you like Dynasty Warriors. But Guts and Berserk deserved a more distinctive adaptation than this. My greatest concern when the game was first announced was that was that it would stick too close to the familiar Musou template. Those concerns were, unfortunately, validated.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is currently available at the price of $60 for Sony PlayStation 4 both physically and digitally via PSN, for PS Vita via PSN for $40 and for Windows PC via Steam for $60.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Berserk and the Band of the HawkBerserk MusoucascagriffithgutsKentaro MiuraKoei TecmoMicrosoft WindowsOmega ForcePlayStation 4PlayStation VitaYoung Animal