Berserk Musou

In recent years, Koei Tecmo and Omega Force have been adapting numerous anime and manga properties to the Musou formula. Two of my all time favorite anime series, Mobile Suit Gundam and Hokuto No Ken, have been given this treatment and they were fun fan service games, if mostly forgettable. Additionally, One Piece, Arislan Senki and Attack on Titan have also joined the Musou family. In the video game realm, Omega Force has done some nice things with Dragon Quest and, perhaps their crowning achievement, The Legend of Zelda with the masterpiece Hyrule Warriors. I’ve sung the praises of Attack on Titan (the game) to anyone that would listen, and it really felt as though Omega Force had hit a stride and escaped the rut of familiarity they’d carved for themselves.

Berserk Musou | Uber
There is only one ‘Beast Mode’ in the universe, and you’re looking at it.

So when the news of a Berserk Musou game hit the ‘net, I was optimistic and reserved it for a day one purchase. Koei Tecmo’s recent Musou successes had me jumping at the possibilities. They’d shown great promise in recent years and now they were handling the holy grail of anime and manga (in my opinion), to say nothing of my favorite thing ever, the ultimate property that had never truly gotten a fair shake in licensed media of any kind. Could Omega Force succeed where others had failed?

Berserk Musou | Boat Ride
Guts didn’t know if he could take another long boat ride.

If you were expecting a drastic departure from the Musou series, such as with Attack on Titan, or even any real innovations, as we saw with Hyrule Warriors, you will not find them here. Berserk Musou is as conventional as the recipe gets. You are dropped into a zone with a few basic objectives and you have to cut your way through each of them to finish the stage. The different chapters span the events of the manga in, more or less, chronological order.  The first mission has you playing as Guts and invading the castle that the fearsome knight Bazuso defends. Successive missions show Guts’ evolution as both a warrior and as a person struggling to find identity and purpose in the world.

Berserk Musou | Mayhem
Griffith when he was cool. You know, before that whole wagon ride business.

Omega Force had to have known what a strong license they were working on with Berserk. I refuse to believe they didn’t know what they had on their hands. One of the criticisms levied at all of the various adaptations of Berserk to this point has been an almost intentional disregard for the series’ identity, and all in the name of expediency. Sadly, Omega Force has failed to transfer much of Berserk’s philosophical nuance by ignoring essential elements of the story’s many important milestones or glossing over them with unsatisfactory results. Do I know what is supposed to happen at this part of the story? Yes. Have I seen better interpretations of it? Absolutely. Does this excuse Omega Force’s laziness in their execution? Not a chance. And while it is understood that this is a video game and not the manga, Berserk has long suffered inadequate adaptations. This series forms very strong bonds with its audience and whatever it is that makes for an ‘authentic Berserk experience’, Berserk Musou does not capture even a sliver of the manga’s heart and soul. The fans are still waiting for that ‘faithful adaptation.’

Berserk Musou | Adaptation
“No more boats,” Guts thoughts. “And no more bad adaptations.”

Gameplay is standard fare for Musou style games. You run around, you kill enemies by the hundreds, complete mission objectives for rewards and usually fight some boss to end the stage. To get around the zone, you can either advance on foot or whistle for a steed to reach objectives more quickly. Combinations are of the standard patterns for Musou games; a number of quick strikes followed into a strong attack, with each type of combo varying in breadth and effect. As one might expect, these attack strings are attractive to look at and fit the character’s fighting style and weapon, but you’re likely to pick one or two reliable strategies and only deviate from them as the situation merits.

Berserk Musou | Sword
Don’t laugh at Serpico’s feather sword. He will cut you, mang.

Killing subbosses can get you drops, health items or temporary buffs. At the end of the stage, you get a rundown of your performance and a listing of the items you farmed. You can equip the obtained items to enhance various statistics such as attack strength, enemy stun duration and efficiency of health items (among others). The stats and abilities on the drops are random, but there is a crafting option where you can combine items to create better gear.

Berserk Musou | Customization
Two eyepatches but with a sword that big, seeing is not necessary.

There is a sizable roster of characters spanning the events of the manga, from the beginning of the series all the way up to the present. There are different versions of some characters, such as series’ protagonist Guts, and with the game’s Free Mode allowing players to revisit stages to grind or complete objectives you missed the first time around, you can experiment with them to your satisfaction. Most of the expected fighters appear as playable characters, such as Griffith, Casca and Judeau. Nosferatu Zodd and Wylde are also playable once unlocked, as well as later series’ regulars Serpico and Shierke. The Frenzy Meter (this game’s version of the Musou series special attack meter) is used in different ways for different characters, but they share a common trait in that the bar must be maxed out (by defeating enemies) before it can be activated. Once you trigger Frenzy mode, a secondary meter must be maxed (again, by downing foes) and THEN a special attack can be unleashed.

Berserk Musou | Zodd
Zodd doing his best Black Knight impression.

In the case of Guts, Griffith, Zodd and Wylde, a secondary ability can be used that activates their transformation ability. Guts can only undergo this change when playing his Berserk Armor version, which initiates his ‘Beast’ attack mode, a much more fearsome and devastating iteration of our tragic hero. Griffith, Zodd and Wylde can change into their God Hand and Apostle forms (respectively), and like Guts they are vastly more effective when they do so. They can stay in this mode until their Frenzy Meter expires, forcing a reset. There is a special ‘Eclipse Mode’ in the game that offers various challenges which, if completed, grant infinite Frenzy Mode variants to these characters, but they are not easy to unlock. Of course, infinite Femto requires Eclipse Mode completion with ALL the characters first. Nightmare fuel.

Berserk Musou | Rage
How I feel whenever the Berserk manga goes on hiatus.

The cutscenes aren’t doing the game any favors in Berserk Musou. Many of the Golden Age Arc cutscenes are lifted directly from the 2012 movie trilogy but they just don’t work for me here. They seem out of place and their sudden appearance is jarring. They felt shoehorned into the game rather than being the natural reward they should feel like for completing a stage in anything deigning to call itself a ‘Story Mode’. They appear in all the right places in terms of the series’ chronology but there is just something off about their usage here. The best way I can describe their inclusion is that, to me at least, they indicate another sign of laziness on Omega Force’s part. Rather than render all of these scenes using the game engine, they fell back on pre-existing footage to tell the story for them. It smacks of a rushed production, not an effort to thank fans for loving Berserk enough to buy this game. Also, the constant shifts in visual aesthetic between the 2012 anime trilogy and the game engine’s graphics are jarring and have the opposite of the desired effect.

Berserk Musou | Griffith
Griffith isn’t doing anything wrong here, but wait…

Staying with the visuals for Berserk Musou for a bit, another aspect that frustrates me is the texture quality. I can’t criticize the game’s animations or the graphics in a general sense. When you’re running around in the stages and hacking and slashing your way to glory, it looks great. I never experienced any frame rate issues and the visuals had a pleasing dark fantasy grit to them. The environments are well detailed and immersive, with plenty of interactive objects to add to the mayhem despite being frequently reused assets. But where the game’s graphics put me off is in the faces and hair, especially during the game engine cutscenes when everyone is standing around in neutral ‘breathing’ poses. At times, a character’s facial model looked like PS2 remastered graphics, and the hair on the longer coiffed characters seemed as hard as diamond, a failure of game design for a PlayStation 4 game released in 2016.

Berserk Musou | Battle
No, he is not anime dodging Zodd’s attacks.

The soundtrack for Berserk Musou is good but wholly unmemorable, and worse yet is that they use none of the music from any of the anime adaptations. Which is a shame, because the music composition would otherwise be considered very good. No matter what you think about the Berserk anime adaptations, one thing I think we can all agree on is that their soundtracks have been high water marks for those series. Susumu Hirasawa has contributed many godlike songs to Berserk in the past, and even composed the entire soundtracks for the ’97 anime and the ’99 Dreamcast game. But sadly, he’s nowhere to be found here. Instead, what we get sounds like a budget knockoff. Whether this is due to legal issues or licensing costs, it’s a disappointment regardless. Even if it’s a lack of material or they felt there wasn’t enough variety, hearing the familiar tracks pop up now and again would have been invigorating. And before you think the reviewer ignorant of the unfortunate reality of licensing music, I’m fully cognizant of such legal hurdles. Knowing this, I still lament the absence of familiar tracks that instantly evoke the spirit of the parent IP. Licensed games just sound better when they use the music we associate with the series.

Berserk Musou | Naughty
The bullet has ‘Griffith’ written on one side and ‘Femto’ on the other. Because he did bad things.

With the Western release coming in a few weeks, it’s unlikely any of this reviewer’s complaints will be addressed. It is what it is. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the game is that when you’re playing, the game is fun but not particularly gripping. The Story Mode is a chore to get through and even though Eclipse Mode can be a blast, it can also be a frustrating challenge that irritates rather than engages. As such, it’s hard for me to recommend Berserk Musou as it currently stands. Berserk is far more than mindless mayhem, endless violence and clouds of gore. Any true fan of the series will instantly tell you that. And with Musou style games out that are superior to Berserk Musou in the gameplay and ‘extra mode’ departments, there is little reason to get too invested in this offering. It just feels like another failed adaptation, and I hate saying that because I really want Berserk, which is, as I’ve said, the greatest thing ever, to always be good. At least I still have the manga.

Berserk Musou is currently available in Japan on the Sony PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PS Vita. The Western version, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, is coming to the PlayStation 4, PS Vita and Microsoft Windows on February 21, 2017.

Copy purchased by author.

Tom Tolios
Really smart, talks too much, loves the video games and the Star Wars and the Game of Thrones, likes the manga and some anime and knows that Kentaro Miura's Berserk is the greatest thing ever made.