Friday, October 18, 2019

Tales of Berseria's Combat System's Theme

You know what’s really kind of cool? The combat style that Tales of Berseria subtly pushes you toward.

For at least 90% of all turn-based RPGs (and quite a few even beyond turn-based systems), there’s an overall backbone to combat strategy that’s always present: have a character, or multiple characters, devoted to healing, and when your characters’ HP is low, use this/these party member(s) (or healing items, if necessary) to restore the others’ life. There’s all kinds of battle systems and strategies that can be built upon this, of course, and sometimes you can create party setups in which this isn’t necessary...but “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” is still the fundamental starting point on which the vast majority of RPG combat styles build, and even the strategies that get around this are usually more akin to finding loopholes than to employing methods intended to be available to you.

There are, however, a few RPGs out there that, in 1 way or another, are intentionally designed to be built on different combat foundations than the standard I’ve described above, and Tales of Berseria is an example of this. While the magic-users in the game do have a trifling few healing abilities, and of course you always want to have some healing items on hand in case things go unexpectedly south, in this game, if you’re controlling Velvet in battles (which one would assume you would be, at least on your first playthrough), going about combat in the traditional attack-and-get-healed sense isn’t very effective. It’s much more fluid and effective in Tales of Berseria to make use of her Therion mode with the Devour attack. Her HP drops constantly while in this mode, but the initial attack restores a chunk of it, and while Velvet’s in this mode, she can’t be staggered or interrupted in her attacks, making enemies’ attacks pretty insignificant as a whole. This is combined with the fact that there are multiple passive abilities to unlock in the game which restore HP when an enemy is killed, and the fact that she can enter this mode almost all the time due to a simple system of dodging attacks or stunning enemies restoring her ability to launch into Therion mode. Put all together with several other details of ToB’s combat system, and you basically have a game which is designed around the foundation of “Stay Alive By Constantly Attacking” rather than the old “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” standard. The traditional healing spells and items have plenty of use in certain circumstances, but the huge majority of the time, you’re keeping your party alive by being a self-sustaining whirlwind of destruction on your foes.

By itself, it’s a neat and refreshing change from the standard formula (not to mention a very unusual case of the Tales of series creating a complex system that’s actually intuitive and something approaching fun; Jesus Christ do I hate how these games usually just cram so many damn gameplay features and details down your throat that you choke on them). But it's not something I would feel the need to rant about (I still only find it slightly less boring than the average combat system). BUT: this system is more than just a clever bit of programming--it’s also quite cool for the fact that it’s thematically consistent to Tales of Berseria as a whole!

I mean, think about it: isn’t a system which pushes the player to survive through a relentless offense a perfect match to a story about an aggressive, obsessed demon of vengeance who only holds herself together through the power of her hatred and thirst for retribution? Like, holy shit, how awesome is it that Tales of Berseria is so on point in its every nuance that its developers even went so far as to redesign the fundamentals of RPG combat around its protagonist?

I mean, sure, I’ll grant you that there are plenty of RPGs out there that design themselves or come up with gimmicks according to the game they’re in--Fallout 1 and 2 adapted turn-based isometric combat to a gun-based style, as their successor Fallout 3 adapted the Elder Scrolls gameplay system to the same, while Breath of Fire 5 incorporated the ticking clock of the D-Counter that defines the game’s pace, and Legend of Dragoon involved the Dragoon thing as a mode to activate in combat, as examples. But these are all cases of the battle system adapting surface-level details of their games. The Fallouts adapted a basic fact of their setting, Breath of Fire 5 did so with a constant fact of gameplay, and Legend of Dragoon with an unavoidable part of its story lore. The most any other game does with its gameplay that I can immediately think of is reflect material components of its lore or plot, and most of the time, it’s an obvious and usually explicitly stated connection, like the use of Espers as sources of magic in combat being a clear plot point in Final Fantasy 6 that’s outright told to you.

Tales of Berseria tells you why Velvet has her Therion mode and how it works, yes, but that’s as far as it goes--it lets you take the reins and come to the obvious conclusion that the game’s set up to favor an intelligent but uninterrupted offense for your own. The inevitable strategies formed from this and several mitigating gameplay details are a subtle reflection of Velvet’s character, of her quest, of the overall plot, a case of Tales of Berseria using even its battle system as a tool of character development. And that, in my opinion, is pretty damn awesome.

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