When you think of popular anime and manga, many people will be drawn to say things like Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball Z. They’re series that burst through the niche Japanese entertainment bubble, and became household names for people across the globe. There are plenty of series that never do quite break through that bubble in the same way, though, despite being just as successful.
There is one manga series, however, that has been praised as one of the most influential, well-written and beautifully illustrated series of all time, yet it’s one most casual fans will probably have never heard of. It’s a series called Berserk.
The best comparison to Berserk to make for those not so inclined toward the manga medium is Game of Thrones. Both are dense, complicated, decades long stories about the truly dark and unforgiving nature of man, beast, and fate, in a fantasy setting tinged in blood and sadness.
Both series also share a common trait in that they are decades-long stories with no end in sight, that struggle to be adapted into other mediums accurately due to the sheer volume of narrative content. For the 30 or so years that Berserk has been running, only two other video games based on it have been made, one of which never found life outside of Japan. With Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, Koei Tecmo finally spreads Berserk fever across the globe in the video game medium, and it’s a fever you definitely don’t want treated.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, or Berserk Musou as it’s known in Japan, is one of Koei Tecmos many recent endeavours into making Dynasty Warriors style games out of established popular properties. If you played recent titles like Hyrule Warriors or Dragon Quest Heroes, you’re in for a similarly polished experience, with even more blood, and the most gripping story in a musou game to date.
These musou style games generally have you controlling a character in third person as you navigate large, maze-like maps to capture bases, claim territory zones, and slice up hundreds and thousands of enemies along the way in nearly half-hour long engagements. It can quickly get repetitive and mind-numbing, and thankfully, Berserk isn’t structured like that at all.
Borrowing from the more recent entries I mentioned earlier, the Berserk game has missions that are much more dynamically and uniquely structured. No two missions or maps in the 20-hour campaign felt alike. One mission had me protecting my retreating comrades in a narrow forest, another had me escorting a civilian through a battle between two bandit factions, and many were simply one on one, palm-drenching boss fights. Rather than retro-fitting the narrative onto the same old “capture these bases before the enemy does” missions, the game delivered constantly fresh and unique maps and objectives, that not only fit the narrative perfectly, but kept the experience varied and fresh.
A big drawing point for musou games is usually the large cast of playable characters. Even recent titles, while focusing more on quality than quantity, managed to have close to a couple dozen characters. Berserk Musou only boasts 8 unique characters. While it’s a small number, these characters are all absolutely unique.
The game tasks you with a light attack button and a heavy attack button, along with a dodge/strafe button, and a special ability button. You can combine all of these into unique and varied combos, and each character has a completely different set of attacks. They also move differently, have different attack ranges and speeds, and have a variety of unique tools that make you look at the same encounters in totally different ways depending on who you control.
The cast is also somewhat expended by the inclusion of multiple versions of each character. As the story of Berserk progresses, characters change in a variety of ways that would also tie into their gameplay movesets, so having different versions of the characters as needed by the narrative arcs is a great way to not only expand the roster, but tell the story of the game.
And story is so, so key in Berserk. In the 20-hour playtime of the main campaign, Berserk musou covers 30 volumes and all but one major story arc of the series. Naturally, it’s impossible to cover every word of content from those volumes in a video game, but it does an incredible job of delivering the major points of the story in a concise, well-paced manner.
Much like adapting a book to film, you get the core adventure, but you will need to dip into the source material if you want to see every last piece of story. Long-time fans will notice a number of small characters and minor scenes cut away, especially in the 2nd half of the game. For someone who has never experienced Berserk, though, you still manage to get the overall narrative experience, as you follow the plights of a protagonist haunted by demons, both figuratively and literally.
The game uses a lot of different methods to tell its story. There are cutscenes and dialogue scenes utilising the beautiful in-game character models, as well as a lot of cutscenes either originally animated for the game, or taken directly from the 2012 Berserk movie trilogy, which combined beautiful hand-animation with jarring 3d-models substantially lower in quality than the actual game models.
An amazing thing the game did was intersperse gameplay with cutscenes. In one encounter, I was in the middle of an iconic fight from the series, and as I landed a hit that weakened the boss enough, the gameplay stopped and instantly faded into a scene from the movie showing the conclusion to that fight. Moments like that did an amazing job of keeping the narrative and the gameplay constantly intertwined. There are also small bits of dialogue exchanged mid-battle, but I ended up missing a lot of it due to the combination of Japanese-audio only and the sheer amount of stuff happening on-screen.
So, so much stuff happening on my screen. This game is big, and beautiful, and it knows it. Characters look sharp, and as battles rage on you’ll see them covered in blood and sweat. As you activate special modes that increase your damage or unleash ultimate attacks, you’ll see the camera swoop in and your character do a cool animation before decimating a hundred enemies in a blink. The screen is always populated by bodies, and blood, and blades, and you’ll rarely see the framerate suffer for any of it.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is the pinnacle of musou games, as far as I’m concerned. Omega Force and Koei Tecmo have experimented with the formula for years, and everything they’ve learned and perfected has led up to this game. Berserk Musou gives you the addictive, outrageous hack-and-slash combat musou games have had for ages. It gives you the unique characters and varied mission structures that musou games have only had in the last few years. And on top of that it gives you a gripping, mature, and masterful narrative that a musou game has never had. Until now.
Version tested: PS4
Update: We erroneously stated that just one Berserk game had been made prior to this, when there were actually two!