My first exposure to Berserk was through the 1997 anime series, during a time when such series had to be consumed in short three to four episode bursts on DVD. Imagine my utter horror when I reached the final disc and saw those events unfold before abruptly ending. I spent hours combing the internet for any hope of a second season, which appeared to be futile. So I tracked down the manga and made peace with experiencing the series that way from then on.
In the last several years, we’ve been graced with a film trilogy that acts as a sort of abridged version of the anime series (with some much needed exposition thrown back in) as well as a new series that continues beyond the Golden Age arc. And now we’ve got a new video game to top it all off, the first in the west since the Dreamcast title, Sword of the Berserk: Guts’ Rage. To make it a Musou game to boot, my college self would be elated to know what I’d have to look forward to in the future.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk (ugh at that title) covers a lot of ground that neither the anime series or movies have touched, and as a result, is a much more faithful adaption of the source material. The story mode chronicles Guts’ journey from the Golden Age arc all the way up to the Falcon of the Millennium Empire arc, and everything in between. Even the confrontation with the Black Dog Knights is included. One notable omission are the Lost Children chapters, but considering the contents, it’s understandable. Also, while much of the violence is retained, some of the more sexual content has been removed (though it is implied) and many of the scenes stop short of showing much nudity. I can’t say this is too much of a loss considering how uncomfortable some of the scenarios are in their original context, but keep in mind this is no 1:1 retelling. Especially in the later half when there is no more anime footage for Omega Force to lean on.
If this is your first exposure to Berserk, I would advise you to stop right now and at least check out the recent film trilogy at the minimum. Especially since clips from those films are sprinkled throughout the narrative. Also, the tutorial drops players right in the midst of the Eclipse, which is an incredibly spoilery moment to open with if you don’t know the story already. But the basic story synopsis is this: Guts is a mercenary for hire that had a… rough childhood. While heading out from a recently completed mission, he’s set upon by another mercenary group called The Band of the Hawk, led by the charismatic Griffith, who despite his common birth, aspires to become something more. Guts is soundly defeated and forced to join the group, though in doing so he develops a camaraderie with his fellow Hawk members, particularly Griffith. From then on, the series chronicles the mercenary group’s rise to glory and transitions into Guts’ dealings with the supernatural. It may not sound like much on the surface, but to say much more would ruin many of the story’s surprises.
Each mission of the story mode places you on a large map with a set of objectives to fulfill, which may adjust over time. In fact, if you have any familiarity with the Dynasty Warriors franchise, you should know exactly what to expect. Except the goal in this particular spinoff is less about capturing bases and more about mindless slaughter. Hordes of enemies hurtle themselves towards you, and you can dispatch them using combos built from light and heavy attacks. Some characters have secondary abilities or weapons with cooldown periods that can be worked in too, such as throwing knives or cannons. Incoming attacks are blockable or dodgeable, plus if things get to be a little too hairy, your horse is only a whistle away.
Laying waste to foes builds up a Frenzy meter than when active, strengthens your character’s attacks and allows you to cut them to pieces. Cause enough destruction in this form and character gains access to a super attack of sorts that can really clear the field. Every time you go into a Frenzy, it strengthens its potency, such that at its maximum, certain characters will even transform into a new temporary form to cause even more destruction, making you think twice about saving them for too long.
The biggest gripe with the combat is undoubtedly going to be the same as any other Dynasty Warriors spinoff: it’s repetitive. Once you find something that works, there’s nothing stopping you from spamming it to oblivion. At least the attacks themselves are satisfying and each character has a unique moveset. And the boss battles break things up a bit, though some of them are a nuisance to fight on account of a bad camera and some questionable mechanics.
Between fights, some minor dialogue is accessible between characters, which is sadly quite unsubstantial. There are event scenes that flesh out some important character interactions that don’t take place during battles, though they are few. Also at camp, items can be bought to outfit your party, and there’s a light improvement mechanic that allows you to power up items at the expense of others.
It’s a good thing that the story mode is so extensive, because the rest of the features are less so. Free mode is pretty standard for this style of game, which effectively just allows you to replay a mission using any unlocked character. Multiple difficulty levels and sub-missions called Behelits offer reason to revisit some of these to expand the gallery. There’s also an Endless Eclipse mode, which is a sort of endurance match where you traverse multiple missions in sequence without a break in between or a chance to change out items. The character roster is pretty sparse too, with only eight total playable characters and several glaring omissions. There’s not even a co-op mode, which is practically criminal with this style of game. While there is DLC, none of what’s available addresses either of these issues.
At least it looks pretty sharp, arguably much better than the more recent anime series (which looks like a hodge podge of 2D and 3D animation vomit). The character models all perfectly capture the personalities of all whom they represent, and the game can pack a ton of enemies on screen with little lapse in performance. And let’s not forget the violence, which if you dabbled in either of the Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage games, you know you’re in for a treat. The soundtrack makes for great accompaniment, though I was a bit bummed that there wasn’t an English dub for this game.
At the end of the day, this is a game made for two kinds of people: those who love Berserk and those who enjoy Dynasty Warriors style games. If you fall into both of those camps, this is a no brainer purchase. But if you’ve never watched/read Berserk, this isn’t really the best place to start. And if you find DW games to be too repetitive, this isn’t going to change that. Especially since the game is rather feature-light even for the folks invested in Koei Tecmo’s flagship series.
Short Attention Span Summary
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a game tailor made for fans. It allows you to experience the original story while taking part all of the violence and destruction inherent to the source material, and the substantial amount of missions will keep you busy for around twenty hours or so. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t many more modes beyond this, and the low character count and lack of co-op are serious oversights. That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with it all the same. If you love Berserk and fancy Dynasty Warriors games enough that you’d indulge in a blend of these two things, you’re in for a treat.