Sword of the Berserk Anime Video Game Review
In a small kingdom somewhere in the world in which our story is set, troubles assail the people. A mysterious plague of parasitic plants, the mandragora, have been taking over people and turning them into violent monsters. Into this troubled setting wanders a warrior in black. With only one eye, a mechanical arm and a gigantic sword called Dragon Slayer, accompanied only by an elf and a mad woman, he is the Black Swordsman, Gattsu (aka. Guts).
When he slays a giant mandragoran in the town ruled by Baron Balzac, the Baron cuts a deal with Guts--if Guts can bring him the heart of the Mandragora tree, Balzac will be able to refine a medicine which will not only cure the mandragora plague, but also may be able to restore the sanity of Guts' beloved Casca. Guts reluctantly agrees, but finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue, revolution and the powers of his sworn enemy, God Hand!
Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage was released on Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast console a few years back and was the first (official) exposure the West had to the bloodstained saga that was Berserk. Although the anime became a cult classic even though the official version is still to be released, the video game was largely overlooked, which is a shame really as I think this is quite a good little game.
Sword of the Berserk (from here on I shall refer to it by its original, simpler title, Berserk) is basically a roaming fighting game, the final evolutionary stage of the genre that began with Double Dragon and Final Fight. The game is a series of levels which intersperse the story. Each of these levels are large, ongoing brawls where dozens of enemies throw themselves at Guts, only to be despatched in a messy manner by our hero and his seven feet of steel. After killing everything in sight, you proceed to the next screen and repeat until you complete the level. The game is a thoroughbred button basher, easy to pick up and easy to master and after a quick flick through the manual you'll be staining the battlefield red within minutes. All of Guts' moves are here--as well as his huge Dragon Killer you can sheath it and fight with your bare hands, throw knives, toss grenades and use the auto-crossbow and primitive cannon built into his mechanical arm. This is quite important in confined spaces where the unwieldy bulk of Dragon Slayer will catch on walls. Additionally, as you dish out and take damage your berserk meter will go up. When it reaches maximum, Guts' enters a berserk rage and then you can start to have some serious fun. Your strength and speed are almost doubled meaning that enemies will fall before you like wheat before a scythe. Most of the damage done to you is done to your berserk meter (which is decreasing at a reasonable rate anyway) rather than your damage meter, shortening the length of the rage but giving you considerable protection, you become almost impossible to knock down or stagger and, best of all, you can swing Dragon Slayer right through walls and other objects which would otherwise impede you. Guts' goes berserk quite often in large battles and you get to have some real fun as you watch the enemies fall with ease. So the game has pretty much all the lovely little details of the manga and anime, making it a very accurate transition from these sources to a video game.
The problem with the action is that it is essentially rather repetitive. Move along, encounter enemies, kill enemies. Oh sure, sometimes there are different routes you can take, Quick Time Events (like in the famous Shenmue, only easier) pop up occasionally to challenge your reflexes and many parts of the environments are destructible, some even containing hidden items. But it's still basically the same all the way through the game, with occasional boss battles livening up the action. If it wasn't actually fun, the game would be an irretrievable shambles. Fortunately, Berserk is a blast to play at least for a while, even if it does lack long-term appeal. It's not a game you'll come back to time and time again, but the satisfaction of watching Guts cleaving his enemies apart makes it great for some quick fun.
This lack of long-term appeal matches the game's other problem--it is both very easy and very short. First-time players should be able to get over half way through the game on their first try, even on Normal difficulty level. Even the Hard level, despite a more merciless AI, overcompensates by giving you no less than 13 lives to play with, plus additional items to make things easier again. It makes you wonder why they bothered with different difficulty levels at all. Additionally, the difficulty is at times horribly unbalanced. Although you'll cleave through most levels with no trouble at all (as long as you can avoid getting stuck on the first boss) there are one or two points in the game where your progress will just grind to a halt. Most notable of these is at the beginning of the third chapter, where you have to fight with a rather well-known nemesis of Guts'. This fight is sickeningly hard. It took me a really long time to beat this guy when I first played (well, a long time compared with how long it took me to beat the rest of the game) and now, replaying it on Hard to unlock all the secrets, I'm stuck again. The other part is in the (extremely short) fourth chapter where you have an action scene which is just running, jumping and dodging. This may make a nice change from ploughing through hordes of enemies, but the game is rather unforgiving here. Depending on the difficulty level you're allowed approximately three, one or no mistakes before you lose a life. When you complete the first part of the chapter without losing any lives, then proceed to lose all 10 (or however many you have) on this single section, it does get a little, shall we say, annoying?
Now, above I said that the action scenes intersperse the story segments. Surely I mean the other way around? Well actually... no I don't. One of the biggest gripes magazines and the like had with Berserk was that there wasn't enough gameplay. Indeed, from a gamer's point of view there is far too much story and not enough action. Each action stage is followed by one or more long cut scenes which tell the story. These are looooooong--if you take two hours to beat the game, about one and a half of those hours would have been spent watching cut scenes. This is not an RPG and you have no control over the plot, so you just sit back and watch the story unfold, inserting violence where necessary. Fortunately these cut scenes can be skipped with a judicious press of the Start button, otherwise they'd slash what replay value the game has in half.
However, if the above paragraph made the game suddenly seem totally pointless to you then what in blazes are you doing looking at a video game review on an anime site? From an anime fan's point of view, this weakness is actually Berserk's biggest strength. Although the cut scenes are rendered using the game's in-game graphics engine (see below) instead of anime FMV sequences, this is still a Berserk fan's wet dream. The story told by these cut scenes is actually extremely good, making Berserk more like a playable movie. The plot moves along at a good tempo (one of the good things about the short length of the game and probably the main reason why too) and is full of twists and turns that make it a very exciting story to watch, much like an extended episode of the anime (in actual fact, when I compare it to what little I could be bother to watch of the anime, I prefer the game's plot by a long way). The story is base on the original manga rather than the anime (why base a spin-off on a spin-off instead of on the original story?) hence the presence of Guts' elfish sidekick Puck, and remains extremely true to the dark, bloodstained style of the original. A lot of the plot will evade most people, but the manual has a quick back story in it and the game has an inbuilt encyclopedia with heaps of information about the Berserk world (if only the grammar were a little better...) Since this is a side-story, significant character development on the main characters is out of the question, and there are only really two other characters of any importance. These two, the tyrannical Baron Balzac and the gypsy girl Rita have their own distinctive personalities and are deeper than they first appear. There are other minor characters like Sister Eriza and Dunteth the resistance leader in the game, but their smaller roles prevent them from having real depth to their character. Regardless, the plot of Berserk is very satisfying--they could have made one of those spin-off movies out of it (in the tradition of Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door and the Ah! My Goddess movie) and it probably would have been quite good. The story makes the game worth it even more than the gameplay from an otaku's point of view and will send hardcore Berserk fans into raptures of delight.
After you've beaten Berserk, there is quite a large range of extras to mess around with. There are three difficulty levels (Easy which is pathetically easy, Normal with is easy, and Hard which is mildly vexing) and each one you beat will unlock a new extra to add to your collection box. Beating Easy will unlock "Puck's Game", a simple and rather silly little game where mandragora seeds are falling into the pouch which Guts' little elfish friend lives in and he has to whack them with the little flowers he uses as maces. Its fun for about five minutes then you'll forget about it. Beating Normal unlocks Boss Battle mode, where you can battle the game's six bosses again plus three new battle fields in an attempt to beat the high scores and unlock new art cards for the Picture Gallery. Although the bosses are easier this time around than they were in the game, beating the high scores on some is no pushover, especially the extra battlefields. Beating Hard mode unlocks level select, allowing you to start from any point in the game, plus an infinite ammo mode, for those who just love using Guts' highly destructive arm cannon. To be honest, I just can't see the point in these--once you've beaten Hard, you've got all you can out of the main game, especially since whenever you watch a cut scene it's added to your library so you can watch it again, plus the bosses are available in Boss Battle. Still, these extras do manage to considerably extend the lastability of the game, which would be otherwise nearly nonexistent.
Technically, Berserk is solid. The graphics are quite well detailed, especially some of the backgrounds in Balzac's castle. The action looks great as arterial spray washes the screen every time you swing Dragon Slayer--the game is quite possibly the most violent I have ever played, with the violence supposedly toned up for the western release--and the bosses are suitably gargantuan and impressive. Guts' actions are nice and fluid as well, although the way he swings that sword around will raise a few eyebrows even among Berserk fans. Guts especially is the highlight of the graphical side--he looks exactly like he does in the manga/anime (except maybe a little bit older). Unfortunately you get the feeling that the Dreamcast is capable of quite a bit more, especially where the enemies are concerned--there is a very small selection of them and all enemies who fight the same will look absolutely identical. This is okay with uniformed guards, but when it comes to a motley crew of ragged bandits or the supposedly bewildering array of mandragoran mutants, the fact that they often attack in identical pairs can be a little disappointing.
The obvious graphical highlight (apart from Guts and the bosses) is the cutscenes. As mentioned above, these are done with a variant on the ingame engine rather than Full Motion Video (FMV) and fortunately they look stunning. The characters are impressively detailed and textured, the faces are very expressive, conveying the full range of emotions and their movement is extremely realistic. The backgrounds are good as well--you'll traverse many of the more interesting ones during the game. During cutscenes, the graphics are almost on par with Sega's legendary Shenmue--now that's saying something!
Sound-wise things are a also very good. The effects are quite satisfying with the roaring sound of a swinging Dragon Slayer changing to a ripping sound when it encounters enemy flesh, metal clashing against metal, Guts clinking whenever he moves, the chilling howls of the mandragorans and so on. The music is a little more mixed. Most of the in-level music is unexceptional--it generally stays in the background where it belongs and if you listen to it, it sounds rather uninspired and repetitive. Fortunately the music in the cutscenes is considerably better creating an excellent mood, and the music during the opening and ending credits is exceptional--a fantastic orchestral and choral mix that you'll want to listen to again and again (fortunately with the ability to replay any cutscene in the game once you've seen it, you can). Finally, Berserk is fully voiced in english, which is to be expected from a game which is effectively a movie with action bits. The quality of the acting varies quite a lot; most voices are unexceptional and the majority of the extras (people in crowds, bandits, enemy soldiers and so on) usually suck totally. But there are two major standouts--Baron Balzac and Guts himself. Balzac's deep, sinister voice suits him perfectly, while the rough tones of Guts' voice express every emotion he feels with perfect pitch and delivery. Unfortunately the game has no subtitles, which can be a bit of a problem when one of the characters--a monster with a traditionally growly voice--speaks as it is very hard to work out what he is saying in some sentences. Oh well, happens all the time in anime (see Blue Submarine No. 6 for more info).
Control is mixed. Although the layout is very good--two different attacks, jumping and guarding assigned to the buttons, one trigger used to sheath/draw Dragon Slayer, the other substituting Guts' four items (knives, fairy dust, cannon and grenades) for the primary controls--the analogue control tends to be a bit unresponsive at times. This makes controlling Guts kind of realistic in a way, but there's nothing more annoying than shoving the stick in the opposite direction to the one you were running in, holding down the R trigger and tapping the A button to unload your cannon at pursuers, only to find Guts wasting his precious ammo on empty air because he hasn't turned in time. You get used to it with practice, but it can still cause you great trouble at that mid-game battle I mentioned earlier when your opponent is constantly on your case.
Overall, Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage is definitely not your everyday run-of-the-mill action game (nor is it for the squeamish with all the gore). Although fun for a while, hardcore video gamers will sneer at its shallowness, lack of length and ease of completion. On the other hand, it's a very interesting acquisition for anime fans and it will send lovers of the anime and manga into a (pardon the pun) berserk frenzy. I quite enjoyed it, despite a few rough spots (and that damn battle at the half-way point!) and I'd recommend it to anime fans in general and Berserk fans in particular as one of the best and most faithful anime to video game adaptations I've ever played. It's not a game worth shedding blood for (in-joke) but if you still have a Dreamcast and can find a cheap copy it's definitely worth a look.
Notes and Trivia
The game is rated "Mature" by the ESRB, and probably deserves to be in the 15+ range.
Violence: 4 - Blood fountains high with every swing and there's plenty of other nastiness.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - A very dark story...
Language: 1 - Surprisingly, very little.
Available in the US from Eido Interactive, Dreamcast only.