Berserk and the Band of the Hawk Review

Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is an action hack-and-slash game in the “Musou” style you know and love from under the Koei Tecmo umbrella. A series such as Berserk fits well with that style of game play, as the theme of one, or a few men taking on hundreds of opponents at once, fits nicely in that universe. This game pulls no punches either, it is as violent as the manga/anime and even lets you pick whether you want to play with the explicit scenes and gore, in tact or not. This game totally earns it’s hard 18/”Mature” rating with it’s intense violence, gore, language, and sexual scenes. This one isn’t for the kiddies, even with the explicit scenes censored, as there are many disturbing things still in the story mode. The art style during the cutscenes is rather beautiful but can definitely qualify as nightmare fuel sometimes. Put the kids to bed before playing this one, nothing is sugarcoated here.

Story

The story here had surprised me with it’s ups and downs. The main character, named Guts, seems like your typical, generic “lone wolf” bad ass who has little to say, but surprisingly packs a big punch. We’ve all seen those kinds of characters before and you will go in thinking you will know what to expect already. However, there is plenty of character development here and it makes you grow attached to your protagonist by the end. The same goes for all the main characters introduced. My comrades felt like fleshed out characters and I felt all kinds of emotions for them during the adventure that I wasn’t expecting.

The story starts out with Guts going through the motions of his mercenary life, fighting in battles to earn money, not really understanding why he lives his life so recklessly. Even having been asked that question several times throughout his travels, he doesn’t quite know how to answer it, at first. One day he is ambushed by a band of mercenary warriors known as “The Band of the Hawk”, led by Griffith, a man with admirable fighting skills and even more charisma. Guts puts up a hard fight but is ultimately bested by Griffith and is convinced to join the Band of the Hawk in their travels and makes a name for himself in the ranks. The Band of the Hawk eventually finds themselves hired by a kingdom that has been involved in a relentless war that has been waging for quite sometime, known as the “Hundred Year War”. Griffith gladly takes on the job as he feels this will finally grant his band of mercenaries the recognition they deserve and he can fulfill his dream of obtaining his own kingdom. There is plenty more to the story between that and after that, but anymore I feel would qualify as spoilers, as many of the “twists and turns” throughout, is what kept me engaged in the story line. I will say that you are in for plenty to keep things interesting though. The story consists of an abundance of violence, surprises, betrayal, revenge, sex, relationships, trickery, and even some humor. I should add however, that I feel like much of the story was left out, but I understand why. This is the video game adaptation, needing to focus on the action-oriented sequences, so a lot of the side story arcs are best left told by the manga/anime.

Presentation

One thing that really impressed me about the game, is the amount of enemies on screen at one time. This being the Vita and all, you would expect either a smaller number of foes on screen at once, or a chugging frame rate, that however wasn’t the case here. I never noticed this game dropping it’s frame rate even with the vast amount of enemies on screen at one time. I have yet, until now, see a musou game on the Vita pull this off this sufficiently. Perhaps the sacrifices the game had to make for this, was to lower the quality of some of the textures in the game. A lot of them look rather muddy, mostly in the scenery and on less important parts of characters outfits. However, during the animated cut scenes, the quality looks great and looks to be ripped straight from the movie this story is based on. Characters themselves in-game, look fine though and are detailed enough to compare with something on PS3.

Character designs are distinct from each other, main characters at least. The hair on character’s heads, such as Guts and Casca, have nice detail to them and have a neat, stylized look to them. The characters strongly represent their source material and look exactly like they are supposed to. “Grunt” soldiers however look like generic clones of each other but you come to expect that in games like this. There is plenty of variety however, from armored soldiers, to devilish looking demons to keep each act looking distinct. There could however be more characters to play as in free modes, but who is there gives enough diversity in terms of fighting styles.

The game sounds great as well, music fits the theme and had me humming a tune or two outside the game in my everyday life. Sound effects do their job well and feel strong and hefty. Plenty of situations call for these meaty sound effects, and they’re satisfying in combat. Voice acting is done really well as far as I can tell, as I don’t speak Japanese. Nothing sounded out of place or anything and acting direction fit with what was going on. The subtitles are written quite well and the sentence structure tells a great story. There is some top-notch writing here. It feels accurate to the time period it’s set in and such, as well. Story is told through a mix of animated cut scenes, scenes using in-game character models, and little short dialogue sequences you can choose to watch or not, before you choose to start the next part of the story.

Gameplay and Design

The game feels great to play, but it can feel pretty repetitious during a long play session. Not much changes in terms of combat, except mission structure and stage conditions. The button presses of the combat feels rather repetitive as combos don’t get much more complex than first doing a series of light attacks until you end the combo with a heavy attack. You unlock more combos as you level up, but they are all performed in a similar way. I still found it enjoyable though as the nature of these types of games make you yearn for the satisfaction of cutting through hordes of enemies and feeling unstoppable. The missions in the story don’t last long enough to make each section feel boring however so the developers seem to have found a good balance. The other modes outside of the story mode, being “Free Mode” and “Endless Eclipse Mode” let you play how you want, using any character and item setup you wish, as you are sometimes limited on what/who you can use during the story to fit the narrative. Free mode lets you replay any chapter in the story with whomever you choose. Endless Eclipse is a gauntlet mode of sorts, seeing how far you can get as enemies swarms get tougher and tougher.

Combat can be preformed via horseback but it feels rather limited in action. While on horseback, you have your standard light attacks, and your heavy attack causes the horse to do a stomping attack that doesn’t do as much damage as you would expect. There is also a charging attack with the horse you can do while it’s galloping but I often found myself only using it to plow through a horde of enemies on my way to the destination on the map. The horses are best for getting around quicker, combat while riding one isn’t ideal. I often got off the horse whenever I could to fight on foot because there are more options available to you on the ground.

Enemies fly around like rag dolls when you strike at them, giving a satisfying, powerful feeling. Some of the combos you learn later in the game are unique and offer you plenty of brutal ways to destroy your enemies. Cutting down more and more foes will cover you character in blood, adding a nice aesthetic touch to fight scenes. It feels as if you are making a real impact. Once you have defeated a vast number of opponents in a fight, you will be able to activate “Frenzy Mode” by pressing circle. This mode buffs your character for a short while, dealing more damage and harder hits. During this sequence, your attacks become more ruthless, literally cutting enemies to pieces with more gore and blood than a Mortal Kombat fatality. The intense violence doesn’t end there however as your character can also perform a “Death Blow” which is basically a super attack, killing plenty of enemies at once in each character’s own special way.

Conclusion

Berserk and the Band of the Hawk has a compelling story that will keep you engaged and eager for the next scene to watch. The story is grim and dark and won’t play out how you may hope it will. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it offers a nice change of pace from the ordinary. The gruesome, horror theme of the series isn’t for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The abundance of action, sex, and violence is incorporated well and doesn’t feel as if it is only there for the shock value. Some sequences left me on the edge of my seat as the story is written quite well and made me want to check out the source material on my own time later. Story mode is what kept me coming back as the combat can feel rather samey after a long session, but I kind of went in already expecting that as it comes with the territory of such a genre. This makes for an excellent portable title however as shorter play sessions are more common while on the go. The smooth frame rate was also a nice surprise as I almost expected the game to chug just due to the nature of so many enemies on screen during the action. There is still enough variety however that I can’t help but enjoy the time I spent with this game. The drama was memorable and I felt an attachment to many of the characters as the story is marvelously told. This is coming from someone who hadn’t read/watched the source material before playing this however, so if you are already a fan of the series and know the story in it’s entirety already, this won’t be anything new to you as it is the same story arc explored in the manga/anime. If you’re already a fan though, then you must already agree it’s great.

Score: 8 out of 10

Berserk and the Band of the Hawk offers a compelling story with likable characters that will make the adventure a memorable one. High velocity action makes the player feel powerful even when the game is throwing everything it can at you. The mature, and horrific themes aren’t for the faint of heart. Prudes look elsewhere.

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