Since the dawn of Dynasty Warriors, Omega Force and Koei (Koei Tecmo since 2009) have dominated the world of hack-and-slash video games. For their latest hack-and-slash, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, Omega Force and Koei Tecmo teamed up with Kentaro Miura to bring the latter’s Berserk manga series to life. From broadswords to daggers, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk delivers the same fast-paced bloodshed as its Dynasty Warriors predecessors. Fans of Dynasty Warriors and its spin-offs (see Samurai Warriors and Warriors Orochi) will either be pleased to see another action-packed delivery from the same team or perturbed that they recreated the same game with a different title slapped on the cover. In either case, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk offers a well-rounded package that will be familiar to Omega Force’s returning fans and elating to new players.
Before reaching the main menu, players get to watch an introductory video that depicts the main character, Guts, causing mayhem amongst a plethora of foes. This video gives players an idea of what, exactly, they will be doing when they take control of a character for the first time: warring against innumerable enemies on battlefields both large and small, dense and open. When on the battlefield, players can either rush in alone to slay scores of enemies, or escort allies to make success more of a team effort. Either way, an armada of combatants stands between players and victory. Using the rather simplistic combo system (normal attacks chained together with strong attacks), players can cut their way through dozens of foes at a time. However, the fun does not stop there. Indeed, along with the combo system comes two aspects veteran hack-and-slash players will understand: the berserk/frenzy gauge. Players fill this purple meter that resides under their green health bar in the bottom left corner of their screen by gutting their foes. Once full, players can activate the gauge with the push of a button and effectively send their character into an overdrive mode that extends his or her reach and enhances their power for a limited time. This mechanic is highly useful when fighting bosses or spearing through thick clouds of enemy forces. Players familiar with the Dynasty Warriors franchise will notice the similarities between this and the Musou gauge from that series.
However, the simple but swift gameplay is not all that brings Berserk to life. Each level has a way of giving each battle a unique element, such as the catapults that must be destroyed during siege battles or the forts that must be overtaken before pushing into a castle. Between paying homage to classic anime by presenting colorful visuals and detailing even some of the darker recesses, Berserk’s world, while limited, is immersive in its own way. Blood riddles characters’ clothes during a lengthy battle, but the effects of blowing wind or shifting weather do not come into play like they do in modernized RPGs or even first-person shooters. From castles to mountains and open plains, Berserk’s various scenarios reveal a war spread across two fantastical kingdoms. In a world mired in blood, towering castle walls and tumultuous landscapes have an ominous way of making one feel as though they are pitted against impossible odds, an impressive feat given the anime theme. Unfortunately, these elements are less impressive when not actively engaged in combat. Berserk is not a game in which one stands back to admire the scenery, and for many gamers, this may be a flaw that prevents them from feeling like they are a part of its world.
As with any game that heaves players into the thick of virtual warfare, Berserk blasts trembling shockwaves of clashing weapons, pierced flesh, and spraying blood at gamers. It sports superb audio quality that is sure to slide home feelings of chaotic malignity true to any sense of warfare. Everything from the clippity-clop of horses’ hooves across cobble and dirt to the charismatic rallying calls of army officers and the main characters resonates with each level and animated cutscene. This is a testament of the professional voicework contributed by the actors and developers alike. During the aforementioned cutscenes, and during dialogue presented in the actual levels, the actors do an excellent job of making their characters’ wide range of personalities believable.
Just clicking a few buttons and wreaking havoc among a relatively predictable AI is not enough to claim victory in the harder difficulties. Playing on easy, players can swing through battles without a care, whereas playing on the hard or berserk difficulty settings requires the need to exercise caution rather than simply charging into the fray. Players have the opportunity to outfit their character before each fight with items that improve their abilities and stats. These items can be upgraded with stones found either on the battlefield or by purchasing them in the item shop with in-game currency, which is earned by completing missions and bonus objectives on said missions. Enemy officers and bosses also have a chance of dropping gold or items.
The campaign is not the only mode the game has to offer. In addition to a story mode, Berserk gives players the chance to replay any missions they have completed in story mode using any unlocked character. Free Mode, as it is called, makes any character available for any mission, regardless of the trappings of the story. As with the campaign, players can choose between four difficulties when launching free mode: easy, normal, hard, and berserk. This mode gives players access to some of the stronger characters in the game, such as Nosferatu Zodd, an immortal warrior who acts as a boss partway through the campaign, without affecting anything that happens in the story.
The third, and final, mode is Endless Eclipse, a survival mode in which players choose a character and hack through waves of enemies in an attempt to reach the deepest “layer.” The further a player gets in the story, the more layers are unlocked in Endless Eclipse (up to a maximum of one hundred layers). Each layer grants a mission for the player; some layers have players protect an ally to a certain destination; others require certain enemies to be defeated. Completing these missions unlocks the next layer as well as items that can replenish health or give the player an edge over their enemies. The challenge with Endless Eclipse is that once started, it must be completed, as being defeated or quitting results in a restart. Once committed, players are in for the long haul, only given a reprieve every five layers to change or enhance items.
At Berserk’s core lies a story that hits several points on the emotional pendulum. Comradery, stoicism, love, betrayal, guile, and a whole lot of ambition have pivotal roles in the story’s trajectory. At the start, players take control of Guts, who goes from lone wolf mercenary to a close friend who cares deeply for his allies. When interacting with other characters, Guts can be closed-off, but over time transforms into a relatable character with depth and a perfervid conscience. After playing through the story-driven tutorial and completing a few levels, more characters are unlocked for use in the campaign and the other modes mentioned earlier. The story analyzes friendships and the roles they play when rallied around a leader’s ambitions. These friendships are fleshed out through in-game events (optional conversations between two or more characters) and tested in the animated scenes that occur between levels. Feelings are lanced and hearts are crushed. Through it all, relationships either flourish or buckle under the strain. While the story seems a bit vanilla and cheesy in the beginning, it later twists itself into a dark tale of guilt and regret.
As hack-and-slashes go, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk does not stand out from the herd, but it does offer its own unique storytelling when combining the styles of Omega Force, Koei Tecmo, and Kentaro Miura. Berserk’s campaign offers a reprieve from the same story retold several times, as is common in the Dynasty Warriors series. The combat is exhilarating and true to Japanese exaggeration with the number of enemies that can be felled with a single slice. However, it does not redefine the genre, nor does it adorn the proverbial walls with imagination or creativity.