Well, this is a surprise. Berserk happens to be one of the best games I've played all year. On all fronts, ASCII has put together something quite special, which deserves your attention when it comes stateside, as I hope it will.
You're in control of Gatsu, a grisly, one-eyed warrior with a tattoo on his neck that tingles like some spidey-sense when danger is near. Wandering around the pseudo medieval countryside with him are a younger, dim-witted girl in a monk's robe (don't ask me) and a little green fairy. I was utterly charmed by the latter, I admit. Just a warning: the very long but often impressive cutscenes are all in Japanese, so if you're not familiar with the language, you'll have to glean what you can, or just admire the pretty pictures.
The first such movie has you rescuing an entourage of circus performers when their camped wagon is beseiged by a host of no-goodniks. Not that Gatsu would care, but when his girlfriend (and I mean that in the most platonic of senses, though you have to wonder why they're travelling around together in the first place) naively walks into the danger zone to pet a little doggie, one foolish ruffian raises his hand against her and gets a knife through it. Enter Gatsu, with an enormous sword (think Cloud from Final Fantasy or Siegrfried from Soul Calibur) After some cursory remarks, Movie slips cleanly into gameplay, and it's time to start busting heads.
Rarely have I seen a main character with such a varied, useful, and enjoyable set of moves. He looks great, with a black, tattered cape that flows out behind him as he fights, and his throwing knives holstered on a strap across his chest. Press B and he attacks horizontally, press A and he gives you a head-bashing vertical blow. Y brings up your defensive stance, from which you can also dance nimbly around your enemies, looking for a weakness (provided they actually have one). On top of this, you can hold down the right trigger like a Shift key, and all the previously mentioned buttons become your long range weapons: grenade, throwing knives, and my personal favorite, the gun. No anachronistic automatic pistol, mind you, but a gunpowder operated mini-cannon that fires loudly and indiscriminately. And if that's not enough, you can sheate your mega-sword altogether and opt for fisticuffs, or one of the coolest attacks I've ever seen in a video game. Turns out Gatsu is something of an engineer, and affixed to his wrist is a little contraption where if you turn the crank, rapid fire darts shoot out and plug your enemy. The guy's like some medieval Travis Bickle.
The main story entails some mystery virus which is ravaging a nearby town. The afflicted tend to lose their skin, grow new heads and appendages and wander towards you zombie-like, providing a host of disturbing looking adversaries for you to mow down. Even the animals in the woods have been affected, giving birth to a race of skinless bears and dogs with venus flytrap heads, all set to chomp you. It may sound a little been-there, done-that (or like some Resident Evil rip-off) but it comes off pretty damn creepy and interesting, as you work deeper into the village and realize that nothing is as it seems. And there are diversions from the zombie-hacking, such as your various run-ins with roaming bandits, the town's armored guard, and my personal favorite, a scene straight out of a Ray Harryhausen movie where you tromp through an indoor graveyard and down a gorgeous spiral staircase, beating back the sword-wielding skeletons of dead warriors. Hell, there's even a handful of quick-time events that'll have you scrambling to remember "just which button is B, exactly?"
Simply put, there're tons of enemies, often all on screen at once. It may seem like a bit too much to handle at times, but in Berserk, being swamped isn't always a bad thing. You see, when Gatsu is surrounded by too many adversaries, or takes a certain amount of damage, he goes berserk (hence the title). His eyes flame red, the world takes on a blood-colored hue, Gatsu can fight faster and with longer combos, and bodies have a strange way of getting cut cleanly in two. You can still take damage in berserk mode, however, and your time in such a state is limited. It's immensely satisfying, though, and makes for some of the best button mashing I've done in some time.
My complaints are few. The camera tries to eke out some middle ground between what's good for fighting and what simply looks pretty, and most of the time it does a very good job. There are times, however, when you are being attacked by offscreen enemies, though it is not NEARLY as frustrating as it was in that Phantom Menace game. Your oversized sword is also hard to navigate in tight spaces, such as athe back alleys of the village, and you'll find it clanging off various surfaces when you're trying to kill someone. Compounded by a tendency for enemies to drift mysteriously into the scenery (note to whomever picks this game up for US release: fix this problem!), you'll be swinging at an enemy that's embedded in a wall and have your sword clanging off of rocks while said enemy still attacks you. My advice: when in close quarters, swing vertically.
There's no US release date yet, though various companies have expressed their desire to bring it here. And though the story ain't Shakespeare, it's interesting enough that you might want to wait for the game with an English translation. There are tons of cutscenes to sit through, after all (though you can skip them). But if you're an importer with some cash, this is a GREAT import that you're not going to find here anytime in the immediate future. It's apparently based on an anime series, as well. E-mail me if you know where I can find it!
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