Contrasted to prior expectations by some, I’m actually not a fan of anime. Sure I have a soft-spot for Cowboy Bebop, do dig Ghost in the Shell and ended up really enjoying Psycho Pass (which I watched for the visual novel review), however, most aren’t my cup of tea. As someone once told me: My dislike for their “garishly” eccentric writing style is, coincidentally, often the anime genre’s greatest strength. Yet, I love gore by the pound and Berserk fits that bill. So I dug into Berserk and the Band of the Hawk with a gleeful anticipation for blood by the skip-load as you kill thousands, with the disclaimer I’ve never watched the anime. While it delivers enough torn flesh to carpet its setting twice over, it hints at something more it could have been.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a hack-n-slash title by Omega Force. As developer choice gets Omega Force is the best one for the job, at least until genetic modification and cloning gets ushered into existence. 16 years of hack and slash titles, from Dynasty Warriors 2 onwards, with this title being the 40th one of the genre (according to Wikipedia). As well as this is a fantastically quirky approach to writing in each one, some even being animes like One Piece, Attack on Titan and Fist of the North Star. Not to mention hackin’ & slashin’ being the best genre for a game about Berserk, an anime which features mowing down beasties and soldiers like how I would mow the garden.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is about Guts, a mercenary who floats from conflict to conflict fighting for whoever pays the most during the 100 Year War between two nations. That is until The Band of the Hawk attack him for kill-stealing, capture him and later recruit him due to his battlefield prowess. The narrative then follows Guts through 4 arcs from the original manga, finishing appropriately with Guts getting onto the infamous 7-year boat journey.
While it feels as though perhaps moments here and there may have gotten the editor’s cut (e.g. a particularly well-loved water-fight scene), with some artistic license applied to allow for you to slaughter a few hundred while plot happens, it seems to have been faithfully followed along as close as they can. Although to reiterate, I admit I haven’t seen the anime so I can’t comment too firmly on that.
One major change they make to the narrative in Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is the arc order, as it follows a chronological approach rather than a release-order approach. Something that does pay off as the Golden Age Arc is pretty fantastic. It is punchy, dramatic and human through-out, even including “The Eclipse”. In addition, everyone shows such a range of emotions and most have a noticeable enough character arc through-out. It is no wonder they dedicate 21 stages out of the total 46 to the single arc.
In addition, the levels in this arc also provided creative level design that, while fits with the plot, always urged you beyond the “kill X many people, kill the boss, win” standard that hack-n-slash titles of Omega Force’s library can be prone to. Each level always held multiple evolving objectives, like breaking items, retreating to a point and helping failing allies. It really breathed life into the narrative through the gameplay demands.
Then The Eclipse happened and we moved into the Black Swordsman Arc. Narratively, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk drops to a lifeless shamble. Guts turns into a flesh-built machine of anger, solitude, and misanthropy. The rest of the newly introduced cast are similarly just not as interesting as the Band of the Hawk crew. You have a gobby pixie always with drab quips, a young boy whose arrogance dominates every other trait he may have and a personal assistant who usually lacks presence.
The closest figures that can even compare to the likes of Casca (pre-Eclipse), Griffith and Judeau is a female cleric who has some personal issues she tries to fight and a witch that is dealing with the loss of a mentor. Yet while both have flecks of interesting moments during which everyone else goes nowhere with seemingly a mono-emotion through-out, the Golden Age Arc constantly was humanizing its entire cast. This drop in quality just made the rest of the 25 levels harder to really sympathize and engage with.
On a similar note, I can’t help but get the impression the developers of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk felt somewhat likewise. Not just because they nearly spend more time on the Golden Age Arc than the rest combined (21 to 25). While every mission in the Golden Age Arc felt alive and interesting, including the duel ones that broke the flow up from separating hundreds of torsos from their waists, about half of the others have the mission types that provoke groaning. These usually just require you to kill so much, kill a boss and sigh. Maybe you’ll get to kill a few lieutenants that is a simple soldier with a bit of a health-bar within the chaos fury you’ll be unleashing onto the battlefield? There are still gripping battles in the second half of the game, like a few involving trolls, but some could have done with objectives more inventive than chaotic murder.
Which speaking of the chaotic murder, the aesthetic just nails the mess you’ll be making on the battlefield as well as looking good doing it. When you activate your special your combat abilities increase, while charging up a second metre depending on the carnage you unleash as during it you begin to really rend flesh from the bone around you (even from skeletons, don’t think too hard), soaking you thoroughly in blood. Then you activate the second metre, unleashing a vicious single special on others around you that zooms in on Gut’s angry swing of a sword that leaves all your victims just a puddle. If you’re not a gorehound, like me, there is an option to turn off gore. Just, damn it looks good.
During cutscenes, they typically do a good job with the anime style. Sure detail can be a little lacking in the odd section or two, but the general sentiment comes across and facial expressions are fluid and significantly shown. It’s still impressively drawn, making everyone feel and look distinctive in their behaviors and appearance.
Getting back to the objectives, there are also sub-objectives on most missions. Little tasks like “do X objective within the time limit”, “make sure no ally flees” and even ones that overlap with your main objectives. Each one letting you unlock piece-by-piece of a picture of significance to the narrative. Considering these aren’t difficulty-specific, if you want a little something to push you more then it may be worth checking them out. My only complaints about it are that every “time limit” sub-objective oddly never gives you a timer and that you’re only unlocking 5 pictures (with help from the Endless Eclipse Mode). I also admit one or two sub-objectives didn’t quite work right for me. Besides that, I do appreciate being given something to spice up the main objectives, especially in the duller levels.
Although once you’re done with the main story, you’ll likely want to bite into The Endless Eclipse Mode. Once you pick a character and consumable equipment, it’s locked in. You then see how many missions (which offer 5 floors each) you can get through on a non-replenishing health and equipment that only recharges upon rare drops. I wish I could gleefully obsess over it, but it is simply okay. The missions (and sub-objective bosses) keep things from devolving into a “turn enemy into mush over and over” gameplay but feels generally inoffensively okay. Good to kill time with, but nothing more.
The final score of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a sleek 7/10. Honestly, as I was getting through the Golden Age Arc, I was considering it a solid 8/10. Sure it had enough blood and guts to leave me grinning, but it remembered to humanize those involved. That if you have a story mode, you should deliver a story more significant than “MAN GOES STABS WORLD WITH BLADED PADDLE”. Then we hit the rest of the 25 stages and I could just feel myself losing interest in both gameplay and story.
Yet, I struggle to blame Omega Force for it. It really feels like they hit all the notes they could. They delivered faithfulness, a death count that would even leave the Spanish Flu lagging behind and an aesthetic to soak yourself in both story and gore. They even injected story points into missions via diverse objectives. However, what they couldn’t (and shouldn’t) do was rewrite the script or add story elements. They couldn’t invent missions that would be entertaining that wasn’t true, as it would kill the point of an adaptation. They couldn’t cut the dull narrative moments out, as it would cease to make sense, nor hand-wave over them too much as then the other arcs would be grossly over-shadowed by the Golden Age Arc. They had to deal with what they had, which is something narratively and mechanically flawed due to the source material.
Considering how faithful Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is, it is an easy recommendation for Berserk fans. Similarly, Omega Force really puts out the stops as much as they can so hack-n-slash fans of the Omega Force kind (e.g. Dynasty Warriors) will want to pick this up when they get a chance. Beyond that point, if the hack-n-slash doesn’t invoke a grin-inducing bloodlust then perhaps pick it up cheaper as the first half of the game is great. Just be wary of The Eclipse. It’s dark-moon visage brings with it death, despair and somewhat drab writing.
A Playstation 4 Review copy of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk was provided by Koei Tecmo for the Purpose of this Review