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May 25, 2017

The New Age of Villains?! (Part 2)

Having only put a paltry 70 hours into Persona 5, I’m not the absolute authority on the game.  From where I’m standing, though?  I’m not afraid to say that it’s got no right to be as good as it is.

Or maybe “addictive” is the word I’m looking for.  Granted that’s a byproduct of its quality -- the overflowing style, the lovable cast of characters, the simple yet satisfying combat, the godlike soundtrack, and more -- but overall, Persona 5 is a hard game to put down.  It’s almost enough to make me go on a months-long hiatus until I see those end credits roll…or, alternatively, until I max out everyone’s Confidant ranks.  I, uh, empathize with Mishima (and to a lesser extent Yusuke) way more than I should.

But even if I were to disappear and huddle in front of my TV for weeks on end?  I’ve got to get through this post first, at the very least.  It’s thematically relevant, after all; some of the stuff I said last time about the cast being potential (if not definitive) villains has already been addressed in satisfying ways.  I still have to see where things will go from there, but A) I’m eager to see how the devs will follow through on what they set up.  More importantly, there’s still point B.

Persona 5 stars a cast that you could interpret as the villains.  Meanwhile, Tales of Berseria stars a cast that you pretty much can’t interpret as anything else but the villains.  And that’s what makes it great.

So if you haven’t heard anything about Tales of Berseria (in which case, reevaluate every life decision you’ve made up to this point you silly, silly person), here’s the setup.  The story follows Velvet Crowe, who at the outset is a sweet and caring 16-year-old country girl living in small-town Aball.  Though she’s seen her share of hardships -- her older sister has long since passed away, she has to take care of her sickly little brother Laphicet all by herself, and there’s still the threat of daemons running amok -- she takes every struggle on the chin, and with a smile. 

That changes when her trusted brother-in-law, Artorius, takes Laphicet and uses him as the sacrifice for a god-reviving ritual.  Little Laphi gets stabbed, Velvet ends up getting turned into a daemon herself, and Artorius gets off scot-free…while our heroine is thrown into a dungeon for her troubles.  Cut to three years later, and Velvet isn’t even a fragment of a shell of her former self.  She’s angry, violent, cold, ruthless, and most of all?  She’s out for revenge.  She wants nothing more than to kill Artorius with her new monster arm (which you’d be forgiven for calling a Devil Bringer).  And when a chance encounter helps her escape from her prison, her rampage starts in earnest.

So there are two things worth noting right off the bat when it comes to Berseria.  The first is that it’s actually the prequel to 2015’s Tales of Zestiria, and apparently a game that was planned for release from the outset.  Fair enough, I suppose.  The problem is that, if you’re going to go for a big, multi-stage project, then the first entry has to justify everything that follows.  For me, Zestiria did that -- even though I’ll gladly acknowledge that it has some glaring faults.  For others, Zestiria didn’t do that; some saw it as a misstep, or a disappointment, or anything you really don’t want attached to your labor of love. 

But a funny thing happened when going from Zestiria to Berseria.  See, the thing about Tales games is that they have a knack -- if not an obsession -- with breaking JRPG and storytelling conventions over one knee.  Symphonia took aim at receiving holy orders from higher beings.  Abyss took aim at being “the chosen one”.  Vesperia took aim at both being a “knight in shining armor” and an anti-hero vigilante.  In different ways, Graces and Xillia took aim at the “magical girlfriend” trope.  Zestiria took aim at becoming a messiah figure (AKA the symbolic end point for every other story out there) and probed the crap out of that by making you literal Anime Jesus within a few hours of gameplay.

How successful or unsuccessful each Tales game is at exploring its premise (or even what that premise is) will vary from person to person.  You could even argue that certain entries are send-ups -- if not takedowns -- of other games; I’ve joked before that Symphonia is basically what Final Fantasy 10-2 would be if it didn’t focus on pop star shenanigans, and Xillia (and its sequel) seemed to have FF13 (and its sequel) in the crosshairs.  But if you ask me, the devs decided to strike closer to home with their latest installment.  Whether or not they had it planned from the start, Berseria does its best to utterly tear down Zestiria -- right down to making you play as literal Anime Satan.

It goes beyond that, though.  Berseria isn’t just an attack on Zestiria; it’s an attack on a massive swath of the past half-decade (and more) of the gaming zeitgeist.

In terms of the former?  That’s hard to go into without spoiling the game in full and retroactively spoiling Zestiria, AKA the game I’d strongly recommend playing/watching an LP of if you want the full experience.  Then again, I’m probably about to spoil a ton of stuff in Berseria offhandedly, but in the interest of pretending to keep this post’s length manageable, I’ll go ahead and say this: an overwhelming number of Zestiria’s concepts are included here, and an overwhelming number of them are turned on their head. 

Sorey in Zestiria was the Shepherd -- Anime Jesus -- which you’d think would make him some sort of holy figure chosen by the heavens or whatever.  Then you find out the origin of the Shepherd, and realize that it’s basically just a PR title used and abused for political prestige.  Conversely, you’re playing as the first “Lord of Calamity” in that universe, which you’d think would make you the spawn of some ancient hellions from Pandemonium.  In reality?  It’s just a nickname born from spreading rumors -- rumors that can’t even get Velvet’s appearance right -- which the top brass decides to run with.  Granted both names end up sticking over the course of centuries (i.e. going from Berseria to Zestiria), but it’s a level of demystification that sheds new light on the shared universe.

That’s still overshadowed by the second point, though.  Chalk this up to me reading into things way farther than I should, but I see Berseria as a way to call out the vices of storytelling in the modern gaming industry.  Just think about it for a minute: how many games have we gotten semi-recently -- or at least since the dawn of the seventh generation -- that have used revenge as their central conceit?  Assassin’s Creed has used it multiple times as a way to justify all the murdering you’ll end up doing.  Watch Dogs used it, too.  Shadow of Mordor notoriously took The Lord of the Rings and jammed it into the “imma get ya for gettin’ mah wife” hole, despite it being the squarest of square pegs.  I’m positive that that’s not a complete list, but you get the idea.  One slight against the main character in those games is enough to justify everything he does in the following hours -- even if they’re far worse than the original crime.

I’ve made it no secret that I hold that basic revenge fantasy treatment in contempt.  It’s a story that can be done well, but it’s not something that everyone should bank on just ‘cause.  And if you are going to bank on it, then you have to add flourishes that make it unique, exciting, or both.  So when news about Berseria first started making the rounds, I was worried that it would be a limp-wristed affair -- something that pretended to be darker and edgier when in actuality, its tale of revenge -- like others before it -- would come off as a toothless attempt to go over that edge.  Having finished the game, I can confirm that there are indeed teeth.

The nicest, simplest thing I can say about Berseria is that -- as the ancient proverb goes -- zero fucks were given.  You can guess that much just by looking at Velvet; in a world where gamers are constantly wary of female character designs, her comes Velvet with short shorts that plunge to the depths of hell and a decisive amount of underboob (which the game’s camera will constantly remind you of).  Beyond that?  Her default costume, backstory, and pretty much everything about her makes her sound like the spawn of every third DeviantArt OC.  Her name is Velvet Crowe, guys; we’ve reached a level that’s even further beyond the level of an edgelord.

And you know what?  Berseria steers right into that skid, and is stronger for it.  Yes, there is the expected “shades of gray” morality wherein the good guys of the story turn out to be not as altruistic as they appear (because they’re connected to/invoke images of the church, and religion is basically evil in JRPGs).  Yes, the anti-hero ends up doing the right thing in the end instead of being an absolute monster from start to finish.  But what makes Velvet stand out amongst all of the other revenge-seekers is that she seems like the logical end-point (such as it is) for what creators are really espousing whenever they create a revenge-seeker.

Here’s the thing: Velvet is actually kind of insane.

That insanity is justified, of course.  Velvet spent three years in a dungeon -- in what might as well be a pit -- all alone and shrouded in darkness.  She had nothing to do except feed on the daemons thrown at her like bird seed, and stew in her anger over Artorius’ murder/betrayal.  Thanks to her daemon transformation, i.e. the Devil Bringer that signals her status as a “therion”, she ends up losing several key senses and sensations -- taste in particular.  When she finally gets out, she’s as unhinged as she is dedicated to murdering the murderer.  That’s helped in part by her disposition; she may have aged up to 19 physically (inasmuch as one can age up when subsisting on a diet of daemons and blood), but she’s still 16 mentally.  It’s no wonder she decides to dress like an edgelord.  She probably thinks that her costume looks like the raddest shit ever.

The more important thing is that Velvet’s mind has eroded to the size and texture of a small pebble.  While she’s still capable of logic and rational thought, nearly all of it is (at the outset) skewed toward getting her revenge.  Without emotions or morality to get in her way, she’s nearly as mindless as the beasts she devoured -- something that’s accented by some of her in-battle quotes, like when she flies into a rage and screams “DEVOUR!” like she’s doing her best Necalli impression.  What this means is that she’s more than willing to commit some heinous acts without remorse; she’ll start prison riots, torch fishing towns, steal naval vessels (and crash almost immediately), cooperate with the criminal underworld, and of course, murder, murder, murder.  And her justification for all of it is “But he killed my brother, tho!”

I’m not exaggerating.  That’s actually a plot point here.  There’s a scene relatively early on where Artorius is being celebrated as a hero and savior, having emerged over the past three years as a hero against the threat of daemonblight.  Because of his continued efforts -- like the formation of the exorcist-laden Abbey -- Artorius gets named as the Shepherd to the uproarious applause of the people.  He even gives a speech about how he’s going to continue fighting alongside the Abbey to bring peace to the world.  In other words?  Even if he is ultimately positioned as the bad guy in the story, he and the exorcists have legitimately done demonstrable good for the world.  And the exorcists continue to do good even if it’s off-screen or via individual efforts.  

But during that scene -- one which brings our “hero” closer to Artorius than she has been in years, and thus primed for a little assassination -- Velvet isn’t hearing any of it.  Even when one achievement and virtuous act after another is getting rattled off by the M.C., Velvet’s sole response as she gets into position is “But Laphicet, tho!”  That’s right, folks.  It doesn’t matter how much good Artorius and crew have done, or how noble he seems to be, or how much the Abbey’s future efforts might protect the world.  All that matters is that Artorius did one thing to tick Velvet off -- one thing that could have potentially safeguarded, if not saved the world entirely if done right -- and that invalidates everything.  Because Velvet’s needs are more important than the rest of the world’s needs.  It’s as if she learned nothing from Spock.

I think there’s a word for what Velvet is, and it starts with a V. 

Again, it’s true that the game tries to portray Velvet and her crew as well as the Abbey as people who do both right and wrong.  It’s not as if she’s the ultimate evil, and it’s not as if Artorius is the ultimate good (he certainly isn’t, because his final goal is…well, refer to the last post on what I consider to be the greatest crime imaginable).  But Berseria is a game that recognizes the good done by Artorius and the Abbey, which makes the shades of gray aspect more genuine in the long run. 

By the same token?  It’s a game that isn’t afraid to point out and/or heavily imply that Team Velvet isn’t a peachy-keen band of do-gooders.  Velvet’s actions are called out pretty regularly, whether it’s by Velvet herself or by the game via implication.  Her face might not be remembered, but she will go down in history as the Lord of Calamity and give the people something to dread for generations to come.

More to the point, there’s an old saying that comes to mind when dealing with Berseria: you are defined by the company you keep.  And to that end, Velvet comes off as someone even worse than before.

Five out of six party members in Berseria are terrible people.  The nice girl of the group, Eleanor, is a member of the Abbey who ends up getting roped into the group as part of a pact (and a mission to personally deliver the team to Artorius).  You would think that she’s the voice of reason and decency in the group, and to be fair she kind of is…at least when she’s not being a horrible racist.  She hates daemons, which is understandable; unfortunately, that carries over to anything and anyone that has grievances with the Abbey, including the two daemons she’s forced to cooperate with.

Then you get to Rokurou, who’s one of those daemons.  And even though he comes across as one of the nicer members of the core group, it’s worth noting that when you first meet him he’s itching for the chance to murder people in battle.  Only by pointing him in the direction of his trusted longsword does he calm down, and ultimately pledges himself to Velvet as her bushido-style subordinate.  But it’s plainly obvious that A) he’s only following along so he can fight and get stronger, B) his “debt” is a convenient excuse because he actually doesn’t care about morals, and C) Velvet’s mission is convenient for him because it’ll let him clash with his older brother again.  Also, not to spoil anything, but Rokurou might actually be the biggest shitbag of the whole cast.  Not only is he also willing to murder with a smile, but there are also the details of his backstory…which, once fully revealed, are more than enough to justify any newfound hatred toward him.

Good thing he’s voiced by Joseph Joestar.  Otherwise we’d have a real tragedy on our hands.

Then you get to Magilou, who does very little to mask that she’s also a shitty person.  True to form, she’s got a tragic backstory -- albeit one that’s almost treated as an afterthought in-universe -- but that’s not enough to explain away the fact that she’s the patron saint of apathy.  She’s a self-proclaimed witch that only follows Velvet and the others around to get back the familiar that’ll let her use magic again; beyond that, she plainly admits that she doesn’t care about anything or anyone, which makes her complicit in all the crimes you end up committing over the course of the game.  Does she grow out of that phase?  Yes, but only somewhat; almost from start to finish, Magilou is fine with hamming it up and cracking wise.  That would probably explain why the rest of the cast treats her like a friend in name only at best and a skunk-scented perfume at worst.

Then you get to Eizen, who’s a pirate by nature.  That by default means that he’s committed any number of crimes for the sake of personal gain --thievery, pillaging, murder on the high seas, collusion with the criminal underworld, and likely more -- and he’s gung-ho about committing even more if it’ll bring him closer to finding his missing captain.  Much like Magilou, Eizen doesn’t give a shit about how much death and destruction the team’s actions might bring; he has a very nonchalant awareness of it, and won’t interfere because it syncs up with the creed he espouses (living according to your free will).  But in his case, he’s a threat to himself and everyone around him; as the “Reaper”, his luck is so terrifyingly bad that misfortune will anything even remotely nearby.  So going on adventures with his pirate crew?  Putting their lives in jeopardy because of a creed.

…Not gonna lie, though, Eizen is still the most badass JRPG character ever created.  His first super move is called Perfect Mayhem, and has him punching dudes at mach speed while flipping a coin.  There’s only one way to react to that.

Basically the only character of the core six who comes off as completely pure is Laphicet -- not Velvet’s little brother, but a nameless kid she ends up taking in and renaming…after kidnapping him and using him as a tool.  Laphicet develops over the course of the game and gains a sense of independence, but as a 10-year-old boy, he hasn’t quite become the damaged goods that the rest of the cast has.  Granted he’s still as complicit with Velvet and the others’ crimes, and doesn’t even think of calling them out for what they’ve done (they did save him from being a mindless automaton, however circumstantially), but he is the heart and grounding for the band of criminals.  Then again, his default costume puts him in a muumuu, which makes him the true king of scum and villainy.

I guess there’s at least one major question that needs answering: how willing are you to overlook the justification behind criminal acts?  How much do the circumstances validate breaking the law?  Are you allowed to hurt others when others hurt you?  The answers will vary from person to person, as they should.  But my interpretation of Berseria is that those backstories, situations, and sorrows aren’t enough to put Team Velvet in the clear.  The game explains their reasoning -- Velvet’s in particular, obviously -- but that’s where it stops.  Even then, the logic behind that reasoning can be on shaky ground (see: Rokurou); it’s possible to feel for these guys, and absolutely possible to fall in love with them.  But you know straight-up that these guys are bad and what they’re doing is bad.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that these guys pretty much fuck up their world for centuries to come.

To be fair, after a certain point in the story it looks like Team Velvet has no choice but to fuck up their world; the alternative championed by Artorius and his crew is a dozen times worse, after all.  Naturally they succeed, even if that sets the stage for Sorey to come in and resolve things in Zestiria centuries down the line (and let’s just ignore the fact that Team Velvet started a cycle of disaster and recovery for about a dozen generations, at a bare minimum).  But again, they didn’t have a choice.  I’m not going to spoil what happens, but I’ll say that Artorius’ efforts would’ve been the exact opposite of Eizen’s creed, and that players get to see a snippet of them late in the game.  Basically, the “bad guys” come very close to winning, and just a glimpse of that win condition is horrifying in more ways than even I can compress in a blog post.  So yes, they had to destroy in order to save.

What they didn’t have to do was start poking around at least a dozen in-game hours before that point to see what would happen if they disturbed the natural order of the world out of curiosity.  To summarize: Zestiria’s plot revolves around Sorey -- as the Shepherd -- and his crew trying to figure out how to get rid of the malevolence, AKA the dark energy that chokes the life out of the planet and turns people into monsters (even if it’s naturally produced by the vices in human hearts).  Then you play Berseria, and find out that Velvet and crew willingly unleash the malevolence because…uh…”he killed my brother, tho!”

Well, I’ll be more specific: it’s accomplished by Team Velvet uprooting therions from their prisons.  It’s a way to screw up Artorius’ plans, first and foremost, but those therions are there for a reason.  As specially-made daemons, the therions have the ability to devour daemons as well as malevolence -- and Artorius’ plan is to have those therions stationed in certain places so they can feed that malevolence to the godlike being Immoninat, which in turn will hasten his reawakening and help Artorius change the world.  Velvet ain’t havin’ that.  She opts to seize one of the therions from the magical cage that’s been set up, unconcerned with the consequences.  As it turns out, those consequences lead to a massive overflow of malevolence -- one that taints the sky, fills the area with floating black particles, and -- crucially -- makes the people of the nearby seaside town turn into daemons that have to be put down.  I’d say it was because the gang wanted to see what would happen, but a third of them (maybe half, given the intel received from a friend) should’ve told them that stealing a therion would have dire consequences.

But they’re basically just like “Oops!” and go about their business.  They keep kidnapping therions, and keep risking overflows of malevolence.  It doesn’t lead to any more towns being destroyed, thankfully, but let’s not pretend like the threat isn’t there or that there aren’t any ramifications.  Velvet and the rest are pretty much okay with potentially ruining (if not ending) lives so they can fulfill their personal agendas.  And given the circumstances, I’m pretty sure they’re more or less at peace with that.  They don’t mind being terrible people, as long as they get what they want in the end.

I’m starting to think that Team Velvet should try running a bar.

But there’s a reason why It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has gone on for as long as it has -- and it’s the same reason why Berseria has basically entered my personal gaming hall of fame.  Even if the characters are absolutely terrible people who deserve every punishment and misfortune that comes their way, they’re still horrifyingly compelling -- a collective, sentient train wreck that you can’t tear your eyes away from.  The majority of the cast is full of assholes that are almost entirely unrepentant for their actions, save for a small percentage of a game that could run for as long as 80 hours.  Artorius and crew might be the bad guys, but you expect them to do evil.  You wouldn’t expect the good guys to do the same, but here we are.

And that’s what makes Berseria so refreshing.  The fact that you are basically playing as the villains puts the game in a unique position -- one where, even if you kinda-sorta end up doing the right thing in the end (at the very least putting Anime Jesus in a position where he can clean up the mess Anime Satan created), it doesn’t change the fact that Team Velvet did so by crawling over a pile of dead bodies they left in their wake.  But the game is at least decent enough to be honest about it.  No sugarcoating.  No pretending otherwise.  You’re evil, and it feels so good.

In summation, play this game.  And if you refuse, then contemplate the meaning of your pitiful existence.

Also, this game is funny as hell.

All hail Lord Eizen.

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