Berserk and the Band of the Hawk takes me back. It takes me back to when I was first getting into anime in high school when the concept of violent and edgy animation was the most novel thing in the world. It takes me back to having free time and an insatiable hunger for anything new and interesting. It takes me back to diving deep down the nerdy rabbit hole. It also takes me back to the first anime Musou, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage. It follows the same naming convention, similar play themes and just the simple fact it’s a Dynasty Warriors spinoff based on a grizzled old anime/manga property most people these days either think is weird, or they’ve been following it for years. I like it a lot, even love it sometimes, and it feels like the sometimes it feels like the game takes advantage of that fact.
First and foremost, like Ken’s Rage, this is the rare Musou joint that doesn’t have "Warriors” in the title. It doesn’t really mean anything (outside of maybe some kind of attempt at prestige?) but worth mentioning to keep expectations in line for those of you who aren’t as into these games as I am. It’s the usual one-versus-all, godlike powers beat ‘em up evolved from the Final Fights, the Golden Axes and Simpsons arcade games of yore.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk follows the Berserk story, first, as told by the Berserk: The Golden Age Arc movie trilogy from 2012. This section of the game is fantastic in a way Musou adaptations of storied anime licenses have not been to date. Usually, Musou adaptations take more of a Cliff Notes approach, hitting the important parts and using breezy, very Omega Force-y (the developer) cutscenes to accomplish more of a nod to fans than an effective introduction of the source material to newbies.
Instead, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk slows it way down, using the combat sections to move the story along at a similar pace to the movies, and weaving actual scenes from said movies into the game as cutscenes. There must be more than half an hour of footage if one were to splice it all together, and each scene used is important and in service of moving the story along while helping the player take it in and appreciate how the world and characters develop over time. It has to cheat a bit and literally use the source material, but this is about as masterful as it gets for storytelling in a Musou adaptation.
Unfortunately, this plays a bit into the curse of Berserk multimedia adaptations. Longtime fans of Berserk are well beyond familiar with the Golden Age Arc. This is at least the third time this section of the story has been adapted. The original anime adaptation only covered this arc back in 1997, and the 2012 movies cover the same material. A new series covering Berserk further debuted in July 2016, while this game dropped in October of the same year. There is obvious cross-promotion here, but what might be business-related decisions muddle the remainder of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk’s story mode.
Once the movie material runs dry, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk falls back into the usual Musou Cliff Notes mode. After around half of the game takes its time to tell a story in suitable detail, suddenly an entire storyline is “told” in the course of a single level. It isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but the pacing falls apart and the narrative delivery opts to rush to the end. I expect this is to help sell the new anime, the upcoming second season of which will see through to the events covered in the game.
Storyline matters aside, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk also pretty much rules as a Musou game. I mentioned Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage earlier and fans of that game will love this. The levels feel smaller and more straight to the point. Objectives are clearly laid out and feel like plenty of time is given to complete them, much unlike more recent Musou entries. Players can take their time and enact as much violent justice as they wish upon the armies of the undead. Ken’s Rage had more of a classic beat ‘em up feel than most Musou, including this one, but with dialing back on the hectic “be everywhere at once” thing, it feels similar.
Part of the appeal of Berserk is its willingness to bathe in its violence, and that is oh so present in video game form. There’s blood everywhere, and Guts swings his enormous sword with tangible weight. The game even has a similar gimmick to its sound design as the new anime: contact with Guts’ Dragon Slayer, famously described as more of a slab of iron than a blade, makes an incredible noise not unlike ringing a giant bell. The sound design, the meaty impact of the weapon and the splatter effects all make the combat in Berserk and the Band of the Hawk feel more violent than other Musou games. It is cathartic as all get out. It is also important to mention here that Berserk heavily explores themes of sexual violence. It is used super uncomfortably in the game’s marketing, and it’s just as prevalent in the game, albeit a little more tone-appropriate. The presence of that sort of content should not be taken lightly here. That’s especially true since the source material itself is rather clumsy with it, and in video game form it often feels more trivial and disingenuous.
The usual light and heavy attack-based combo systems are present, and the “press circle to do the special thing” is also accounted for. It’s a little different here to reflect a Berserk theme: the more the fight continues and the more the special meter is used, the more powerful it gets. Activating the meter sends your character into a Frenzy, and a second meter that builds during that is how the “Musou” technique is triggered. Crowd-clearing has never been more vicious.
One major complaint I have with Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a striking lack of content. The roster is tiny. It makes sense for the story mode since the story here is established and Guts is very much a singular protagonist. More characters are unlockable but seldom available in story mode, while the only other mode besides Free Battle is Endless Eclipse. This mode is Omega Force trying something a bit new, as it does, and this time the approach is almost in tune with a roguelike. The player must climb a tower of sorts, getting rewarded based on what character they choose. It obviously gets progressively difficult as it goes, but losing means starting over. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it’s an appropriate replacement for some of the cooler alternative storytelling scenarios in other anime Musous.
Overall I really do enjoy Berserk and the Band of the Hawk. A lot of it is sentimentality, sure. I was really into Berserk during formative years in my life, there’s no hiding that. It helps me appreciate the story mode that much more, but having other Musou games in my repertoire also puts into context how much the source material is respected here and how much effort is put into the Golden Age portion. It also makes it sting that much more when the rug is sort of pulled out from under my feet afterward. But it is always fun to charge into a horde of skeletons as Guts in his Black Swordsman form. And hey, you can also jump into the side content as Nosferatu Zodd, and that freakin’ rules.
Hint: Absolutely play with the equipment fusion. There’s plenty of money and pumping up the stats of an item and playing with the abilities is gratifying.
by Lucas White
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