Review: Berserk and the Band of the Hawk

21 Feb 2017

Forcing a Fit

When it comes to licensing a property to create a video game, there’s one important question the game developer should ask themselves: “Would this property even really work as a video game?”

All too often, we see horrifying games churned out with various licenses slapped on the game’s box. Has there ever been a passable Barbie video game? Does Deal or No Deal work well when played alone in front of a television? Why does Home Improvement have a SNES game, and who really wants to play a game with Tim Allen as the protagonist?

There’s another aspect to consider when working with a license as well: how much care the development team actually puts into the product. Sure, a team could just slap an OxyClean title on the box and rely on the name alone to sell whatever they crapped onto the disc. There’s also cases like the game Darkened Skye, a game to promote Skittles candy of all things, that actually managed to turn out a solid (if mediocre) game.

Every once in a while, though, we get a licensed game that manages to check both boxes. A license that translates well to the video game medium, created by a team that shows obvious care for their creation. If you’re lucky, what you’ll wind up with is a great game and a solid homage to fans of the license, as well as an excellent introduction for newcomers.

Developed by Omega Force and published by Koei Tecmo, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk was released on February 21st, 2017, for the PS4, Vita, and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.

There Will Be Blood

This title is based off the long-running manga series Berserk, and as such, follows the manga’s story. The player is put into the role of Guts, a mercenary who wanders between battlefields, selling his sword to various armies. These armies and groups attempt to get him to join up with them, but Guts always turns them down – he prefers to work alone, not having to worry about others around him.

While fighting a battle for the army of the country of Midland, he manages to take down a famous warrior named Bazuso solo. This act catches the eye of a man named Griffith – the leader of the Band of the Hawk, a renowned mercenary group. Challenging Guts to a duel, Griffith wins swiftly, and forces Guts to join his band.

From here, the game covers the rise of the Band of the Hawk, as well as following the exploits of Guts and Griffith…and the tragedy and horror therein. It’s no secret that Berserk isn’t a feel-good story, and the game communicates well the bleak and horrifying atmosphere the plot finds itself in.

While this is another musou title from Omega Force, there is a surprising amount of story focus here. Cutscenes taken directly from the Berserk anime movie trilogy released five years ago play in between missions, telling the parts of the story that combat alone can’t communicate.

I’ve never read the original manga, but between the gameplay portions, cutscenes, and banter amongst characters in between missions, I’d say I’ve gained a solid grasp on the plot. Nothing here seems rushed, and it never feels like portions of the story were cut for the sake of the game.

A New Structure

As I said earlier, Band of the Hawk is a musou title, and as such, most of the time you’ll be slaughtering thousands of faceless enemies using your single overpowered soldier. The basics are all here: light and heavy chainable attacks, a meter you can build to activate an extra powered “Frenzy Mode,” and special ultra-powered attacks usable by filling another meter.

What we’re looking for here is what’s unique; what does Band of the Hawk bring that’s new to the table? After playing through the game, the one thing I would say that stands out is substance. While playing, I actually feel like I’m doing more than just mashing buttons to eradicate armies.

Let me explain my experience. While there are multiple characters you can play as in some missions, most of the time, you’ll be playing as Guts. Guts is different than most musou characters I’ve played as, in that he controls slowly and heavily…which makes sense, considering he wields a sword as big as his body. His attacks have a bit of a wind up, forcing you to plan your moves, rather than going in slapping the controller.

Once in the game proper, the objectives you enter battle with are constantly in flux. You do have defined end goals, but the actions you have to perform to get there shift with the tide of battle. You may be on your way to break through a barricade when an ambush catches your army’s rear line off guard – do you press on or go back to assist? There are other missions that aren’t straightforward battles either – you might be tasked with holding off an army while your comrades flee, or attempting to break through a waiting ambush without the assistance of an army.

Boss battles also felt different than other musou games I’ve played, in that they feel like they actually take some skill. In my experience with other titles, bosses are either enemies quickly running around a room spitting off powerful attacks while surrounded by cannon fodder soldiers, or just plain damage sponges. When I faced off against the first boss character here, Bazuso, I ended up having to use my full current attack repertoire to break his guard, dodge around his attacks, and just work to get a good bead on him.

Of course, like similar games, you can just pull out your ultra attack and cut off a chunk of his life meter. Here, though, engaging in straight-up combat was just more fun.

I mean, maybe I’m finally being brainwashed by all the musou games I’ve been playing recently, but Band of the Hawk offered up enough variety and depth to keep me engaged, which is something that doesn’t happen often for me in games of this ilk.

Two In Imperfect Harmony

If you’ve read some of my past reviews, you’ll know there’s one huge thing I despise when it comes to the graphics part. Perhaps reading the words “bleak,” “tragic,” and “horror” may have set off some alarms.

Band of the Hawk falls into my least favorite trap: a dull color palette. You’ll be playing through an array of environments throughout the course of the game, but most all of them have that dull and dirty brown hue, to the point where everything can start to blend together. The characters, while nicely detailed and well animated, suffer the same fate. There were a few times that I managed to lose track of Guts in the crowds of similarly-colored foot soldiers.

Weirdly enough, this doesn’t extend to the animated cutscenes. Perhaps this is because they tend to focus on quieter moments between characters, so the creators didn’t feel the need to make them appear dark and gritty.

Speaking of the cutscenes, most of the time, they are animated beautifully. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, they were taken directly from a film trilogy adapting the original manga, rather than created especially for the game, which may assist with their quality. However, there are a few moments with some poorly implemented CGI in character animations and facial expressions.

Gutteral Cries

Given the atmosphere of this title, the soundtrack of Band of the Hawk goes for the obvious: epic orchestral arrangements. Driving drums, prominent brass sections, and a heavy lean on the strings, with the occasional chanting choir. Most of the time, the tracks become background static in the heat of battle. With constant chaos and bloodshed, soldiers screaming and yelling all over the place, and your allies trying to speak with you, its easy for the music to get lost in the clutter.

The game also features extensive voice acting in the original Japanese. It sounds like all of the performers behind the sourced anime films in the cutscenes returned to voice their characters in game, so there’s no disconnect between the portions. They also pull off a stellar job here, especially considering the number of darker and more tragic moments they need to act in.

Like a good voice cast should, they breathe life into these characters, which helped me get further invested in the already fantastic storyline.

Breathe New Life

Overall, despite some prominent misgivings, I’d have to say that Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is one of the best musou games I’ve played. The storyline here, along with the feeling of structure and variety in the missions, helped stave off the boredom I usually get from a repetitive game genre.

Of particular note, I’d say that this game is an example of an excellent licensed title. The battle-heavy focus of the original story lends itself to gameplay well, and Omega Force also gave due focus to the quieter moments, presenting them in vastly entertaining cutscenes rather than forcing gameplay or removing them entirely. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of the original manga, it is easy to tell that the developers cared for the license and put in everything they could to craft it into a great game.

As an introduction to the world of Berserk, this would be a great title to play, as it definitely piqued my interest to read the original manga. For those burned out on musou titles, I’d say this is still a game to look into. Much of it is familiar, but the structure it provides manages to turn a quickly-tiring style of gameplay into something more engaging.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PS4. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and provided by Koei Tecmo.