I love Berserk. For years, it's been my favorite fantasy franchise of all time, a constant inspiration to me in any creative endeavor, and it's not hard to explain why. Kentarō Miura's dark fantasy epic portrays a world of wanton bloodshed and destruction, where mortals wage pointless wars and gods manipulate their fates. For a series so bloody and so fantastical, I'm honestly surprised it took this long for Koei Tecmo and Omega Force to adapt it into a musou with Berserk and the Band of the Hawk. After all, it seems like a natural fit, right? On paper, absolutely. In practice, not exactly.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk follows a good majority of the manga's story, beginning with a fourteen-year-old Guts' initiation into the mercenary Band of the Hawk to Guts' boarding of the infamous boat. While it's a fairly accurate representation of the manga's events, there are a few glaring omissions here and there, most prominently being the entirety of the infamous 'Lost Children' arc. But while the story elements might be all in place, the pacing is not. As the title suggests, about half of the campaign is spent in the Golden Age arc, focusing on Guts' endeavors with the Band of the Hawk, while his lengthy adventures as the Black Swordsman get a lot less attention.
Now, why is that? Well, it's not too hard to tell. During the levels based on the Golden Age, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk uses clips from the recent trilogy of Golden Age Berserk movies in place of traditional cutscenes. But as soon as the Golden Age comes to a close, the cutscenes turn entirely in-engine. While I understand that it's a budgetary concern, I feel like the use of animated scenes clashed heavily with the rest of the game's aesthetic, even without factoring in the fact that they just vanish about halfway through the story mode. Yeah, the in-engine cutscenes aren't anything to marvel at, but at least they fit the rest of the game's look.
The focus on the Golden Age isn't just harmful in the narrative department. As far as gameplay is concerned, the Golden Age segments are significantly less enjoyable than the latter half of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk. Sure, both segments feature the good old musou standby of mixing up combos to maximize body counts, but the segments set in the Golden Age feel very much like cookie cutter Warriors fare, with large armies colliding in explosive displays of strength with a morale meter teetering in the balance. But once the Band of the Hawk collapses and Guts goes solo, the game really forges its own identity, setting players loose on a horde of demonic creatures. Considering that the core of Berserk has always been the idea of Guts vs the world (in both a literal and spiritual sense), this style of gameplay fits the manga's themes much better.
Speaking of fitting Berserk, I really have to take my hat off for Berserk and the Band of the Hawk's presentation. While it's obviously nowhere near as graphic as the manga (No bifurcated children here!), every character and boss down to the smallest enemies are lovingly modeled to reflect Kentarō Miura's artwork. Better still is the voice cast, which is comprised almost entirely of the voice talents from the aforementioned movie trilogy and the 2016 anime. Sadly, the soundtrack isn't quite as good as the recent series (And certainly nowhere near as good as Susumu Hirasawa's work on the original), but the music does enough to set the mood for any scenario.
Of course, like any musou worth its salt, Guts isn't the only playable character in Berserk and the Band of the Hawk. While a majority of story levels lock you into playing as him, others allow you to test out the likes of Griffith, Casca, and Serpico, and even more when you replay levels or check out the 'Infinite Eclipse' mode (Which is just what it sounds like). As expected, every character has a drastically different move set, and some even have unique sub-weapons to mix up the usual combo-filled gameplay. On top of that, half of the roster has transformations, which drastically increase the damage dealt for a short period of time and generally just look really, really cool.
Unfortunately, while the playable characters on offer are mechanically and aesthetically varied, the roster is truly baffling as a whole. To start with, much like the 2010 manga musou Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage, there are only eight playable characters included in the game. A roster of characters that limited was hardly acceptable then, and it's certainly not acceptable now, especially considering that 2013's Dynasty Warriors 8 featured sixty-three unique and varied warriors to choose from. To add insult to injury, the eight characters we've got are headscratchers, to put it politely. Please keep in mind that Wylad, a minor character who I used as a punchline in nearly every Berserk and the Band of the Hawk news article I wrote, got into the game while important, developed fighters such as Isidro and the Skull Knight (Or Knight of Skeleton, if you're boring) are entirely absent. To add insult to injury, there are plenty of other characters with unique move sets in the game, but they only show up as the aforementioned bosses. So if you've ever wanted to play as interesting villains such as Silat, Mozgus, or Grunbeld, then sorry. You're shit outta luck.
But there's one problem with Berserk and the Band of the Hawk that no amount of roster tweaks could fix. Remember what I said about mechanics and themes? Well, musou is not a good format for Berserk thematically. Sure, it's got lots of combat, and sure, it allows you to play as tons of characters, but the superpowered exploits of musou games just aren't a good fit for the themes of Berserk's Golden Age. In the manga, Guts is referred to as a struggler - a man who claws his way through every situation, constantly fighting for survival. When he killed a hundred men back in the Golden Age as a grown man, it was a great feat. When you play as him as a teenager in the first level, you can kill ten times that with relative ease. Even when Guts becomes a bonafide superhuman later on in the story, he still goes through everything without breaking a sweat, even in levels based on his biggest combat failures (See: The Holy Iron Knights). This dissonance is no fault of the developer's, as this really is the most authentic Berserk experience one can make out of the musou formula. It's just the fact that these two franchises aren't compatible in any meaningful way, besides both involving swords and killing people.
While I'm on the topic of the human soul of Berserk, let's talk about the Eclipse. In the manga, the Eclipse is a defining moment. It's a thoroughly miserable, disturbing look at a literal Hell on Earth, where demons mercilessly mow through characters you've come to know and love, and Griffith commits a now-infamous act of unspeakable evil while Guts is maimed. It has rightfully been ingrained in manga history as one of the most disturbing and iconic moments in mainstream seinen, the series' emotional high point.
In Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, it's window dressing. The Eclipse just becomes an excuse to kill a lot of dudes and run up your level, trivializing any of the original event's emotional impact. Heroic sacrifices, shocking betrayals, and one of the most powerful and disturbing scenes of sexual assault in manga history is tossed to the side in favor of flashy combos and scoring over a thousand kills. It's moments like these where one just has to sit back and realize that while this may be a fully functional, working musou title, it's as faulty as a Berserk game can get.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
With a horrifically conflicting relationship between mechanics and narrative, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a great example of two great tastes that don't taste great together.
- Enjoyable Gameplay
- Narrative and Aesthetic Accuracy
- Made Me Appreciate Just How Handsome Guts Really Is
- Missing Berserk's Depth and Soul
- Lackluster Roster
- Terrible Pacing