Tales of Berseria doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel in terms of what we've come to expect from JRPGs, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun for fans of the genre nonetheless. The sixteenth installment of Bandai Namco’s Tales franchise is a fast-paced, engaging return to form after Tales of Zestiria left some fans of the series dissatisfied.

Berseria takes place in the distant past of the same overall world as Zestiria, and there are loads of little Easter eggs linking the two. Still, you don’t need to have played Zestiria to enjoy this as a standalone game. Berseria kicks off in a way that’s familiar enough: tragedy in a small country hamlet leads to a teen hero embarking on a quest to save the world. Along the way, said teen cobbles together a ragtag band of allies, everyone learns about the power of friendship, fights some monsters, there’s probably some kind of water temple with switch puzzles at some point… you know the drill.

Yet Berseria departs from previous entries in the Tales series in the tenor and tone of its story. Yes, there are plenty of lighthearted skits interspersed throughout the exploration of new towns and dungeons, but the overall mood is strikingly grim. The series’ first solo female protagonist, Velvet, is plagued by nightmares of the traumatic event that kicks off the story and wholly consumed by her quest for vengeance. You're reminded throughout that she is not the gentle person she once was, mentally or physically, having been transformed into a demi-demon known as a Therion, now forced to survive by feeding on other demons she kills. As the story progresses, her death toll mounts, as does her guilt, doubt and despair. Along the way, Velvet’s surrounded by an equally anti-heroic squad of allies: a cursed pirate, a self-absorbed witch and a half-demon swordsman hell bent on killing his brother, to name a few. Each of the supporting party members has their own narrative arc, made all the more vivid by the series’ trademark solid voice acting (the game features dual audio, if you find the English VAs too chipper) and intricately detailed storytelling.

The group’s journey to overthrow the tyrannical religious government known as The Abbey proves a lot more unsettling and thought-provoking than previous entries in the Tales series, and while the atmosphere can seem oppressively heavy at times, Berseria certainly never feels plodding and aimless in the way Zestiria often could. That said, there are numerous points where the game goes unabashedly into infodump mode, and seemingly every few paces triggers another skit. Many of these are optional, but it’s hard to tell which ones are important to the central plot and which are just fluff, so you’ll probably end up watching most of them on your first go-round.

Having played through Final Fantasy XV right before this, comparisons were inevitable, and not always flattering. More than once, I found myself wishing I could be doing something else – fighting, walking, driving – as the characters were talking, instead of stopping the action cold.

Still, Berseria does feel livelier than Zestiria, even when there’s too much talking, and this is partly a product of an overall streamlining of gameplay mechanics. Sidequests and sidebosses are still there if you want them, but not in excess or forced down your throat as a plot contrivance (like the debt system in Tales of Xillia 2). The cooking system and equipment enhancement systems are a bit cleaner and more straightforward, another welcome change.

The combat system also feels less cluttered and more balanced overall. Sussing out enemy weaknesses and changing battle strategy on the fly feels more intuitive in Berseria. There are plenty of options for stringing combos together that don’t require ninja-grade fighting game skills. Still, this is a Tales game: there are boss battles that are gonna give you debilitating thumb cramps. And then you will have your ass handed to you anyway; it’s inevitable. Still, the combat grows steadily more fun as your characters become stronger and gain more artes, buffs and combo triggers, to the point that you'll find yourself seeking out battles more often than avoiding them.

New features and additions to the established Tales formula mostly enhance the fun and replay value. For much of the game, you’ll have a boat at your disposal – one of the perks of befriending a pirate. While you sadly can’t control the craft yourself, you can return to loads of places you’ve already visited. You’re also able to send a scout ship out for an Expedition to collect treasures, ingredients and trophy objects from your collection. Expeditions happen passively, in the background as you're doing other things, but bring a fun element of random goody windfalls into the mix.

About halfway through the story, the party establishes a home base in an abandoned island facility. For several gameplay hours after, I held out hope that Berseria was going in the direction of some Suikoden-lite action, allowing you to expand and customize your home base to display your collection of pirate treasures and even rehome some NPCs sympathetic to your cause. Sadly though, you can’t improve your headquarters and it seems like a missed opportunity for a franchise so invested in customization and delightfully distracting timesinks. And really, there is no current-gen JRPG series better positioned to recapture that Suikoden flair than Tales – collecting paint samples for your castle wall mural wouldn't jibe with Final Fantasy or Persona particularly well, but it totally makes sense for Tales, where you're constantly collecting tons of junk inventory without knowing what any of it does. 

Small shortcomings aside, Tales of Berseria delivers fans another solid entry in a reliably strong and justifiably beloved series. It’s a refined and refreshingly dreary mashup of everything that worked in Xillia 1 and Zestiria, and manages to improve upon both. JRPG fans, you won't regret throwing a few dozen hours into this game.