The 20-years-old Dynasty Warriors formula, that of one legendary warrior taking on countless waves of enemies, has been applied to everything from historical Chinese and Japanese warriors to Gundam and One Piece.
Never, though, has it seemed more appropriate than it does with the latest game in the series, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk.
Based on a long-running manga and built into a long-running game series, Berserk represents all the best and worst of both franchises, a love letter to fans and possibly impenetrable to anyone outside.
There’s something you should know
Before we dive into the review, though, I want to lay out my biases. While I don’t have a particularly special relationship with Koei Tecmo games or Dynasty Warriors games, I’ve been a devout fan of Berserk for something like 17 years. I found out about the series shortly after I started college and fell in love with it immediately. It’s been a part of my life ever since. I’ve read through the entirety of Berserk – almost 10,000 pages of manga by this point – multiple times. I’ve analyzed it repeatedly. I even made an Anime Music Video with an ex back when those were a thing nerds did. I love Berserk and that has definitely colored my perception of the game.
The Black Swordsman Cometh
Berserk is the tale of a man named Guts. He’s the prototype of the giant sword-wielding hero, having come to life on the manga page back in 1989, before Cloud Strife and Ichigo Kurosaki were even germs of ideas. He lives in a dark, gritty medieval world that wouldn’t seem out of place behind the Witcher‘s Geralt or behind the goings-on in the Game of Thrones series. The story follows him as he joins a band of mercenaries called the Band of the Hawk, led by a man named Griffith. Griffith, born of common blood, has ambitions to be king. Guts plays an instrumental role in Griffith’s ambition until Griffith’s ambition crumbles.
His fate, determined by evil forces that hold sway over destiny, is to sacrifice the friends and army he’s amassed to become something more than human. Guts, along with the other members of the Band of the Hawk, is branded for sacrifice to these evil forces. Guts’ sheer determination lets him survive long enough to be rescued by a being called the Skeleton Knight. Scarred – missing an arm and an eye – Guts vows revenge on Griffith, no matter what.
The story deals with themes of destiny and revenge, explored through a combination of court intrigue, epic warfare, and extreme violence. In many ways, it is to manga what Game of Thrones is to American literature – just slightly longer running and with a more manageable cast of characters.
They go together like blood and Guts
The Dynasty Warriors formula hasn’t changed much over the years. Each time, developer Omega Force iterates on it and swaps a few variables in an out, but at its core, it’s remained the same for 20 years. But in Berserk and especially in its main character, Guts, Omega Force might’ve found the perfect fit.
Guts swings his man-sized sword ceaselessly in the manga and anime, and those who stand before it suffer decapitation, dismemberment, and death by the dozens. Many of the earlier scenes of the series take place on huge battlefields as Griffith wages war on the kingdom opposing the one that hired him. In the context of the story, Guts plays a pivotal role in each of those battles. Later in the series, a sacrificial brand burned into Guts’ skin by Griffith attracts restless spirits to him, forcing him to fight for survival each night. No matter where we look for Guts, he’s always swinging his sword.
So to play as Guts in a Dynasty Warriors game feels for any fan of the series like a perfect pairing. The game acts as sort of a CliffsNotes version of the story, taking us through Guts journey battle by battle. It’s as silly as it’s ever been, but it fits perfectly.
It’s still Dynasty Warriors, though
It is, though, still Dynasty Warriors. Like every other Dynasty Warriors game before it, it’s repetitive, and combat is shallow. The graphics are good enough, but the devs seem more concerned with how many enemies they can fit on the screen than anything else. Navigating a map becomes difficult when the game can barely draw screen detail faster than your horse can run it.
The missions, too, are still Dynasty Warriors. Most missions amount to, “Kill this guy who has more hit points than the other guys.” Some of the secondary goals are confusing and inscrutable. A mission like “get to the destination before the time limit” isn’t accompanied by information about what the time limit is or where the destination is. If you want to complete that particular goal, you might have to play a few times while crossing your fingers.
The other available characters from the Berserk cast, while okay in their own right, aren’t nearly as fun to play as Guts in my experience. Dynasty Warriors games are typically casts of characters and receive more or less equal amounts of attention during development. In Berserk, Guts is the main character and has received far more attention than the others. He’s more fleshed out in terms of animation and moveset, and it’s clear the other characters are, by comparison, extras.
Like other Dynasty Warriors games, it’s also clear that budget was a real concern when making the game. As a niche game based on a niche manga, it makes sense. I’m not holding it against Omega Force or Koei Tecmo. The first part of the game’s story matches up with the recently released Berserk films, and throughout the first section of the game, clips from those films provide story context for what’s happening during the battles. It’s still an overview more than a complete plot, but it’s there.
After that, though, the plot is left almost entirely unexplained. We get a few CGI cutscenes and lots of optional talking-head events to listen to, but not much else. If you aren’t familiar with the series, I fear the events transpiring before you will make little sense.
But I had an absolute blast playing it
Even with all that, though, I had a blast playing it. I had a great time playing an anthologized version of one of my favorite stories and controlling my one of my very favorite characters.
Whether I was wading through the battlefield in the war between the kingdoms of Midland and Chuder, fighting off a horde of Apostles, or defending a village from trolls, I was fully engrossed in it. Later in the game, Guts acquires a new set of armor that gives him enhanced speed and power along with a new set of moves, and that made re-playing a few of the missions fun again.
There’s also an Endless Eclipse mode where you continue fighting through hordes of enemies for various contrived reasons, and while I wouldn’t want to play it, er, endlessly, it’s a fun way to stretch out the game a bit more without worrying about the missions. It’s also, if you want, a good way to grind for more loot and money for leveling up other characters.
It’s not Dark Souls
In the Berserk community, it’s pretty well-known that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki is a fan of Berserk, and that the manga influenced the series to some degree is accepted as fact. Many fans of the series assumed for a long time that Dark Souls was the closest thing we’d ever get to a Berserk game, especially considering one of the game’s greatswords is very clearly modeled after Guts’ massive Dragon Slayer sword.
This is not Dark Souls. It’s not as pretty, nor as deep. But it’s a fun and straightforward use of the Berserk license in a way that feels fitting and (mostly) respects the original material. It’s Omega Force’s best use of the Dynasty Warriors format for a game yet.
It’s tough to call this game buy, wait, or don’t buy. It’s a great little distraction for a specific audience – Berserk fans and Dynasty Warriors fans. Outside of those two groups, I don’t think there’s much room to pull in new fans. I’d love it. I’d love to see Berserk pick up the fan base its incredible art, deep characters, and awesome action all deserve. But Berserk and the Band of the Hawk won’t be the doorway in for most of those people.
If you’re curious but unsure, check it out when it’s on sale.
Disclaimer: We received a retail code for Berserk and the Band of the Hawk from the publisher and played the campaign to completion and spent extensive time with Endless Eclipse Mode before writing this review.