|Platforms||PC, PS4 (reviewed), PSV|
|Release Date||February 24, 2017|
Review code provided
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a musou-style hack-and-slash game from the creators of the Dynasty Warriors series. The game is an adaptation of parts of the Berserk manga and follows protagonist Guts as he joins the mercenary outfit The Band of the Hawk. Previously a lone wolf, Guts struggles to fit into the company and work as part of a unit, even as his exploits and those of his comrades earn them fame across the land.
Obviously there’s a lot more to the story, which is largely adapted from two major story arcs from the popular Manga series. The game even uses parts of the Anime adaptation for cutscenes, liberally interspersing them between bouts of action gameplay and in-engine cutscenes. At least for the first half of the game. The second half doesn’t have the luxury of using Anime cutscenes, as that arc hasn’t been adapted yet.
The way Band of the Hawk handles these two story arcs is really weird. The first half of the game is very slow paced, with Omega Force spending a ton of time and focus on even the most minor of plot points, expanding them as much as they possibly could. Then the second half arrives and the pace accelerates. Suddenly the plot rushes by so fast you’ve barely got a chance to register what’s happening before you’re whisked away to the next battlefield.
It’s these battles that are supposed to provide the payoff for a lot of these story beats. In the manga and its anime adaptation, these battles are huge and epic. In the game…not so much. A lot of this is down to the nature of the musou-style action. Band of the Hawk is designed like any other game of this genre, built around the typical 1-vs-1000 type gameplay that is traditional. While this core gameplay is solid enough, it doesn’t really gel all that well with the source material.
Band of the Hawk is a fairly easy game. As in other musou games, standard enemies exist purely for you to cathartically cut down in their dozens. There are officers who hold bases or act as mission objectives, but they provide little more challenge other than a slightly expanded health bar. Even the game’s bosses don’t take much work to overcome. They’re slightly more difficult to beat and the only enemies in the game who can actually damage Guts in any appreciable way.
But this just doesn’t really feel like a Berserk game. In the original source material, every single fight Guts throws himself into pushes him to his limits. He only gets through them by the skin of his teeth, digging deep and fighting harder than he ever has before. There’s a reason that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki lists Berserk as one of its major influences. That simply isn’t true in Band of the Hawk. While the story and characters are faithfully recreated, the game is too easy to really feel like a true adaptation.
The story itself is pretty cool. The first half of the game adapts the Golden Age story arc, detailing Guts’ induction into The Band of the Hawk and his relationship with the company’s leader Griffith. It’s well paced, in depth and does a good job of telling an engaging tale. The game’s second half isn’t quite as well adapted, taking the story from the Hawk of the Millennium Empire story line, Band of the Hawk runs out of Anime cutscenes and abandons the even pacing it had set itself, tearing through story beats in an unsatisfying manner.
Putting aside issues with the adaptation itself, Band of the Hawk is a fairly average musou action game. It’s entertaining enough once you jump into combat, with just enough depth in its mechanics to be a satisfying mass carnage simulator. Equipped with a typically oversized sword, Guts can kill dozens of enemy soldiers with a single swing of his mighty blade. Band of the Hawk features simple combos constructed from a mixture of light and heavy attacks.
It’s a well designed control system – pushing square initiates a light attack, which you can chain into a combo that you cap off by initiating a heavy attack. The heavy attack will be different depending where in the chain you decide to use it. For example, hitting triangle after three consecutive light attacks will see Guts perform a sweeping arc. Doing so after four light attacks will have Guts swing his sword into a devastating ground smash. As you level up the game expands your moveset, allowing you pull of longer combo chains and add extra, more damaging attacks.
Attacks feed into a ferocity meter, which is what you use to power your special attacks. There are actually two such meters in Band of the Hawk. When the first is triggered it boosts Guts’ damage, allowing you to clear battlefields faster or do more damage to bosses. Successful attacks while in this mode fill a second meter which, once activated, will pretty much make every enemy in the vicinity that isn’t a main boss explode in a shower of blood.
Objectives in Band of the Hawk is where the game runs into another issue. The game has been really simplified in comparison to its genre stablemates. There is no territory takeover (there are bases you can conquer by killing commanders, but doing so nets very little benefit) or really any dynamic objectives to speak of. Objectives in Band of the Hawk boil down to “go here and kill a specific NPC”. While it’s not a major issue, it does make the game start to feel really repetitive after a while.
There’s a focus on equipment in Band of the Hawk. Completing each mission will yield items that can boost Guts’ stats to make him hit harder, take less damage or give him more health. Equipment can be upgraded prior to each battle using special stones that can be found or bought in the store, with different coloured stones tied to the colour of the equipment. While I’m sure these items make some kind of difference to your damage output and survivability, it’s something that’s never really translated into gameplay.
You can unlock other playable characters aside from Guts, though their use is limited in the story mode to a small handful of missions. They do play quite differently from one another – Casca is quite fast paced and reliant on quick combos, while Nosferatu Zodd is a huge tank capable of major damage. For the most part, however, you’ll be limited to playing as Guts for the majority of the campaign. It’s only really in the game’s other modes where you’ll be able to really take other characters out for a spin.
Free Mode is fairly bland, allowing you to replay story missions with any character of your choosing. Endless Eclipse is where things get interesting. This is Omega Force’s take on a Warriors-style Roguelike. Players must traverse the endless floors of the Eclipse, completing objectives as they go. The further into the Eclipse you go, the more challenging it becomes. The game doesn’t save any of your progress, either. You can save at certain points if you need to stop playing, but dying or leaving without saving will reset you back to the beginning.
Completing objectives and delving deeper and deeper will see you unlock rewards, generally tailored for whichever character you’ve taken into the Eclipse, in the form of improved equipment, new outfits and new horses (there’s horse combat in Band of the Hawk and it’s terrible). It’s a very cool addition to what would otherwise be a fairly standard, lightweight musou game, and makes me wonder what Omega Force could do if they fully committed to the Roguelike genre.
Presentation wise Band of the Hawk isn’t anything particularly special. The game sacrifices graphical fidelity to fit more enemies on the screen while still maintaining a solid technical performance. It still looks fine, though its character animations leave a little to be desired. Band of the Hawk also isn’t localised with an English dub. All of the voices are Japanese with English subtitles, which makes any mid-mission dialogue next to impossible to read as you’ll be too busy playing the game to stop and see what characters are saying.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is an average but frustrating game. Gameplay wise, it’s not the greatest adaptation of the source material, with the game’s combat being far too easy and lightweight when compared to the tone of the original Manga (or Anime adaptation). The story isn’t well adapted either. It starts out strong, with a well paced first half that intersperses Anime cutscenes with in-game ones. Then it becomes obvious that Omega Force ran out of Anime and the game’s second half ups the pace and glosses over just about every major story beat. Issues aside, Band of the Hawk is a decent musou game that can be kind of fun to blast through, with a pretty great side mode in the Roguelike Endless Eclipse, which can provide a fair amount of entertainment.
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