I didn’t know this games was a prequel to Tales of Zestiria, nor its placement as sixteenth in the series, when I first started playing it. What caught my attention was the female lead. I’ve played a large number of role-playing games and a fair number within the sub-genre of Japanese role-playing games. The number with female leads is small. The fact it was both a JRPG and had a female lead character was worth trying out, even if I didn’t plan to finish it, I decided.
I ended up playing through the whole thing, and doing a number of side quests. It’s a game with some good themes of horror, tragedy, and redemption often overshadowed by its JRPG presentation.
Playing with Horror Themes
In what honestly feels like several lifetimes ago, I was interested in feminist film theory for the end of my Computer Science degree into the early part of my Masters degree. For a couple years, I read pretty voraciously across any theory and film books I could get. Books like Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Monstrous-Feminine, House of Psychotic Women, Powers of Horror helped me build up my theory knowledge. I dug into abjection and was, for a brief window, even considering a future in film analysis and cultural critique. (I was talked out of it.)
What I remember most from those works was the idea of the phallic mother. Think the alien from the titular Alien series of movies. It’s both female and has the ability to penetrate its victims. The “phallic” mother is this kind of threat. It doesn’t “sit well” into the gender binary and, of course, kills people. It’s a common theme from many movies in the late 1980s into early 1990s. The “evil” mother versus the “caring” one. It’s literally the plot of the fourth movie in the series, Alien Resurrection, as Ripley-as-mother is thematically set against the alien queen-as-mother.
With this as a backdrop in my mind, I started playing Tales of Berseria was greeted with the female lead and her arm. Her monstrous arm used to penetrate victims and consume their energy.
Along with the phallic mother, there is another theme in 1980s horror movies. It became known by the title given to it by Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: final girl. Through transitioning from victim into the story’s hero, the “final” girl in the movie, the one left after all others have been killed, becomes the focus of the story. However, to get there, the girl must be “punished.” In fact, everyone must be punished. The greater the “sin,” the more gruesome their death. Sex before marriage? Death. Drinking at the beach? Death. Basically, go against any implicit rules of 1950s Americana and the punishment is death. Yet, there is always one girl left — the most virtuous. She becomes the “final” girl and ultimately the hero.
“What if we were both girls and we kissed?”
Tales of Berseria opens on an idyllic village. There was some tragedy in the past, sure, but things are looking better. It’s a time for gathering ingredients in the forest and planning meals. Everyone’s all smiles and there is even talk of dating.
In a remarkable scene for a JRPG, the main character Velvet has an extended dialogue with another woman named Niko in the local village. Both joke about falling in love with each other, if only, you know, one of them was a boy. Haha. Wouldn’t that be silly?
Pretty soon, though, Velvet has to run back to take care of her little brother, but she makes plans to see the woman again.
In the rules of horror movies, this scene counts as a sin against Velvet. Yes, she cares about her little brother and even ventured into the woods to get special ingredients for him. But considering love, even jokingly, with another woman? Well, of course, this can’t happen. And the game is ready to make sure it doesn’t. What if everyone in the town was murdered?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the whole town can be murdered. Velvet’s brother-in-law, a man the player meets in passing and then sees seemingly talking to the air next to him, has been making plans. During what was called the Scarlet Night years before, his wife died when daemons appeared. It would have been a major tragedy for anyone, but then her soul was reincarnated into a malak, a spirit certain people can bind to themselves for magical powers (artes). Artorius bound this reincarnated soul of his dead wife to himself and has been waiting to make a sacrifice to an ancient god to unlock its power. The person who he is planning to sacrifice? Why his nephew, Velvet’s little brother.
In the very next night after Velvet jokingly flirts with Niko, Artorius enacts his plans. He triggers a second Scarlet Night, causing the villagers turn into monsters and hunt Velvet. Chased to an altar in the forest, Velvet arrives to see her brother being sacrificed. Trying to prevent it, she becomes part of the ritual, losing her arm and becoming, as the player learns many hours later, one of several therion in the world, a special type of daemon who consumes other daemons.
As Velvet blacks out, the game then skips ahead three years to Velvet, now a monster, consuming other daemons tossed to her as she lives at the bottom of a dark hole.
Velevet escapes from her prison with the help of the only visitor she has ever had, a malak she comes to learn was there with Artorius three years before. This is, as is revealed shortly after, the reincarnated soul of her sister who was bound to Artorius for many years but has now been set free. However, Velvet, in only devouring daemons, is not strong enough to face her jailers and one final sacrifice is needed. Velvet must consume the soul of her sister. With this final death, and infused with powers as a result of consuming a malak, Velvet vows to find Artorius and kill him for the death of her brother, village, and the second death of her sister’s soul.
Monstrous-Innocence and Innocent Monsters
In her path to find and confront Artorius, Velvet quickly runs into Exorcists, people who bind malak to their wills and use their powers to fight the growing demon threat. One of the first, and then recurring, boss fights is with Eleanor, a young Exorcist who thinks binding spirits to her will is not, why would you say that, slavery and the Church is helping people through getting rid of the daemons when they appear and one day soon, she believes, all of the daemons will be gone.
Pretty soon, Eleanor gets swept up into Velvet’s path and after fighting on several occasions where Velvet refuses to consume or kill her, gets transported across the world with her and friends during a failed ritual by one of the major leaders in the Church when Velvet confronts them.
Eleanor becomes important as connected to another character, Laphicet. When he first appears, it is immediately obvious to the player how much this new malak looks like Velvet’s now-dead little brother. (Spoiler alert: it is his soul reincarnated.) During an early scene with Eleanor, Velet kidnaps this malak and gives him the same name as her dead brother, Laphicet. Eleanor, as a person able to bind malaks, becomes part of Velvet’s group to continue this relationship and because she starts to doubt the goodness of the Church after watching many of its leaders make terrible choices and hurt people for their goals.
One of the major themes of the game becomes the twisting relationships between Eleanor, Laphicet, and Velvet. Through her work with the Church, Eleanor thinks she has been doing good, but has been killing people instead of trying to save them. Laphicet, as a slave initially to Eleanor’s will, has used his powers to strike down people and enforce the rules. Velvet, as the “monster,” refuses to kill certain people like Eleanor and shows more mercy than Eleanor does earlier on in the game.
This theme also extends to the Church itself, which, as a large organization in a JRPG, means it is probably mostly bad (Hint: it really is.) In showing “good” people do bad things and Velvet’s group, including her as a daemon, as the “bad” people doing good, this questioning of “Who is the real monster?” reoccurs at multiple levels and incidents.
“I’ll keep [you] a secret”
Some magic users in the world have the ability to great large-scale illusions. Very late in the game, Velvet’s group hears about an incident where she grew up and heads back to her village. Except, of course, everyone seems to be alive now. In a heartbreaking scene, and the closest the game ever comes to discussing the attraction between Velvet and Niko from the beginning of the game, Velvet accidently exposes the fact she is now a daemon to Niko.
While shocked, Niko quickly promises to keep Velvet’s “secret” and asks her to stay with her and the village. It doesn’t matter to Niko who she might have become as long as she is part of life now that they have reconnected.
The whole place, as Velvet learns, is a trap for her. A leader in the Church has used his arte (magical power) to read the regrets of Velvet and create an illusion where both her little brother and her friend Niko are alive. In knowing it is an illusion, Velvet must confront this person and her the illusion. She cannot get back her now dead brother (because his reincarnated soul is now in Laphicet) nor get back her friend Niko. Both are gone forever.
Consume Your Brother’s Soul for All Eternity Because You Cannot Be Queer in this World
Having dealt with her past, Velvet is set on her path of vengeance. She must unlock ancient powers and confront her brother-in-law, now heralded as the savior of the world. Going against the Church, the will of the people in the towns she visits, and even her own happy past, she must kill Artorius. To save the world, she must damn herself and her feelings.
In a turn signaled from the very beginning of the game, Velet moves from victim to hero by using the tools of her torturer. Instead of granting full mercy to the ancient god awakened by Artorius, she must give up herself instead. After facing off against multiple leaders in the Church and travelling to the fortress they have raised in the sky, Velvet comes face-to-face with her end. As a monster, there is no life for her. There is no love left.
Her last act, as a therion capable of consuming others, is to lock herself into eternal struggle with the god. As he pulls energy from her to try to maintain himself, she consumes him. Neither can win. Neither can lose. Trapped together, she saves the world by sacrificing herself.
The game ends with the roles flipped. Velvet, the monster, sacrifices herself for world while Eleanor, the “good” person, has to take on the role of the new leader of the Church and take the blame for its troubles, becoming its villain.