Game Spotlight: Berwick Saga

Berwick Title

“The Berwick Alliance, housed in the centre of the Kingdom of Veria, clashed with the Raze Empire at the country’s borders. Veria’s King Mordias IV fought against the imperial forces, but died heroically in battle. The Verian forces, defeated by the superior imperial soldiers, retreated to the Narvia region, along with their surviving Prince and Princess. Each passing day, the lands before Narvia fall to the Empire and a resistance force begins to grow at Narvia. Meanwhile, Reese, the young Lord of the poor Sinon region, heads to Narvia to assist the new King and the story begins.”

Berwick Saga is a tactical RPG released in 2005 for the Playstation 2.

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All pictures courtesy of the Berwick Saga fantranslation project

Before we begin proper, let us lay out some context behind the creation of Berwick Saga…

Once upon a time, there was a man named Kaga Shouzou. Outside of asking whether Happiness can be Achieved without Sacrifice, he was also the creator of an extremely obscure series called “Fire Emblem”, but left Nintendo due to disagreements on the subject. He immediately went on to create “Fire Emblem without the name” in the form of TearRing Saga and because game developers Kickstarting ex-company games with their street cred wasn’t in vogue yet, he was promptly sued for his trouble.

(In Nintendo’s defense, “Emblem Saga”, as it was originally going to be called, was in fact intended to be a direct continuation of the Fire Emblem universe and the main character was basically Marth 2.0 – one of the legal settlements was changing his hair color so that he wouldn’t look too similar.)

Burnt by the financial loss from the legal battle, Kaga channeled his energy into making vast changes to his winning SRPG formula for his next game in order to prevent such an incident again – using six-sided Hexes instead of 4-sided squares, a rotating turn order system where player and enemies take their turns in proportion to their army forces, a revamp of the standard attack – counterattack combat flow of FE…

The result is one of the most refreshing Tactical RPGs ever made.

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It is rather difficult for me to express just how well everything in Berwick seems to flow together – the game does have an admittingly steep learning curve due to its superficial similarities to Fire Emblem such as Permadeath and easily calculable stats. In fact, the very first mission starts out with 10 or so pages worth of tutorials simply explaining why this game ISN’T like Fire Emblem and attempting to use the same tactics as before would simply result in the end of your characters.

But once the game starts to “click” in your head, you will find a game with rich mechanical depth and very dynamic battlefields where the order of the day is choosing the right person to make the right moves at the right time while anticipating the enemy’s actions.

This is enhanced by the fact that most of the main missions in the game are excellently designed, generally having 4 to 5 points of interest that you will have to keep an eye on if you want to reap the most benefits of the battle. Whether it’s fleeing thieves carrying valuable treasures, ballista slowly inching they way into position towards your troops or villagers and injured allied soldiers to protect, there’s almost never a moment where you’re bored in realization that the only thing they did was drop 50 generic mooks on a wide open map expecting you to wipe it up.

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Whether intentionally or otherwise, it’s interesting how many of the changes seem to fix a lot of Fire Emblem’s gameplay flaws. For example, one of the most commonly used effective strategy in an FE game is to send your strongest character in the fray and simply kill the entire enemy pack with their counterattacks.

Not so in Berwick Saga, where defending units can only counterattack if they either dodge the attack or negate it completely (usually through the use of a shield) – you’ll find that you generally need to actively plan to defeat your enemies on your turn rather than simply push the “End Turn” button a lot.

This also leads to a Weapon Triangle-like strategic effect despite that mechanic not actually being in Berwick – Axe users can brute force through shields with their powerful blows, but tend to be inaccurate, making them easy prey for Swordsmen who can dodge and counter their every move. Meanwhile, said Swordsmen tend to have trouble penetrating heavily armored and shielded units. Throw in lance units to the mix – weapons that gain more power based on the number of hexes you have moved before executing the attack, and it turns out combat strategy is a bit more complex than Rock Paper Scissors!

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There’s also how Fire Emblem encourages simply training a small group of core units as spreading the EXP into too many units is simply not a wise investment.

Berwick Saga on the other hand, must be the only Japanese Tactical RPG I know of where stat gains on level up feel very minor – the most common level up result seem to be a whooping +1 point in one of your weapon skill, which is certainly helpful, but it generally means that units don’t drastically grow in power as they tend to do in other games.

Instead, Berwick Saga encourages rotating characters in and out as needed by the situation due to its strong unit diversity.  While classes as a term exist, unlike FE this tends to be a formality more than anything else and most characters in the game actually have their own personal class, filled with personal skills that allow them to go above and beyond the every-man and proper utilization of their strengths can vastly reduce the difficulty of your battles.

Rather than the generally luck-triggered skills of FE, Berwick skills tend to be actively used, generally themed around the flavor of each weapon type. For example, Axe uses may get Pulverize or Desperation, which grant double power or an increased hit rate at the cost of their own defenses. Bow users can Snipe to increase their range or Ready Shot, which works like overwatch in the new X-Com games by firing at the first enemy which comes into range (generally stopping them in their tracks), some characters may be adept at using Throwing weapons, allowing them to fling them at higher accuracy while swapping back to a melee weapon to defend themselves from enemy attacks. Some characters may even use their weapons as if they were shields or Guard to take damage in place of their allies. Interestingly enough, many of these skills are limited by turn cooldowns, many years before Fire Emblem Heroes would utilize such a concept for themselves. It feels much more satisfying to actively plan your strategies around them, rather than hoping for a lucky break.

There are certainly units which start off stronger due to factors like powerful personal gear, it at least promises that even the weaker ones are useful in the niche they are built for. And there’s another balancing factor to add to the mix…

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You see, while our main character Reese has his contingent of knights, most of the characters in this game happen to be Mercenaries. For a modest fee, they will fight in his battles for the course of a chapter, which generally works out to 3 missions.

However, by using them in battle and fulfilling certain criteria to partake in their sidestories, Mercenaries may end up joining your permanently or even receive a promotion into a stronger class. For a game with Permadeath, they’re a surprisingly developed crew. My only issue is that the game never outright states what said criterias are, so it can feel a little FAQ-bait at times. Still, sometimes it’s just more interesting to go with the flow and keep a sense of wonder at new discoveries.

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Speaking of money matters, the intermission sections between battles feel more fleshed out than most FE games. Before Awakening had its MyCastle, Berwick Saga has its town of Narvia, fully featured with not only the traditional weapons and items shop, but also a tavern serving meals that may grant your characters stat boosts or even new skills, an atelier full of crafters that can turn special materials found in battle into powerful gear and even a furniture merchant loaded with paintings and decors to furbish your room with!

It’s very interesting to see how many of these features would eventually make it into the actual Fire Emblem games much later – the man has quite the influence even when he’s not working there any more!

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That’s enough about the gameplay, so let’s talk a bit about the aesthetics. It seems to be a commonly held opinion that Berwick is “outdated looking” as a PS2 game. But is it really?

To be quite honest, I think the sprite art’s rather beautiful and will likely age better than quite a few 3D works of the time. It’s kind of unfortunate that much of the industry’s opinion on visual appeal tend to be technologically based rather than judging the actual work that goes into the outcome, but C’est La Vie.

Kaga has always been a rather unique storyteller, somewhat similar to Yasumi Matsuno with his focus on medieval politics and world-building, yet simultaneously weaving an engrossing character-based story. His writing simply has a certain gravitas to it that you generally can’t find elsewhere. It’s backed up by some fantastic themes that really add a lot to the scenes. Rather than “talking heads”, many of the game’s scenes are usually set up in full as you can see in the above screenshot, so there’s quite a bit of technological advancement there.

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Unfortunately, as with most of the games in this blog series, Berwick Saga did not have a fortunate fate – while the game was not entirely a financial failure (I believe it actually outsold the Tellius Fire Emblem games, which was its competitors at the time, though that game certainly wasn’t done any favors by being stuck on the Wii), the company had simply lost too much money in the legal battle and had to be shut down.

Many years later and the man seems content to put his commercial game development days behind him, instead opting to spend his time returning to creating the equivalent Fire Emblem fangames instead. While he’s certainly entitled to his own life decisions, it is interesting that he certainly turned out his best work when he was forced into being creative, even if it was under conditions that most people would not want to be subjected to.

And of course, Berwick was passed up for any sort of English release, which wasn’t that uncommon for many RPGs at that time – did you know that Disgaea was actually considered “too wacky” for Western release at the time?

Thankfully, as you may have realized from the many English screenshots throughout the post, there is an English translation in the works which is roughly up to 50% of the game – a nice sizable chunk if you would like to get started on playing it. Done by the same translator who had previously worked on Berwick’s predecessor TearRing, I do have faith that the project will see completion in the next few years or so, and maybe this masterpiece will finally get the recognition it deserves…

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