If there’s one thing you can’t criticize the Sega Dreamcast for, it’s how before its time it was: It was the first console of its generation, beating the PlayStation 2 by a year and the Xbox as well as the GameCube to market by two years; It offered online play for the first time on any console, and its VMU (Visual Memory Unit) save device offered a second screen, albeit a small monochrome one, over a decade before Nintendo’s Wii U. The game I’m talking about today, Sword of the Berserk: Guts Rage, is too a game that was perhaps ahead of its time in that it tried to pioneer the character action game before the genre took off in 2001 thanks to Capcom and Devil May Cry. Though not a classic like Capcom’s game by any stretch of the imagination, Guts Rage is a fun but flawed and also very short hack-and-slash with some terrific voice acting, however some knowledge of the source material is needed to fully enjoy it.
Sword of the Berserk: Guts Rage is the first ever video game adaptation of the Berserk manga and takes place between the twenty-second and twenty-third volumes of the series. I know this not because I’ve read the series, nor because I’m familiar with the anime either, but through some research on the game. You play as the Guts, a one-eyed, giant sword wielding mercenary travelling with your love, Casca, who has been somehow driven catatonic. While on their journeys, Guts enters a village that is infected by a disease that turns people into Mandragorans, essentially crazy zombie monsters that have a parasitic organism attached to them, and through a series of events, Guts is coerced into hunting for the heart of the Mandragorans that will hopefully not only cure those how are infected, but ultimately Casca as well.
As someone not familiar with the world of Berserk, I didn’t have trouble following the game’s simple plot, but always felt very puzzled like I was playing the second or third chapter of series, even though this was the first part. While you might say “Why play a game based on Berserk even though you know nothing about it?”, I retort with a game based on something should appeal not only to fans of the property, but for newcomers as well. I’m also playing the Attack on Titan game for PlayStation 4 as an example, and even though I am familiar with the story having both read the manga as well as watched the companion anime, I feel that non-fans can still understand the characters and universe. Upon completing Guts Rage twice, I now very much want to watch the anime, but feel that perhaps some time could have went in to catching those unfamiliar up to speed without having to read pages upon pages in the instruction manual as well as the glossary within the main menus.
Watching is something you should prepare to strap yourself in for in Guts Rage because it’s a lot like the Metal Gear Solid series in that most of what’s on the disc is lenghty cut-scenes. I finished the game twice: once on normal and then again on easy to unlock a mini-game starring the character Puck, and even though I played on a lesser difficulty, I skipped all the cut-scenes and completed the entire game in one sitting in about an hour. You can get some replay value by playing through the campaign multiple times to unlock higher difficulties, a time attack mode for the boss fights and the above mentioned mini-game. Thankfully the cinemas are well put-together, using in-game assets which is always a plus in my book, and features terrific voice acting from Metal Gear Solid alum Cam Clarke, Paul Eiding and Earl Boen, as well as Micheal Bell as the title character, who I’ll always fondly remember for his unforgettable role as Raziel in the Legacy of Kain series.
When not watching cut-scenes, or pressing buttons corresponding to giant prompts that come in screen in the form of basic QTE’s, Sword of the Berserk plays like a brawler, hack-and-slash where as Guts you get to wield the gigantic Dragon Slayer sword that puts Cloud from Final Fantasy VII’s Buster Sword to shame. Mowing down knights, gruesome Mandragoran infected monsters and gigantic bosses with your standard set of light and heavy attacks, block, and dodge moves is pretty satisfying, but there are a few flaws that hold back Guts Rage from being an instant classic. The first, of which, is the game’s stubbornness to strive for “realism”.
Guts’ sword is bigger than him, and realistically speaking, if you swung it in a tiny room, you would do more damage to the room itself than whoever you were trying to fight. That being said though, if I’m playing a game based on a manga/anime where I have a sword that big, I don’t want to feel like the least equipped fighter in the room. Most of the encounters take place in enclosed rooms, stairwells, and streets where your fumbling with your weapon more than feeling like a capable bad ass. You can sheath your sword and fight with your fists as well as shoot an unlimited supply of projectiles by hitting “B”, but your sword, as cumbersome as it is, is still the better option, which is odd as seeing you enter every room with your sword sheathed. When the arenas open up, things get a lot more exciting and you do have a rage meter that builds up which provides temporary invincibility as well as consumable items like a shotgun blast and bombs that help even the odds in your favour, though the latter are in limited quantity but replenish at checkpoints and by destroying items in the environment.
The second largest issue outside of your enormous sword is camera in Guts Rage in that it actively is working against you. The camera is fixed, which works in the games favour because it would be hard to manipulate the camera given the lack of a second analog stick on the Dreamcast controller and games like Devil May Cry as well as God of War did this also, but it’s positioned either too close to Guts or in awkward angles that obscure enemies. When venturing down tight alleys in the city stages, enemies easily either get the jump on you from out of nowhere or long-distance attackers eat away at your health from off-screen. In the game’s few boss fights, which are pretty well done for the most part, they at times can be artificially difficult because you’ll lose track of an enemy or not able to dodge in the right direction because you can’t really see your environment. One of the worst parts of the game that only occurs thankfully once but very late in the game, is a Crash Bandicoot-like running at the screen segment that can eat away your credits faster than any of the bosses or levels.
Though the mechanics and camera positioning hasn’t aged well in Sword of the Berserk, the overall look of the game has. Guts Rage was released in December 1999 in Japan before arriving on North America shelves in February of 2000, but it has a style about it that holds up quite well. None of the environments themselves quite stand out, however the character models do which is a plus as you spend a lot of time with them in the cut-scenes, though it does look off to see Guts’ cape clip through his sword constantly. Having no comparison point to other than image searches online as again, I haven’t but will watch Berserk, the character models do a great job of translating the 2-D images into three-dimensions for the first time. The large, often screen filling bosses are impressive to look at and you can tell that a lot of effort went into designing the various Mandragoran zombie monsters as well, ranging from human sized enemies with visible extra faces to larger sized, tentacle beasts.
For a first effort in what would go on to be a genre that defined that console generation, Sword of the Berserk: Guts Rage is still a fun hack-and-slash action game but comes nowhere close to the quality found in games like Devil May Cry. For Dreamcast fans, there’s not many games like it, but as a disclaimer, you might want to look into either the manga or one of the many iterations of the anime to get the most out of the story. With a better camera, or even a lock-on mechanic, and more open arenas, Guts Rate could have perhaps been a minor classic in the Dreamcast library, but instead just settles for being an okay action game, even if you’re not intimately familiar with the IP.
A sequel to Sword of the Berserk was released that didn’t get localized for North America. Exclusive to the PS2, Berserk: Millennium Falcon Hen Seima Senki no Sho (that’s a mouthful) hails from the same developer, Yukes, and from videos appears to fix one of the big problems with Guts Rage, specifically the small arenas. It also looks much sharper, perhaps because it was released on more powerful hardware five years after Sword of the Berserk.