Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Tales of Berseria is a pretty damn queer JRPG

Until not too long ago, I was a JRPG virgin. I’d only really experienced western and western-like games of that ilk. Skip ahead to last year and I’d dipped my toes in with Final Fantasy 15 and Yakuza 0, both of which I adored. But I took it a step further last month when I tried the anime-visual gorge that is Tales of Berseria thanks to Gayming Magazine’s own Aimee Hart, and let me tell you something: it’s a queer game. It’s as queer as queer can get without actually saying it’s queer. 

Velvet Crowe, our lead protagonist and arguably an LGBTQ+ icon, sports a domineering glare that might just be a part of her edgy, all-black motif that she dons following her younger brother’s untimely sacrifice at the hands of her brother-in-law, but it’s enough to show players how her otherness will play a huge role in the story. Velvet goes from a wholesome person of the people to a revenge-hungry teen like Anakin Skywalker without the cool asthmatic breathing.

But, before we get to that particular side of her, Tales of Berseria starts with Velvet hunting boars, teaching her pals how to make delicious soup, scrounging up cash to pay for her family’s medicine, and raising her brother like he’s her own son. The beginning feels, through and through, like a childish fairy tale, a fantasy. Hell, while we’re talking about queerness, Niko even talks about helping Velvet get a “boy” and those awkward moments screamed lesbian confronted with heterosexuality. It wasn’t plain rejection, but the mere notion of dating a “boy” seemed offputting to Velvet. Now a woman? Evidently, that’s where the sparks fly.

Then the rug is tugged out from under Velvet and her heteronormative life, leaving her looking like she’s from the world of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. All the while, she roundhouse-kicks kids and stares at her newfound friends with steely eyes while implying that she’s going to eat them. Vore or something more? Maybe. Either way, she’s a cunning linguist and her gaze is hooked on two characters: Magilou and Eleanor Hume – both of which are women. Velvet is gay, gay, gay.

Tales of Berseria’s cast might be busy screwing over the world, but they’re also trying to raise Laphicet too

I can’t stress how potent the queer undertones are. They’re undertones purely because they aren’t ever outright addressed or called out, never leading to any actual romances, but they are glaringly there and painfully obvious. The chemistry between Velvet and the goody-two-shoes exorcist Eleanor Hume is infectious. To boot, the two are raising a kid together, playing good cop bad cop, or fun mom and stern dad. Yet that expands to the larger cast with everyone getting a chance to play parent to Laphicet, who for all intents and purposes, is a child despite the massive power he wields. Rokurou’s like a smooth-talking workaholic dad that shows up on the holidays, while Magilou is the eccentric parent that definitely gets a little overzealous about Halloween. Eizen’s the no-nonsense, bedtime by seven o’clock older dad, y’know, like your friend’s who are 20 with parents in their 60s. That’s Eizen. It’s a polyamorous band of people who would certainly be up to a little something, something if there wasn’t a kid in tow. 

It’s hard to articulate the queer relationships in Tales of Berseria because it’s chiefly found in the performances. It’s their charismatic dynamic that feels intrinsically more than just friendship, and this isn’t a case of forced shipping to make my headcanon and heart’s deepest desires feel true. It’s something that jumps out of the screen at you like no other game.

I’ve played plenty of titles with party systems like Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate but none have felt this polyamorous, this queer. It’s something I immediately reached out to Aimee about, asking if it was just me that felt Velvet was undeniably LGBTQ+. Laphi could be trans, Velvet pan, Magilou bi, Eizen gay, and so on and so forth and I would not bat an eye. It would feel more natural than leaving it ambiguous, vague, and likely, in actuality, straight. Blegh. It’s just systemic of the usual trope in storytelling, which is leaving queer ideas forever ambiguous and unconfirmed.

I don’t hold it against Tales of Berseria for not leaning more into its queerness. Only recently did The Last of Us Part II give us a  triple-A, award-winning hit that had two girls smooching in a wholesome romance within the first hour. It’s been a slow-moving crawl up a slip-and-slide-coated mountain to get queer representation to somewhere positive in this space. But we’re in 2021 now, where it’s been proven time and time again that games still sell when LGBTQ+ characters are center stage. I’m sure Tales of Berseria would be as beloved, if not more so, if it was outright stated that Velvet was a pansexual queen who was in denial over her true feelings for Eleanor given their Romeo and Juliet-like status.

Sure you are Eleanor, sure you are…

Tales of Arise looks like a spiritual successor to Berseria more than any other entry in the Tales series, but there’s something that I’d love to see in this brand new entry and that’s embracing the queer undertones. Arise looks to be a beautiful, worthy successor to the fantastic line-up of Tales games. Yet, JRPGs often shy away from queer stories, despite there being a desire for them. Tales could truly stand out in the crowd if it took a stand and let its party be a polyamorous band of LGBTQ+ anti-heroes thrust together for a common goal, despite their uncommon alliance. That’s what I want to see most of all in Tales of Arise, the sweet sparks of the cast’s ‘friendships’ (more like unspoken crushes) blossoming into something after the 70-hour road trip where you become so in-tune with these characters. At the end of the journey, I want to see a conclusion to their relationships, some ceremonial tying of the knot. For Tales of Berseria, that would’ve been Velvet and Eleanor finally getting together, and for Tales of Arise, I’m sure there’s something similar to work with. 

Overall, there’s a chance to take what was so wonderfully charming and quaint about Tales of Berseria, something that made me fall in love with these characters so much. Velvet Crowe might just be my favorite protagonist in any video game, period. There are some heavy-weight contenders in this ring but Velvet is coming in swinging with her red, demon, vore hand. Her being LGBTQ+ and opening up to Eleanor about their romance would’ve only made me fall in love with her that much more. Maybe Tales of Arise will just say a resounding, “fuck it” and give in to the queer fantasy where everybody is polyamorous and giving each other the love-glare, but I’m slightly concerned that it’ll be more undertones.

Either way, I’m crossing my fingers though because it’d mean so much to see it delved into beyond the chemistry which alone made me giddy in every cutscene. I just hope that Tales of Arise outright proclaims that it’s LGBTQ+ rather than meandering about in subtext.

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