I love Shadow Hearts: Covenant. There's no other game like it, or like this series. While the sequel is a step down in atmosphere from its predecessor, it's a huge leap up in terms of mechanics, graphics, voice acting and general polish. The story is really quite wonderful, taking you all across the world, and touching upon love, loss, grief, and free will. Yuri Hyuga is one of the most compelling and fun protagonists in an RPG, in my opinion, and his confrontational, smartass attitude is a breath of fresh air versus other lead characters. The cast that joins him are equally diverse and enjoyable, and I was glad to revisit the game and spend another 40-odd hours with them. The judgement ring is still probably the best turn based battle system in any game, with a combination of skill and finesse that, when you hit those five perfect red spots on a character's ring, feels genuinely rewarding and fulfilling.
As much as I can praise this game, coming back to it has been bittersweet. Whether my attitude as a gamer has changed since I last played it 5 years ago, or whether I've just become more of a critic, I found I really struggled to get through Covenant at times. The dungeons are a nightmare to slog through, most of them a series of corridors with irritating gimmicks where you have to backtrack four or five times. I was also pining for the more creepy, eerie atmosphere of the first game, and sometimes the silliness delivered by the characters felt a little out of place. I still think Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of the best PS2 RPGs ever, but I've had to reevaluate just where it falls on my list of my favourite RPGs of all time. Rose-tinted glasses do still exist, and I feel like I've donned them a bit for this game. That being said, this is still a classic that deserves a lot of attention, and if there's ever a sequel or a prequel in the works, I'll be first in line to grab it.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant was my first Shadow Hearts experience, and, well, I'm struggling to find my words here. Roulette wheels dominating everything from successfully landing special moves to receiving discounts in stores. A diverse cast including a white wolf, a elderly man controlling a battle puppet, and a transforming vampire wrestler hero of justice. A final villain motivated by grief and loss rather than a megalomania. I was consistently surprised and impressed every time Shadow Hearts: Covenant pivoted to a new location or situation. It was consistently entertaining and hard to predict.
I won't say Shadow Hearts: Covenant is perfect, though. Its mid-2000s 3D visuals haven't aged very gracefully. A few dungeons were slogs that are among the worst of their kind of that era. Let's not talk about the Man Festival. Shadow Hearts: Covenant wasn't always a fun or easy PS2 romp, but the highs far outweighed the lows and its unique designs and tone are special. This beloved cult classic lived up to the hype, and I'm certainly intrigued enough to try its two bookends at a later date.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant came out in 2004 and joined an already impressive PS2 RPG lineup that included hits like Dragon Quest VIII, World of Warcraft, SMT: Digital Devil Saga, Fable, and many more. Despite that, I stayed under some rock, probably playing Disgaea for hundreds of hours, and missed out on the hype. But thanks to fans still singing its praises almost 15 years later (and a very fortunate eBay find) I caved and bought it. And I'm glad I did.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the whole package: It's a pseudo-historical epic with elements of sci-fi, romance, horror and humour — oh, and it's a lot of fun to play.
It's not easy being recommended games by people who wear rose-coloured glasses for them, but despite that, I had no problem stepping into a series as cool and atmospheric as Shadow Hearts. The series effortlessly blends early 20th century history and fiction (well, with appropriate liberties to certain bits), taking place during the 1910s with a story that takes you between Asia and Europe (and North America in its third installment). The games manage a quick connection with players by using many real-world locations, and an instant familiarity with its lore by presenting a version of Earth where all magic, myths, and monsters are permissible.
Shadow Hearts 1 will always be my 'first love', but Shadow Hearts: Covenant manages to refine an already impressive formula. In addition to the popular Judgement Ring battle system are diverse characters, unique skills, attack patterns, combos, magic, sanity points, and demon fusions. The story is one of love and loss but also features one of the best and most clever tie-ins to its predecessor I've ever seen from a series. Music is steeped in sounds and instruments native to many cultures, while the main cast is a motley crew of lovable misfits from around the globe; meanwhile villains are bent on destroying the world as you battle your own inner-demons — sometimes literally.
While problems with the game have already been brought up, the lengthy dungeons being the sole focus for most of our woes as well as a somewhat inconsistent tone, I see no reason why this game can't be enjoyed by both new and old gamers looking for something from "the golden age" — whether because you love that olde 'turn of the century' setting, or simply want to experience a classic PS2 RPG from a generation that had so many great games to play.
I vividly remember when I bought Shadow Hearts: Covenant. I was a huge fan of the first game, yet somehow missed the news that not only was there a sequel, but that it had been localized and released. I spied it when shopping for a Nintendo DS with my first paycheque at my second job and excitedly picked it up, along with the DS and Lunar: Dragon Song (the less said about that, the better).
And wow, Shadow Hearts: Covenant was not quite the experience I remembered it being. In my memory, Covenant was an improvement on its prequel in every way. Mechanically, this holds true: The Judgement Ring is a fantastic variation on the "timed hits" battle system, and its expanded features in Covenant put it head and shoulders above its predecessor's combat engine. However, what my memory omitted was just how goofy it was. Covenant is much closer in tone to its madcap follow-up From the New World than it is to its gothic predecessor. There's a near constant level of winking at the camera going on; something that feels at odds with Covenant's gloomy presentation. It didn't work for me at all, though if you've listened to the podcast, you'll know that Mike felt quite differently about this than I did, so your own mileage may vary.
That said, Covenant is still an excellent experience. There's an unmistakable charm in trotting around a magic-tinged distortion of World War I-era Europe, and there's a whole lot to do along the way. When you're tired of fighting spiders made of fingers, you can always take some time out to solve puzzles related to the Lesser Key of Solomon, or grapple with an army of curry-themed wrestlers; among many other side quests. Shadow Hearts: Covenant might just be one of the best PS2 RPGs out there, and one well worth experiencing.
Oh, and its dungeons are abysmal. Fight me.