When their first game, Koudelka was released, Sacnoth really wasn’t a household name for producing RPGs; in fact, the company was relatively unknown. Sadly, Koudelka didn’t do too well, and Sacnoth couldn’t meet the standards of most RPGs at the time.
Sacnoth’s latest game and sequel to Koudelka, named Shadow Hearts, has not only been vastly improved from its predecessor, but may very well be used to mark the beginning of better RPGs for the PlayStation 2’s lackluster library of RPG titles thus far.
Shadow Hearts is, as mentioned earlier, the sequel to Koudelka. The setting of Shadow Hearts begins in Rouen, France, 1913. A travelling English priest was brutally murdered and his only daughter, Alice, who was traveling with him, vanished. One month later, Alice is discovered to be on a steam train from Changchun to Dairen in China. Our story starts when her father’s murderer, a man named Roger Bacon, approaches her and she gets rescued by a mysterious youth named Yuri, who as a Harmonixer has the ability to fuse into powerful monsters. Along their adventure, which will span across China and Europe, they will meet an assortment of very unique and interesting characters that will aid them in uncovering the secrets of a story bursting with Mysticism, mature themes, and witty humor.
The game is progressed by moving from one location to another on the World Map, represented by location names and a sphere; sort of like the maps used in Strategy RPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Hoshigami, just without the connecting lines. When a location is selected, players will be brought to that location to do whatever quest they currently are on. Shadow Hearts is a fairly linear game due to this system, but the game does boast some interesting side-quests and secret locations. The locations in the game are mostly pre-rendered and not very large; getting lost in this game is almost impossible.
The game also utilizes a Judgement Ring system, where an indicator sweeps across a spherical field with several highlighted areas. The trick is to press the X Button when the indicator enters the area that is highlighted; failing to do so or missing an area entirely will result in failure.
The Judgement Ring is encountered in events in the story, battle, and even when shopping! In battle, players must hit the 3 highlighted areas to perform a complete 3-combo attack. Missing the first highlighted area will result in a total miss and missing the second or third area will result in an incomplete attack. At the end of these highlighted areas is a smaller red area. Players who want to take the risk of missing entirely, can attempt to hit these areas in succession for more damage in battle.
Spells and using items also utilizes the Judgement Ring system to determine the outcome. Story events utilize the Judgement Ring for events like pulling a shutter open to smashing open doors. Using the Judgement Ring in shops is used mainly to get discounts or sell wares at higher prices and can only be done after a certain item is obtained.
Another system in the game revolves around the main character, Yuri. Yuri is a Harmonixer, a person with the ancient ability of fusing with monsters to attain their forms in battle. Before you think you can just merge with any monster, Yuri’s forms are obtained in the Graveyard and are limited. The Malice system governs Yuri’s fate.
As a Harmonixer, Yuri’s soul is affected by the hatred and malice of all the monsters slayed by him or in his presence. The Malice Meter shows the Malice Level, with Blue representing no malice. As more foes are slain, the meter gradually changes to Green, Yellow and peaking at Red. The catch is, Yuri must clear out the accumulated Malice in the Graveyard, a world forged within Yuri’s soul, before it peaks and the Reaper is sent after him and threatens to end the game by killing Yuri! In the Graveyard, which is accessed in the World Map or Save Points, Yuri clears out malice by defeating a manifestation of the Malice, the more Malice accumulated, the more powerful the monster. In addition, Yuri also gains Elemental Spirits of the monsters slain; when enough are accumulated, Yuri can enter the Graveyard and battle a Fusion Monster of that element to obtain the ability to fuse with it.
The Malice Meter will also have a more important role in the later half of the game and will determine how it concludes, since Shadow Hearts boasts 2 slightly different endings that may, and will, most probably make many players replay the game!
Battles in the game are turned based and of course, in full 3D. As mentioned before, the Judgement Ring will be used to determine the outcome of a character’s actions. It does get easier with practice and the more powerful skills will require some degree of control to pull off. For those who have played games like Legend of Dragoon, you will have quite an advantage. The best news is that it’s not as frustrating as Legend of Dragoon’s battle system.
The battle system looks to be like a normal turn-based ‘bash-fest’ with one tiny difference: Sanity Points or SP. Each character has their own amount of SP that increases slowly as they level up. Yuri needs SP to fuse in battle, but the major effect of SP is that when it reaches 0 or less, the character goes berserk and will be uncontrollable until their SP is restored or the battle ends. This makes the need to end battles faster or risk having the battle party going crazy!
The controls in the game are simple and responsive, and executing the Judgement Ring is a breeze. Getting around is easy as areas aren’t very big and the lead character running around can cover quite a distance in dungeons, as random encounters are pleasantly low and bearable. Navigating menus is easy and there is even a monster/NPC encyclopedia, as well as a score chart to keep track of how players are doing in the game.
The graphics in the game are very well done and very atmospheric. Locations are designed to match architecture of the early 1900s. The Chinese locales and structures add an oriental feel during the China section of the game, and the European structures add a downtown mood during the Europe half. Fog is used in many scenes to add to the spooky atmospheres of some areas or events. In fact, some areas are so well done that they can be downright spooky when coupled with the excellent music. Character models are well done and quite detailed. Monsters have a certain ‘dark’ and ‘twisted’ feel in their designs, quite fitting for this game I must add. Spells in the game are also spectacular, yet simple and are quite pleasant to watch.
The music is spectacular. Ranging from the flutes in the China section of the game to the downtown London tunes in the Europe section, all the tracks give the atmosphere of the game an aural work out. The bad part is the voice acting. Fortunately it is limited to battle and FMV scenes. An example of aural torture would be Sea Mother’s story: switching the mute button on my TV or pressing the Start button were the only ways the save my ears from bleeding.
Shadow Hearts is to the PlayStation 2 what Final Fantasy VII was to the PlayStation, and this marks the beginning of more stellar RPG titles which the PlayStation 2 had been lacking since its launch. Even with the launch of games like Final Fantasy X, Grandia II, Jade Cocoon 2, and the endless tide of great RPGs coming from Japan, Shadow Hearts shouldn’t be overlooked and RPG lovers should do themselves a favor and get this great game before they regret it.