Shadow Hearts is the second RPG developed by Sacnoth, a creative team headed by former Seiken Densetsu music composer Hiroki Kikuta. Sacnoth's first RPG, the horror-themed Koudelka, turned out to be one of the most poorly designed and executed games ever released in the genre, so it would be natural for gamers to be a little wary of the similarly horror-themed Shadow Hearts. However, these fears shouldn't turn anyone away from Shadow Hearts; the finished product is an example of perhaps the largest improvement in history between a developer's first and second RPGs, and it's one of the best domestic RPGs available to date on the PlayStation2.
Set in China and Europe in 1913, Shadow Hearts stars Yuri Hyuga, a brash young man with a potential for great power. As the game begins, Yuri, following the orders of a mysterious voice in his head, is riding on a train running just outside of the Chinese city of Shanghai. Also on the train is a small contingent of the Japanese army serving as an escort for a young British woman. The action starts when a distinguished looking gentleman calling himself Roger Bacon appears out of thin air, cuts through the Japanese army as if they weren't there, and attempts to kidnap the woman. Yuri, in hot pursuit, manages to catch up with Bacon and distract him in combat long enough to escape from the speeding train with the girl.
Safe for now from the clutches of Bacon, Yuri and the girl, whose name is Alice Elliott, now find themselves stranded in the sticks. The mysterious voice in Yuri's head orders him to protect her, and, after some initial distrust, Alice accepts her new, somewhat reluctant guardian. Alice's goal is to find out why her father, who was murdered 6 months before, met the gruesome end he was dealt. So the pair begin to trudge back towards civilization, initiating a long journey that spans several nations and reveals some supernaturally frightening secrets about to be unleashed in their world.
Shadow Hearts is a game that is strong in all of its individual facets, and its storyline is perhaps its strongest. The RPG features a well balanced mix of world events and character-based drama, and its plot was the primary motivating factor for my progression through the game. The two main characters, Yuri and Alice, are developed quite well, and the event-based portions of the story are consistently interesting and occasionally riveting. The supporting characters are underdeveloped, but they, especially the sexy, irreverent Margarete Zelle and the stylish, refined Keith Valentine, are almost universally likable.
However, Midway's translation leaves a bit to be desired. Spelling and grammatical errors are mostly avoided, and Yuri is at times quite funny in a brash and boorish way, but the dialogue flow is inconsistent and fails to impress. In addition, whoever edited the finished text failed to keep its style consistent over the course of the game. Throughout most of the game, Yuri and his cohorts talk in the manner of 21st century young adults, but in some of the dialogue boxes, particularly in the second half of the game, he'll speak in Old English for no apparent reason at all.
Another of Shadow Hearts' storyline flaws is the medium in which parts of the story are told. All of the events which happen within the game's timeline are laid out through either eventful CG cinematics or cut scenes generated by the in-game engine; these work wonderfully. However, whenever the game tries to supplement its storyline with ancient legends or history, it cuts to a CG movie featuring dull, static hieroglyphics overlaid with a spoken reading of that legend or anecdote. These scenes can't be skipped, and the narratives are extremely monotonous. They only occur a few times during the game, but they are memorably irritating.
Gameplay is another of Shadow Hearts' strengths. The RPG uses mostly standard traditional RPG play elements, but unlike Koudelka, it executes them very well. Commands in the randomly encountered battles are carried out quickly and smoothly, and the encounter rate and difficulty balance of the game are just about right. In combat, characters can attack with weapons, spells, and special attacks, and the game does a pretty good job of forcing players to mix up their attacks for maximum effectiveness. The length of the game is a bit on the short side, but it doesn't feel rushed at all, and even though it only takes a few more hours to complete than Koudelka did, a whole lot more ground is covered in Shadow Hearts, because the game plays much faster than Koudelka.
Shadow Hearts does carry some gameplay weaknesses, though. For one thing, it's a bit too linear. Like most current-day RPGs, events have to be completed in a certain order, and there's nothing wrong with that, because it helps keep the storyline cohesive. But in the first half of the game, you can't backtrack to completed areas to pick up items that you might have missed, and once you reach the second half of the game, you can't revisit anything in the first half of the game at all. Thankfully, the second half of the game does allow much more freedom of movement than the first half.
Like most RPGs, Shadow Hearts attempts to introduce a few innovative gameplay elements, and like most gameplay innovations in RPGs, they fail to impress. In combat, the player has to complete a wheel called a "Judgment Ring" for every command that is attempted. Completing the Judgment Ring involves timing button pushes correctly as a needle sweeps around in a circle. Failure to complete the Judgment Ring can render command attempts partially or completely ineffective, depending on how much of the ring is completed. The Judgment Ring does make the battles a little bit more involved, but it really doesn't make combat any more enjoyable than the standard menu-driven commands that most other traditional RPGs offer. In addition, the Judgment Ring is overused in the game; players have to complete Judgment Rings to use items in combat and even to pick up some of the items in the field maps.
Another gameplay innovation in Shadow Hearts is that Yuri builds up malice in his heart as he kills monsters, and, in order to avoid being attacked by extremely powerful monsters, he must periodically rid his heart of the malice by retreating to a place in his psyche called "The Graveyard". The Graveyard can be accessed from any save point in the game, and it's not difficult to clear the malice if you do it often (you just fight an easy battle in the Graveyard), but it wastes time and ultimately becomes very tedious.
Shadow Hearts does control very well, though. The onscreen protagonists move responsively in 8 directions with the analog stick, and like many of the newer RPGs, their speed can be modulated with how hard the player pushes on the stick. The menus are organized, and the cursor is responsive in both the field and in battles. The Judgment Rings, though sometimes unwelcome, are usually easy to complete because of the game's sharp control.
Graphically, Shadow Hearts is impressive. The game features polygonal characters on prerendered backgrounds, and in the field maps, both the characters and the backgrounds are well drawn and highly detailed. Although the backgrounds are largely static, the characters animate well. The color palette is mostly dark, but it's very effective in keeping with the horror-tinged theme of the game.
Unfortunately, the graphics in the battles aren't quite as nice. The polygonal backgrounds here are somewhat lacking in detail, the enemies are quite plain, and the characters don't look quite as sharp as they do in the field maps. The spell effects are serviceable but unspectacular. However, the summon spells do look pretty good.
Shadow Hearts' artwork is noteworthy, too. The character designs, though not exactly groundbreaking, are mostly appealing, and I liked the little monochromatic portraits of the characters that pop up when they talk.
Although Shadow Hearts' sound is perhaps its weakest individual facet, it's still pretty solid. The sound effects in the game are robust, from the din of enemies being pummeled by Yuri's fists to the explosions of some of the more powerful spells. The mostly ambient soundtrack, Yoshitaka Hirota's game music debut, is well composed and fits the dark mood of the game well, but there's nothing hugely compelling about any of the tracks on it, and to be honest, I can barely remember what any of the songs in the game sound like, even after having played through the entire game.
The one part of Shadow Hearts' sound that does end up quite weak is the voice acting. The aforementioned monotonous narratives during the presentation of the game world's history are definitely the worst of it, but the rest of it, while thankfully sparse and mostly limited to combat and CG movies, isn't particularly well done either. It's not exactly horrible, but in an RPG market where voice acting is continually improving, it's certainly not going to garner any positive notice.
In the end, Shadow Hearts turns out to be an excellent entry into the PlayStation2's RPG library. The game's overall strength should encourage all RPG fans to check it out. Those who were burned by Koudelka should have no fear; Shadow Hearts is so much better than Koudelka that aside from their identical horror themes, you can't even tell that they were developed by the same company.