When videogame developer Sacnoth released their first RPG, Koudelka, a few years ago, expectations were high. The company, comprised of former Squaresoft employees, seemed likely to be a major player on the RPG scene given their work for their previous employer.
Unfortunately many of those expectations were dashed once Koudelka hit the shelves. Bringing together a mixture of survival horror, role-playing, puzzle solving, and turn-based combat, Koudelka had loads of potential-potential that was never truly realized because of a horribly flawed battle system making the game aggravating beyond description for most gamers.
Undaunted by their failure, Sacnoth pressed onward and began work on a second title. That title has now been released here in America as Shadow Hearts, and it proves that the young development company has learned from their past mistakes. Shadow Hearts is a solid RPG that improves upon Koudelka in nearly every way possible.
The dawn of a new dark age
Perhaps the first thing worth mentioning in regards to the story of Shadow Hearts is that it's a loose sequel to Koudelka. Honestly, sequel's probably not the right word-this is more of a side-story that takes place after the events of that game, but features a few characters and plot points that those who've played Koudelka will be familiar with.
The fact that it involves story elements from Koudelka shouldn't keep those who haven't played that game from playing this one. The writers have made sure all the pertinent information is explained in detail in Shadow Hearts, so the gamer will always be aware of what's going on. Those who've played Koudelka will just get a little more out of the story from having experienced it firsthand as opposed to just having read about it instead.
At its core, Shadow Hearts is another typical 'band of adventurers save the world' game, complete with a hero who's unsure of himself and his powers, a young woman who loves him, and a supporting cast of characters who are all quirky but interesting. Yet, while that main story is what we've all become familiar with over the years, Shadow Hearts manages to take it all and present it in a way that's a little different than what you'd expect.
The game eschews the medieval fantasy and futuristic sci-fi settings that so many games in the field have, opting instead for an alternate version of our own Earth in the early 1900s. The only real difference between this world and our own is that magic not only exists in the world of Shadow Hearts, but it's also the root of many of the world's problems.
You'll take the role of Yuri, a young man of Russian and Japanese descent. Yuri is what they call a 'harmonixer', meaning he has the ability to transform himself into various demons he's bested in battle. As the game opens, we learn that a young woman named Alice has been taken hostage by Japanese soldiers and is being transported on a train. Yuri winds up on the train, but so does a mysterious and powerful warlock named Roger Bacon. Bacon has killed Alice's priest father (how exactly a priest has a child is beyond me) and wants Alice for some sort of ritual he's planning.
Bacon slaughters the Japanese guards, but encounters Yuri just as he's planning to make off with his prize. Battle ensues, and Yuri of course saves the day. The strange voice in his head tells him that he must protect Alice at all costs-a task that he willingly accepts.
From there, the game weaves a tale of political intrigue (revolving around Japan's desire to control Shanghai) and dark secrets. Like Koudelka, Shadow Hearts is a horror RPG-you'll be battling demons and magic users, fighting in haunted villages, and even have a vampire in your party. If you're a fan of the darker stories in the Persona series of games, then Shadow Hearts will probably be worth a look for the dark and serious tone of its story alone.
And while the story is indeed quite serious in parts, it's also not without its humor. The characters all have distinct personalities and unique speaking voices. The writers have worked hard to ensure that each character is an individual and not simply an RPG archetype. For the most part, they succeed. Watching Yuri and Chinese adept Zhuzen engage in witty banter is funny, and that carries through to all of the characters. This is a likeable cast of characters-there wasn't one that annoyed me in the entire game.
So, the game features a well-conceived plot, solid characters, and good writing. About the only minus in this category is for the few grammatical errors that made it into the text (there aren't many, but there are some) and some awkward dialogue in the voice-over sections (which could also be attributed to the voice actors). Overall, Shadow Hearts is a game with a lot to offer in the story department-which is one of the key elements for a good RPG.
As mentioned earlier, the flawed battle system and weak gameplay were ultimately what made Koudelka such an awful experience. Luckily, Sacnoth has learned from that and implemented a new system for Shadow Hearts-and it's a pretty good system, too.
Everything in Shadow Hearts revolves around the Judgment Ring. Wanna attack an enemy? You'll have to use the Judgment Ring. Wanna bust open the lock on that door? Use the Judgment Ring. Wanna get a discount on items in the shop? Yeah…you guessed it, use the Judgment Ring.
Basically, the Judgment Ring is a circle that comes up whenever you have to do something in the game. On this circle are various highlighted areas and a pointer. The pointer spins around the circle, and you have to press X to stop it in the highlighted areas. Hit them all in one turn and your action will be carried out. Miss them and only part of the action might happen, or none at all (depending on the situation and how many shaded areas you hit).
While this is really nothing more than a modified version of the attack system from Legend of Dragoon or using the Gunblade in Final Fantasy VIII, it works better than either of those systems because it's easier to see what you're doing and it's a little more forgiving overall. At any rate, it adds an interesting wrinkle to the traditional turn-based combat in the game. Weapons, items, spells-all of these things are used by successfully manipulating the Judgment Ring. Some things have large shaded areas, others only a sliver, so you'll be testing your hand-eye coordination regularly throughout the adventure.
If the ring is too challenging for you, there are a number of items and equipment you can pick up to make the shaded areas larger or slow down the pointer. Of course, the opposite can also occur-monsters can make your pointer spin faster, your Judgment Ring tiny, or the shaded areas disappear completely. At some point, you'll have to master using the ring. Also, with weapons, you can see the acupuncturist and have him increase the shaded areas of each weapon-for a price. In this regard, the system is far more customizable than something like Vagrant Story that required precise button taps throughout the game and punished you if you failed.
Aside from the Judgment Ring, just about everything else in Shadow Hearts is traditional. Gameplay revolves around exploration, talking to NPCs, buying and selling items, and fighting random battles.
Battle is your standard turn-based affair, with the traditional options. Attack, items, magic/fusion/ESP or whatever special skill a character might have, defend, and running away are your choices. Each character has hit points, magic points, and sanity points. Sanity points diminish 1 per turn-and if they reach zero, the character goes berserk and is uncontrollable. Yuri's fusion attacks (wherein he merges with a demon of his choosing) also cost sanity points-a fact that makes it so his character has a much higher number of points than his comrades.
After battle, Yuri and the party acquire gold, items, and experience points. Leveling up is simply a matter of fighting often enough to earn the requisite number of points to reach the next level. Aside from this, Yuri will also receive soul points after battle-as he fills up each particular category (earth, air, fire, water, light, and dark), he can travel to the graveyard and engage that element's spirit guardian in battle. Win the battle, and Yuri can then fuse with that monster. Magic works on a similar principle, with earth being powerful against air, light against dark, and vice versa.
The game also features a malice meter, which is a stone that slowly turns from blue to red as you defeat monsters throughout the game. Each defeated monster harbors malice towards Yuri; once the meter reaches red, you will encounter Death, who's pretty hard to beat. Fear not, though, because when your malice meter starts turning crimson, you can head to the graveyard and fight an enemy in order to release all that ill will.
During the course of your journey, you'll find and purchase items, armor, accessories, etc. These can be equipped, and in the case of weapons, can also be modified. Finding the acupuncturist will allow you to increase the attack or hit area of a weapon three times each-for a price. Increasing the attack power without doing the hit area will generally make it so the hit area decreases in size. At any rate, you can get more use out of your weapons since you can increase their effectiveness several times each.
While exploration is part of the game, Shadow Hearts is a fairly linear experience. There's no overworld map to explore, just a map with locations you can jump between. There are, however, quite a few sidequests to undertake. Doing all of these will add several hours to the experience. All in all, expect to spend about 25 hours beating Shadow Hearts, including all the sidequests.
Aside from the Judgment Ring, there's nothing all that innovative about Shadow Hearts-but that's not a bad thing. The game has a traditional feel, but it does everything well. You can't ask for much more than that.
One of the few areas worthy of praise in Koudelka was in the graphics department. While the in-game graphics weren't particularly breathtaking, the FMV sequences were just what you'd expect from a team comprised of ex-Squaresoft employees. That same standard holds true in Shadow Hearts.
Honestly, the game doesn't look a whole lot nicer than Chrono Cross, which is a bit disappointing for a PS2 title. Characters are comprised of a moderately high number of polygons and placed on pre-rendered backgrounds. I'm not sure why they decided to go with pre-rendered backgrounds, but it gives the game the look and feel of a PSX title. I have nothing against pre-rendered backgrounds (I like some of them, in fact), but I expected a bit more in the visual department of this game.
Battles take place on yet another screen with pre-rendered backgrounds, but they're not nearly as nice as the regular backgrounds. Most of the battle areas are very flat and a little bland. Chrono Cross actually beats Shadow Hearts in this area since the backgrounds in the battles of Chrono Cross seemed far more organic and alive. I don't think I have to stress that it's not a good thing when a PSX title is beating a PS2 title in any of the graphical areas.
Continuing on with the battle graphics, you'll also encounter a wide variety of monsters to fight. The monsters aren't quite as detailed as the main characters (except for the fusion enemies and some of the bosses), but they're nice nonetheless. Everything from Japanese soldiers to demons from Hell turn up in the game, and there are few, if any, that are simply palette-swapped versions of other beasts.
The main characters look great during the fight sequences, moving and attacking fluidly with some nice animations as well. On the downside, the attack animations remain constant throughout the entire game, so they become a little stale as you get towards the end of the adventure. Spell animations run the gamut from simple (most of the low-level elemental spells) to intricately detailed (Alice's Advent spell, for example). My only beef is that some of the more detailed spells take quite a bit of time to run through their animations-and you can't skip past them. This becomes particularly bothersome in the late stages of the game when you'll be casting the most powerful spells almost every turn. At any rate, it's not as bad as the summons in Final Fantasy VIII.You'll travel throughout Asia and Europe while working to complete the quest of the game, and each area has its own distinctive look and feel. Shanghai looks like an Asian city, while London looks a fair bit different. Unfortunately, though, all of the areas in the game are small-most only spanning several screens in total. Because of this, there's not a whole lot to explore in the game and you'll be seeing many of the same areas time and time again.
Perhaps the most impressive thing in the game graphically is the FMV sequences. Sacnoth knows how to do FMV, and it shows. There are several story interludes where the game cuts to a cinema sequence, and all of them are quite impressive. On the downside, though, there are very few FMV sequences in the game. Sacnoth made the decision to do a lot of the story sequences with either the in-game graphics (which looks good) or with colorless still paintings and a combination of voice work and text (which doesn't look so good). More FMV would have been nice, especially if they'd have dropped the still shots.
The graphics are probably the weakest category in the game overall-and they're not awful, just not very 'next-gen' in terms of presentation. If you're looking for something with the visual flair of Final Fantasy X, then Shadow Hearts is bound to come up short. It looks like a really nice PSX title most of the time.
If graphics are the weakest category overall, then sound/music is the most difficult to grade accurately. On the one hand, the soundtrack music (composed by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoshitaka Hirota) is nothing short of brilliant. On the other, the voice acting is so bad in spots that I actually cringed, grabbed the remote, and turned down the volume because it was embarrassing me.
Since this is a positive review, let's start with the good.
The soundtrack is arguably the best RPG soundtrack I've heard this year (and no, the Chrono Trigger soundtrack on Final Fantasy Chronicles doesn't count). Mitsuda and Hirota work together to create a musical score that perfectly complements the dark and somber mood of the game. There's a mélange of styles and influences at work in the music, but the most prominent are a far Eastern sound that fits with portions of the game in Asia, and a Celtic influence that turns up in many of the pieces heard while in Europe.
The compositions are relatively short, most looping over and over, but they're so good that I didn't mind. Even the game's battle themes (there are two regular battle themes throughout the game and a few different boss themes) are excellent. If you're a fan of game music, the Shadow Hearts soundtrack is well worth picking up.
Yet, while the score music is great, most of the game's voice acting is just plain awful. There's not a huge amount of voice acting featured in the game, but when it turns up it's either forgettable (at best) or just flat out terrible. The best example I can come up with for awful is the Sea Mother's story in the early portion of the game. Anyone who's played the game will no doubt remember that part. It's just bad-partially because of the acting, and partially because of the way it was written.
The other problem with the voice acting turns up in the battles. For some reason, they decided to leave certain things the characters say during battle in Japanese while translating others. While I like Zhuzen's Taoist chanting when casting magic, hearing the characters (who otherwise speak English in the game) make some kind of statement in Japanese when they use an item is disconcerting, particularly when they'll use English while doing other battle actions. This may or may not bother you-it bothered me though.
Aside from that, the rest of the sound in the game is impressive. Spell effects, ambient noise, and the sounds of weapons striking enemies all sound great. If it weren't for the voice acting and the strange mixture of English and Japanese in the battles, sound would get an almost perfect score. As it stands, even the flaws can't ruin the fact that the music is nothing short of excellent.
While Shadow Hearts may not bring much in the way of innovation to the table, it does almost all of the core things a successful RPG has to do and does them right. The Judgment Ring is a nice addition to the battle system and provides a new twist to the standard menu driven combat that's so prevalent in the genre.
While the graphics won't be winning any awards, the gameplay is rock solid, the story dark and deep, and the soundtrack one of the best of the year. I've no doubt that many will overlook this game because it's been released so close to Final Fantasy X. While the game isn't as grand an experience as Final Fantasy X, it's still worth playing for RPG fans. After a yearlong RPG drought, it finally appears as though the PS2 is turning into the RPG machine we'd all hoped it would become. For those of us who like quality RPGs, Shadow Hearts looks like one of the first glimmers in what appears to be a very bright future.