Back in 2001, Midway and developer Sacnoth (a company comprised of ex-SquareSoft employees) released a little RPG called Shadow Hearts – and hardly anyone noticed, because we were all busy playing Final Fantasy X.
While Shadow Hearts wasn’t a perfect game (the graphics were some sort of bastardized cross between a PSX game and a Dreamcast title and the voice-acting needed a lot of work), it did have several things going for it—an engaging story, a memorable cast of characters, a now-classic soundtrack, rock-solid gameplay, and enough quirky humor to make even the most jaded otaku smile. Because of this, Shadow Hearts did eventually find an audience (almost entirely through word of mouth) and has since become one of the cult classic RPGs of the PS2 era.
Now, in 2004, Midway and developer Nautilus (which is a reformed Sacnoth) are back with a new installment in the Shadow Hearts saga—Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Covenant takes everything that was so wonderful about the original game, tweaks it, and ultimately becomes a serious contender for RPG of the year.
Taking place roughly six months after the end of the original game, Covenant picks up the narrative as the world sits poised on the brink of World War I. However, global conflict is the least of humanity’s worries this time out, as a secret society known as Sapiente Gladio is working behind the scenes to unleash a horde of powerful demons on mankind and redefine the global balance of power. Harmonixer (meaning a man who can fuse with demons) Yuri and his ragtag assortment of heroes must come together to stop this threat—a task that will eat up roughly 40 hours of the gamer’s life.
Like the original, one of the greatest strengths of Covenant is the way the game uses an alternate reality to weave a tale straddling the line between fact and fiction. While historical events serve as a backdrop for the occult machinations that comprise the main plotline, they give the proceedings an air of credibility by involving real-life historical figures (Rasputin, Russian princess Anastasia) and happen in real world locales (Wales, Cannes, Paris, etc.). And while the game certainly plays fast and loose with history (in other words, don’t use this game as a reference material for a history paper on the first world war…), the “what if” scenarios of the game are part of what makes it so intriguing. One can only wonder just how crazy the Nautilus team would go moving the setting to World War II—given that Hitler, Himmler, and the Nazis had a profound interest in the occult. Maybe next time…
And yet, the story is but one area where Shadow Hearts: Covenant succeeds. Not only is the game engrossing, it’s fun to play.
Gameplay is arguably the strongest element this time out. As anyone who played the first game will recall, Shadow Hearts features a traditional turn-based combat system…with a twist. Rather than just select commands from a menu and sit back while they’re implemented, gamers must become masters of the Judgment Ring. This device is just what the title implies—a circle marked with colored areas and a spinning pointer. For attacks to succeed, players must stop the spinner in the colored areas, giving the game a twitch gameplay element not found in most other traditional RPGs. Each colored area also features a smaller “critical hit” area that increases the effectiveness of the action being taken. The catch is, if you miss that area, you miss the whole colored section entirely—so the game becomes an exercise in deciding when to gamble and when to play it safe.
Making things more interesting is the fact that the Judgment Ring can be customized almost endlessly—both positively and negatively. Players can expand the hit areas, alter the speed of the pointer, make zones invisible in order to double attack power, and so on. Meanwhile, enemies can inflict status effects that make the ring spin backwards, make the ring small, shrink strike zones, etc. Mastering the ring is a key component in succeeding and all the variables ensure that players will still be getting a handle on things well into the adventure.
Aside from the Judgment Ring, Covenant also utilizes a new system for combo attacks on enemies. Maneuvering characters into position can then allow for massive chain attacks that do mega damage. Enemies can also team up for multi-hit attacks, so players must be continually aware of not only what they’re doing, but what the enemies are doing as well.
The rest of the gameplay is pretty traditional. Players will explore areas, find items, complete quests, and partake in countless random battles. The encounter rate is surprisingly low—meaning that power players who like to level a lot early on will spend a lot of time walking around in circles trying to trigger encounters. Instead, the game ensures players keep leveling properly by utilizing an experience curve that continually goes up in each area. Ultimately, the game rarely requires any extra curricular leveling—the battles fought in each area while exploring are generally enough to defeat each dungeon’s boss. Because of this, doing any extra leveling makes the boss fights significantly less challenging.
Yoshitaka Hirota and Yasunori Mitsuda return to provide the game’s musical track—and while it’s not quite as classic as the first game, this is easily one of the better bits of game music to come along in recent memory. There’s a wide range of musical styles on display—from techno-esque up-tempo pieces to some haunting piano solos. If you’re into game soundtracks, ordering a copy of this one is a no-brainer.
In what may be the biggest improvement of all, Covenant features some truly solid voice acting. Fans of the first game still cringe at the mere mention of the Sea Mother scene in that game, and they’ll be relieved to know there’s nothing even remotely that awful this time out. In fact, the finished game has some really great voice acting that’s marred solely by the inclusion of anachronistic phrases like “bite me” at several points in the narrative.
Coming in a close second in the improvement category is the game’s graphical presentation. The original Shadow Hearts was a prime example of the notion that a game could have bad graphics but good gameplay and a solid story and still be great. The graphics in Shadow Hearts were pretty dire, even for the early days of the PS2—which makes the graphical overhaul on display in Covenant that much more impressive. While the original game could boast some nice CGI sequences, the sequel is just breathtaking all around. The game still relies on polygonal characters in a pre-rendered environment, but the beauty of the pre-rendered backdrops can be stunning. Character designs are equally impressive, and the wide array of weird enemies ensures that players won’t be fighting the same monsters over and over.
Ultimately, fans of the original Shadow Hearts are gonna love Covenant—it takes everything the first game did and improves upon it in just about every way imaginable. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG this engrossing in terms of story and yet was still fun to play after 35+ hours. Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of those rare games that you simply don’t want to end—and while the plot does fall prey to the Final Fantasy syndrome (in that you spend half the game working to fight an enemy who turns out to not be the real evil you’d been led to believe), it manages to stay fresh and engaging despite this. I think it’s safe to say we have a new RPG franchise to be excited about, and I for one look forward to the next installment in this series.