After Midway released Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts: Covenant (Shadow Hearts II in Japan) in the US, they somehow dropped the ball and lost the chance to bring the third title to the states. What had happened? Jun Iwasaki’s new company XSEED announced they would be releasing Shadow Hearts: From The New World in America. And though this series is not the most popular series in the world, I knew many fans who were on cloud nine because of this news.
If you’re reading this review, you’re probably wondering whether or not this third title is a worthwhile purchase. While I cannot claim that the title is in any way groundbreaking, it seems to borrow the best features of many other RPGs (including its own predecessors) and blend them into near perfect harmony. Nautilus and Aruze must have known that they had found a good thing in the Shadow Hearts series, and they have definitely stuck to the basic formula in this title, adding and improving only where needed, to create one of the most worthwhile traditional turn-based RPGs for the PlayStation 2.
As this new title suggests, the series departs from the “old world” (Asia in the first game, Europe in the second) and takes place now in the “new world” (North and South America.) The year is 1929, and the story begins in New York City. Take note: while well-known series characters do manage to make appearances in this new title (such as Lenny and Joachim), Yuri is no longer the series protagonist. You play as Johnny Garland, a sixteen-year-old self-proclaimed detective trying to earn a living with nothing but a camera and some puzzle-solving know-how. That, and the inheritance left to him by his father, who died (along with his sister) in a mysterious accident that Johnny can hardly remember.
Garland’s journey begins when a hunchbacked Professor Gilbert asks him to find Marlow, a man wanted for attempted murder. Within the first few hours of gameplay (which include some very helpful tutorials,) Johnny encounters Marlow, who seems to recognize him. However, just as Marlow begins to explain how he knows Johnny, a beast comes out of a shiny blue portal (known as a “window”) and consumes Marlow. Of course, someone comes to save the day. That someone is the beautiful Native American woman named Shania, who transforms herself into the spirit “Thunderbird” while falling off of a tall building and crashing through the ceiling to begin fighting the monster. She and her “bodyguard” Natan, who uses a technique known as GUN-FU, decide to join Johnny as he heads to Arkham University in Boston (a reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” as well as the asylum in the “Batman” universe) to report back to Professor Gilbert. Upon arrival, Johnny discovers that Gilbert is interested in summoning monsters through the window, and has even begun to collect them in cages. A short encounter at Arkham ends when Gilbert runs away, but not without first summoning a monster that causes Johnny’s knife to glow red (like a light saber.) It is in Arkham that you also pick up your fourth playable character, Frank. Frank is a well-trained ninja and an apprentice of Mao, a giant talking drunken female cat who joins you when you meet her in Chicago.
This description of the game’s opening events should give you an idea of how this story works: it is quirky, it is dark, and it is filled with strange and wonderful creatures and places. Along with the seven playable characters, Johnny meets historical figures (such as Al Capone and H.P. Lovecraft) as well as mythical creatures (such as Bigfoot and an alien named Roger.) Your party also visits some familiar locales, such as Alcatraz, Roswell, Rio de Janeiro, Las Vegas, and Chicago. It is clear that the development staff (specifically the scenario designers) are a cultured bunch of people who have done plenty of research. For gamers who like esoteric references (be it to popular Western culture or Native American mythology,) Shadow Hearts delivers in a way that is comparable to Tetsuya Takahashi’s Xenosaga Episode I.
Dialogue is sometimes humorous, sometimes dark, sometimes serious, but always well-written. And though Johnny and Shania are the two most prominent characters in the story, gamers may, like me, find themselves wrapped up in the lives and personalities of the other characters. I myself was particularly fascinated by Mao (a giant cat who has connections to both Frank and Al Capone,) but other gamers may like Ricardo (the mariachi guitarist who is in love with Al Capone’s sister, Edna) or Hilda (the vampire who changes shape and size based on calorie intake, and a sibling to characters from previous Shadow Hearts games).
The game’s villainous trinity includes a silent woman who is simply called “Lady,” a runaway murderer who aptly calls himself “Killer,” and the infamous Professor Gilbert. These three know how to wield a force known as “Malice,” and it seems that this force may well have the power to destroy the world…which is to be expected of a game that sends you around the world on an epic quest to save the day and uncover the truth. While I won’t spoil the story for you, I will say that the way in which the villains relate to the heroes is rather in-depth, and the way in which these major revelations are told is nothing short of brilliant storytelling. Many films will strive to tell tales as good as Shadow Hearts: From The New World and fail. Though I often found myself able to predict the game’s major plot twists a few hours in advance, I was still shocked by the heart wrenching way in which the truth was revealed to Johnny and his friends.
Though the story is tragic, there is some hope: if you’re careful enough. That’s right, I’m talking about multiple endings. Well, two endings to be precise. When I first finished this game, I loved the ending and wanted to praise Nautilus for making such a beautifully dark ending (and, in my mind, setting up for a sequel.) Then, I discovered that I had gotten the “bad” ending and that there was a better ending to attain. After getting the “good” ending (one which was certainly to be expected,) I had to say that I was let down. I would’ve preferred the bad ending to be the only true ending for the characters of Shadow Hearts (but that may be because the game got me to start thinking in such a dark and twisted manner!)
The English translation seems to stay true to the spirit of the game. I did encounter a few mistakes in the text: I saw perhaps three or four misspelt (or misused) words, and one spell called “Cure All” does something other than what the spell description says it does (it’s a high-level single-target cure, but the game tells you it’s a mid-level full-party cure.)
If you enjoyed the first two Shadow Hearts games because of their eccentric characters and wild plotline, I promise you that this third game will not disappoint, even if Johnny is a do-gooder by nature. Though the progress of the story can be slow, and some of the quests feel like too much sidetracking and/or dungeon-conquering (such as the Caribbean Pirate Fort or the three South American ruins,) the end result is still well above average. For this, I award the story component of From The New World a respectable 88%.
I have been told that many people struggle with the battle system in Shadow Hearts, particularly the Judgment Ring. Either I am extremely good at using the Judgment Ring, or else the ring has been toned down for the third game in the series. For those of you who aren’t “in the know,” the basics of it are simple: a glowing radius spins around a circle, and it’s your job to hit X at particular shaded points to execute any command, be it attacking, casting magic, or even using an item. Status ailments can be used against you to affect the speed of your ring or the size of the shaded areas. For those who struggle with the use of the Judgment Ring, one can choose to turn the ring off; but for doing so you are penalized in that you can only do one standard attack and your magic can never be used at its strongest or “critical” potential.
The Judgment Ring is one of many aspects to a battle. Turn order, stock points, enemy height, and combos are all crucial to the battle. In this regard, the battles were very reminiscent of Xenosaga Episode II. Gamers who expect to do well in this game better have a good eye, a good hand, and an even better mind, because no matter how good you are at the Judgment Ring, planning four, even five turns in advance is crucial to surviving a boss battle.
I had expected a turn-based RPG such as Shadow Hearts to put a particular emphasis on battles; while the battles were excellent (difficult but not cheap), it seems that Johnny’s love for detective work leads to the player having to solve a number of difficult puzzles in nearly every dungeon. Be warned: if you have a bad short-term memory, you might want to keep pen and paper handy while playing this game. Though the puzzles are never obscenely difficult, they are rarely easy and almost always time-consuming. Much of my “leveling” time in this game happened because I had to do some significant backtracking in a dungeon after making a very poor decision in pressing (or not pressing) a button. Hitting R1 in dungeons brings the screen to a handy map that will help gamers figure out what on earth is going on: I would have been clueless without this feature.
Character leveling is one of the most rewarding aspects of this game. Taking a cue from many Final Fantasy titles, each individual character learns unique abilities only by doing a special type of subquest. Natan, for example, has to hunt down mysterious creatures by laying bait and then fighting them in battle. Shania learns new abilities by obtaining the elemental spirits and in turn feeding them “soul energy.” Mao makes her own action movie by hiring other actors to fight her on a set (she fights giant-kitty versions of the Terminator, Jackie Chan, Mr. Morita from Karate Kid, and Bruce Lee!) My chief complaint with this system is that, while it is certainly unique, I often spent many hours aimlessly wandering the towns across the world map, hoping to speak with someone to trigger the right event. After first beating the game at 33 hours, I put in another 17 hours to complete nearly all of these character-related subquests, putting me at 50 hours for my final completion time. And, keep in mind that I had been following each of the character’s subquests throughout the first 33 hours of the game. It was time-consuming. Sounds like a Final Fantasy game, right? I thought so too.
The other thing about these character sidequests is that they are almost a necessity. In the end, it’s either doing these quests, or spending an enormous amount of time leveling. Why? Because the last few bosses are ludicrously difficult when first encountered. I was first able to enter the last dungeon at the 25-hour mark, and as I said, I wasn’t able to conquer the final boss until putting in another 8 hours to improve my characters and find better equipment.
There is a wonderful payoff for completing the game: access to each of the game’s 106 cutscenes in a theatre mode. That’s a fine bonus if you ask me.
The strengths in Shadow Hearts’ gameplay are strong, but the weaknesses are, well, weak. Some diversity in the dungeon’s puzzles (less switch-pushing, more action-oriented activities) as well as some more guidance for character subquests would have been appreciated. However, Shadow Hearts remains a thoroughly entertaining experience from beginning to end, even if it’s a little frustrating at times. 85% isn’t bad at all.
For a traditional non-action-oriented RPG, control should be seamless. And, in this game, it is. I’m not sure I have any complaints. Let’s talk about the good stuff.
First of all, the camera angle is always fixed. However, this is in no way a bad thing. It works quite nicely, and the developers had a keen sense of cinematography. What needs to be seen is seen, and what ought to be hidden away in a corner (such as a treasure chest) is done so perfectly so that just the corner is within view.
Second, the Judgment Ring (in all its variations from status effects or other special circumstances) has been programmed to a degree of perfection. I must say that it really is an accurate little device, and I never found myself cursing at the television, swearing that it was the game’s fault (rather than my own fault) that I messed up on a Judgment Ring. It is clear as day that the ring acts in accordance to what you choose with your controller, and there’s no denying it.
Third, kudos to Nautilus for taking a cue from the Xenosaga series and allowing a person to pause in cutscenes or skip cutscenes by hitting triangle after pausing. When getting stuck at a battle that is prefaced by a lengthy dialogue, this time saving feature becomes much appreciated.
Since the developers didn’t do anything entirely innovative with the controls, I can’t award an 100%, so I’ll just give control a 90% instead.
I don’t need to say much here. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous. Nautilus put an extreme amount of detail into character designs, environments, and motion. The game sports two different kinds of cutscenes: FMVs and in-game cutscenes (complete with English dialogue.) The FMV sequences are fewer, but they are breathtaking. The in-games are used often for humorous character interaction and are done surprisingly well. In one in-game cutscene, Ricardo plays a song on guitar, and in doing so the motion-captured character places his fingers on the proper frets as the song plays. This goes above par when compared to the average RPG (or even film) where the character is clearly faking it.
There is also, occasionally, a third type of cutscene that uses hand-drawn still frames (panned across the screen) over some narration to explain various events that Johnny didn’t personally witness. These, too, are wonderful. What I like most about this is that, through this, we get to see the characters in smooth CG form, polygonal form, and hand-drawn 2D form. What more could you ask for? A live action film?
As if that wasn’t enough, every single item in the game has a corresponding image which can be viewed by looking at the inventory (in the main menu). There are a lot of items. A lot of games don’t have this feature. It’s that extra work that makes the difference in my mind.
My only complaint in the graphics department is that, on occasion, strange rectangular objects would flash on and off momentarily on the screen. This would happen in particular dungeons, usually when the path I chose to walk forced the camera into a strange situation. Though disconcerting, I suppose no game is flawless.
The artists for Shadow Hearts are all great at what they do; as such, I have no qualms in giving the graphics of Shadow Hearts an enviable 92%.
The music in From The New World, scored by series veteran Yoshitaka Hirota, Ryo Fukuda, and newcomer Tomoko Imoto, could not be any more fitting. Though some town themes become redundant (I was especially annoyed by the hip-hoppy music in New York,) most of the music is superb. The use of chant vocals (from Akiko Shikata, who has also worked on games such as Ar Tonelico) is beautiful, and the tribal/world music sound comes through clearly. The only song I strongly disliked was the ending theme song, “Spread My Wings,” which was a pseudo-inspirational J-Rock song with a male vocalist. I’m glad XSEED chose to keep the original vocal instead of trying to replace it with an English vocal, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the song put there in the first place.
The voice acting fits each character very well. If I were to make one complaint, I’d say Frank is too over-the-top, but then again, his character was designed to act in just this way. Otherwise, I’d say the voice acting in this game is on par with Final Fantasy X. Indeed, at times I felt like I was watching Final Fantasy X during the voiced dialogue sequences, especially because Johnny looks and sounds like a slightly younger Tidus.
One other note about the sound: the timing on the music fading in and out during battle sequences was impeccable. Sometimes, the music’s volume is reduced, for any number of reasons. The way the music goes out and then comes back in is something that few RPGs do, but I really appreciated it.
I stand by my very high score of 94% for this game’s sound. The voice actors were great, and the songs were even better.
As far as the American release schedule goes, Shadow Hearts couldn’t come at a better time. Many of you should be finished with Dragon Quest VIII (if you had planned on playing it,) and for those of you not interested in Grandia III, you may be aching for a really decent RPG. This is the game you were looking for, I promise. It’s lengthy, but not 80-hours-lengthy. It’s hard, but not impossible. It’s engrossing, but not so much that it will ruin your life (unlike World of Warcraft.) And, if you missed out on the first two Shadow Hearts titles and are hesitant to pick this one up, know that you are not alone. Because this title is not a direct sequel, but rather a “fresh start” in a new world, this is your chance to get into it. I myself have started the series with this game, and I am now looking forward to playing the first two games.
In contrast, if you played the first two Shadow Hearts titles already, I have no idea why you read this, because you’re probably going to play this game regardless of what any reviewer says. You know this series is good.
From The New World deserves a high score, so I’m giving it a nicely rounded-off 90%. If this title is any indication of XSEED’s ability to localize, I have to say that I am already quick to declare them a major contender for RPG Fans of the “new world,” already on par with the work of Atlus USA or NIS America. So, I urge you to give this game a try, and keep an open mind for any other games XSEED plans to bring stateside.