Shadow Hearts (PS2) – Review

Shadow Hearts - CoverShadow Hearts, developed by Sacnoth and published by Midway, is pretty much a standard turn-based RPG that adds some new concepts to the usual mix, has a rather interesting story, and shows the signs of what the series will become in future installments, but is otherwise a lackluster title that looks like a PS1 game despite being released well after the release of the Ps2.

Story: A-

Shadow Hearts opens with Yuri, a troubled young man, rescuing Alice from a Mr. Roger Bacon from a train in the early part of the 20th century. Bacon apparently wants Alice to complete a ritual called the Valorization which, if completed, could spell the end of the world. Alice escapes with Yuri, but learns that Yuri has had a troubled past and is haunted by his own demons. The pair met up with other allies while they try to determine what Bacon is up to: a master spy, an Chinese exorcist/sage, a bored but helpful vampire, and a London street urchin with rather scary ESP powers. With their travels from China to Europe and Great Britain, the team must stop further attempts to use Alice while fighting through some of the most insane monsters mankind has ever seen.

Most of the story is told via on-screen text (as common with PS1 and early PS2 games), with a few select CGI/voice-over screens. The text requires you to button push to advance, allowing you to skip dialog at times, but you also have to wait for character actions to complete. While, for a game from its release time-frame, this was ok, it is nowadays agonizing slow, and I ached for voice-over or something else to make the text work better. As the text only appears with the character name and a simple brown-black picture of the character, it can also be hard to know who’s talking if you’re button pushing too fast. However, as with the game’s sequels, the story does a good job of working in with some historical facts, though is not as heavily dependent on these.

It’s also important to note that the story here in Shadow Hearts is directly tied to its immediate sequel, Shadow Hearts Covenant, not that the latter isn’t playable without knowing the first, but it does help to appreciate the character of Yuri (reappearing as the lead in the second), and the resolution of the second game. If you have the ability, definitely try to play this game first before hitting Covenant. Shadow Hearts: From the New World is only loosely tied to the events in these two.

Gameplay: B

As with most console RPGs, you explore the world of Shadow Hearts through an overworld and towns/dungeons about that world. There’s not much to do on the overworld beyond switching between which cities/areas to visit as well as saving your game, with new areas appearing as you progress the plot. Within towns and dungeons, you’ll find the usual people to talk to, treasures to get, save points, and random monster encounters (which are invisible save for a few places).

Shadow Hearts - BattleCombat is done in a standard turn-based fashion, though the game uses its signature “Judgment Ring” that continues into its sequels. Nearly every combat action, once selected and targeted, bring up a circular disk with colored areas on it, and then a radar-sweep line moves across it. To successfully complete the action, you need to hit each colored area within the ring, though failure means different things for different actions. For example, all direct combat attacks have three areas representing three attacks, but once you fail one area, you get to make any attack successfully hit before that but no following ones. Spells will sometimes have one or two additional areas before the major spell zone representing preparation steps, and failure to hit those will negate the spell. Most attacks, offensive, and healing spells have a special small zone at the end of these zones that, if hit, will increase the power of that attack or spell, but can also be easily missed due to its location. In general, all recovery actions, including spells and items, have rather large zones to hit so that it’s hard to fail to toss healing on someone, but special and more powerful attacks will have smaller zones.

In addition, there are a number of ways that the Judgment Ring can be modified. You can increase the size of the hit zones for specific weapons through a character in the game, and you also equip items that alter the Ring to your benefit; for example, one increases the rate of your attacks at the cost of speeding up the sweep of the ring. Monsters can also inflict Ring-altering status, such as increasing the Ring speed or making the Ring appear smaller on the screen, and there are special spells and items that can clear these.

Shadow Hearts also introduces another concept of Sanity Points which continue into the sequels. Due to the maddening and horrific creatures, each character’s sanity is checked in battle, and for every round, their Sanity Points decrease. If the player losses all Sanity Points, they become insane – similar to a confused state, they will be randomly controlled by the computer but their attacks will be more powerful. However, there are items to restore Sanity and avoid or reverse this condition, and particularly in the early part of the game, it becomes very important to watch these in regular battles. Latter boss battles can also be tricky since Sanity can be drained from a character.

Both the Judgment Ring and Sanity Points are used well in the game, in that there is enough balance between creatures that attack hit points, drain mana for skills, or drain Sanity in conjunction with typical status effects (poisoned, confused, etc) and Judgment Ring effects, and items and skills to handle those. I found that in the latter games, the balance was not as strong as it was here. The only problem that this leads to some boss battles where if you’re not adequately set, you’ll likely fall quickly to party-wide effects or instant death effects. Unfortunately, you don’t know what types of attacks that bosses have until you fight them, so it was very common for me to fight a boss once to “test the waters”, die quickly, and then reload from the nearby save point and revamp my equipment to avoid the worst of the attacks. Fortunately, there’s only a few cases where there are two or more bosses in a row (moreso near the end), and there’s usually at least one type of healing item that can negate these (though requires major monetary output to get enough).

Each of the 6 characters you eventually control in the game has a special set of abilities they learn through the game. Unlike the sequels, only one of these characters (Yuri) has mini-games associated with gaining abilities, this being defeating of tortured souls to gain the ability to transform into these characters. The other characters gain abilities with standard level growth. Additionally, with Yuri in the party, you also must keep a constant check on the Malice that the souls have on him; should the unchecked Malice become too high, you’ll be attacked by a near-undefeatable boss. Malice can be tamed through special, rather easy battles at save points, and while its not much of a chore (I had to do this maybe 6 times through the game), it can be annoying to have high Malice and be several screens away from a save point to tame it.

There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay, per se – given that this does feel like a PS2 port of a PS1 (though released nearly at the same time as Final Fantasy X), but there are issues with things just feeling sluggish enough. Whether it is button pushing through conversations, or the general length of time for battle animations to finish up, it feels like things could have just been slightly faster, which would then encourage me to explore more and not groan at the random encounters. Furthermore, lacking the options for character growth that the latter games have, the title doesn’t feel as strong as games from the Final Fantasy series.

Value/Replayability: B-

The overall game took me shy of 30 hrs (a bit short for recent RPGs, but still not bad) in the main plot. There are also side plots, though these are a lot harder to discover compared to other RPGs. The plot won’t change should you replay it, so it lacks the replay value that most RPGs have.

Shadow Hearts - ExploringGraphics: B

Again, when noting that this game should be comparable to Final Fantasy X due to similar timing releases, one would expect better graphics from it. The player moves about on fixed 2D backgrounds with 3D characters (much like Final Fantasy VII), though with more resolution in all aspects. The backgrounds are interesting but seem to lack life that would help with the lack of 3D environs. As noted, battle animations are just slow enough just to make battle an annoyance.

Audio: B-

There’s minimal voicework, again, something that Final Fantasy X had plenty of, and it’s a surprise it’s lacking here, although if they simply took a PS1 developed game to the PS2, it’s not that much of a surprise. The music is ok, but really doesn’t have much memorial to it.

Overall: B

The largest problem with Shadow Hearts to me is basically that while it adds in some nice features like the Judgment Ring and Sanity Points, it ends up basically like most typical turn-based RPGs from the early days of the PS2. While the game provides an unusual historical-fiction story (though ends up being about the young man on a quest and finding love in a young female by the end of the game, a staple of most RPG titles), it begs to have more details to try to differentiate it from other games. They correct these in the sequels as well as bringing the game up to modern PS2 standards. If you haven’t touched the Shadow Hearts series yet, this is definitely a good place to start, for both gameplay and story. If you’ve played the later games, this one may be passable as the later games only add to what this game had, removing nothing else.

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