The gaming industry is full of little ironies. Shadow Hearts has been widely praised, and its three titles possess the rare scope and polish to rival the best mainstream RP Gs of the Playstation 2 era. But the first game was released just a few days before the titanic Final Fantasy X, and the series has been in its shadow ever since. Hunt them down if you can; they're easy to love and a refreshing take on a genre that often seems staler than a half-eaten croissant in Death Valley. I'll rant about the music first. It's funky. It's hectic. It's moody and evocative and very, very good. It adds something wonderful to the total experience without calling undue attention to itself, which is not something all game soundtracks manage to pull off. Shadow Hearts isn't a good-looking game, but it's not hideous and it gets the job done. The character animations are surprisingly fluid and the town and dungeon backgrounds are detailed and often charmingly atmospheric. If you must play something that looks like a respectable PS 2 game, the two sequels are substantially prettier. The battle system deserves praise for its super-cool-spicy-new innovation, the Judgment Ring, which tests your timing and muscle memory as an indicator spins over spaces like a deranged clock hand. Most of your actions in battle (and a few notoriously frustrating sequences out) require input on the Ring, so it behooves you to pay some attention to your commands, as opposed to the tired button-mashing pattern many RP Gs permit. But this isn't quite enough. Most fights are easy enough for you to spam attacks and heal as needed, and character abilities are very limited; if it weren't for the Judgment Ring, Shadow Hearts would have a depressingly generic battle system. Your mileage, of course, may vary on this one. Shadow Hearts' greatest strength is its story and the creepy-crazy, historically dubious (cell phones in 1913? sure) atmosphere that goes along with it. Our troubled, horny hero Yuri gets a buttload of character development and some great lines, and the rest of his friends/enemies/groupies are interesting enough themselves. It's a dark game (with some literal soul-searching), but it doesn't take itself seriously enough to drown in its own limpid tears. I would say that it has a whole lotta heart, but that would just be another bad pun.
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