Reviews: Shadow Hearts
The black sheep of the Shadow Hearts family, Koudelka is probably best remembered for its (at the time) state-of-the-art cutscenes, an enaging story, and the high quality of its voice acting. That same quality cannot, however, be said for the battle system, which has got to be one of the most unusable, confusing and clunky ever devised. For starters, there are no places to buy items or weapons (most of which break after a few hits anyway), so they have to be collected by engaging in random encounters. The random encounters are the single most frustrating portions of the game, mostly because of the horrifically slow loading time in battle, making even a simple encounter take forever. And even though the regular enemies are ridiculously easy, because of the loading time, it just makes the battles drag. The battle music itself doesn't help, taking a full four minutes to get to a "action" sounding part, rather than just sleep inducing drone the intro is. The boss battles, by contrast are hellishly difficult, but are so much more enjoyable, mostly because they seem to move at a much faster pace, and you have to use some strategy, rather than just pounding mindlessly. The boss music (Incantation - Again) is also an improvement, feeling more vibrant and energetic as you beat the living crap out of some really creepy monster. The design for boss monsters is very impressive, and very very creepy. One particularly memorable one, called the Chimera, had a blood-stained human torso, two snake-like tails for legs, three really long necks and three heads with very unsettling looks on their faces. The ingame-graphics are fairly good, though not quite on par with those of, say Final Fantasy VIII, but still nice nonetheless. The atmosphere is also very creepy, as you wander through the deserted abbey, with only the sound of your footsteps pircing the silence (music plays during battles and some select scenes). The music that does play, I must add, compliments the actions nicely, with an extremely poignant sounding opening theme (Requiem). It is was very dark game. Very very dark. Though it does have some funny moments, mainly through the (snarky) interactions of the main characters, and of course, the eternal-love-child, Roger Bacon. I'd recommend at least a watch on youtube, especaily seeing as how hard it's to find these days.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Video game sequels are often disappointing, but many fans of neglected cult classics would give their arms for one anyway. Shadow Hearts, by some miracle, spawned two sequels, both of which managed to soundly outdo the original. Covenant's battle system has been beefed up to an amazing degree. With a customizable Judgment Ring, expanded character abilities, and a proper magic and combo system, it's one of the most fun and dynamic RPG battle systems I've ever experienced. Good thing, too, because the random encounters are pathetically easy, and most of the bosses are little more than glorified punching bags. Your party simply has too many cheap skills at their disposal. The game has cleverly toned itself down to a T rating while losing none of the violence and naughtiness of the original, replacing on-screen murders with horrific discretion-shot beatdowns and oral sex jokes with anal sex scenes. But it looks more wholesome, I suppose; the dark environs have been replaced with World War I-torn towns with eternally crepuscular mood lighting. You may come to loathe these towns eventually. They are not intuitively designed, not at all, and lead to something I like to call 'exit paranoia', when you can never tell which buildings you can enter and which invisible lines will scoot you, unwilling, right back to the world map. The dungeons don't hold up any better, as they tend to come in two types: the long, winding maze with identical areas, and the frustrating, backtrack-happy pit-o'-puzzles. The game has an excellent soundtrack, though you wouldn't notice because the best songs are used once or twice and abandoned, leaving the same two town and dungeon themes to be repeated ad nauseam. Be sure to keep your ears open for the awesome ones, though. Yuri is as charismatic as ever, and his friends/enemies/would-be groupies are deliciously quirky. Lots of distinct personalities are bumping around. Still, the plot meanders up until the end, and the cut scene direction and VA can be awkward. You may prefer the simpler storytelling of the original. The graphics are impressive. Covenant doesn't go for eye-popping CG scenes so much as atmosphere and subtle touches. I like the way Blanca shakes out his fur in battle. I also like the effort put into making sure Yuri's fanny pack jiggles just so on his well-defined buns.
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.
Shadow Hearts: From the New World
It's the third installment and Yuri ain't here. Cue the fan backlash! SH 3 has a dicey reputation, which you may chalk up to the gaudy new setting, hyper-linearity, or lack of Yuri. You'll find something to gripe about. But you may also discover that SH 3 is a perfectly good game that fixed many of Covenant's most irritating problems. For starters, the difficulty is balanced in this one. Sure, it's still easy, but most of the nigh-broken techniques from Covenant have been pruned down subtly. Energy charge is harder to pull off, award money has been reduced, enemies have more HP, there are fewer Mind's Eyes, the list goes on. The greatest change comes from the Stock system, which forces you to keep an eye on enemies at all times or take devastating hits. This is doubly true for the bosses, which are much tougher this time around and spam statuses like nobody's business. Has anyone else noticed how similar SH 3 is to Final Fantasy X? I sort of suspect the developers felt like jumping on the bandwagon after the first game's release date fiasco and lackluster sales. In any case, it's a bright, colorful game, which honestly feels a little jarring after all the moodily dim areas in Covenant. You'll note that most of the scenes rendered in gorgeous CG involve the two most nubile female characters stripping or making out, for some reason... The music, thank God, is put to better use than in Covenant, and you'll rarely hear the same few songs for hours on end. Sadly, fewer of the songs really stand out, so it all sort of melts into a generic but pleasing aural mush. The talking cat and magnificent cleavage can't quite make up for your party's lack of chemistry and development, but the plot and pacing are tighter this time around and the VA has been improved. The trio of villains really steal the show but are criminally underdeveloped; it's frustrating to focus on the same few antagonists for 30 hours while knowing next to nothing about their motivation and background. The disturbing monster designs of the first game are back. You won't see the penis demons in this one, but you will see a floating clitoris beast in the last dungeon. On that note, keep your eyes peeled for Shout Outs from everything from Discworld to The Simpsons. Historical accuracy is in very short supply.