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It seems that there's been a flood of semi-decent RPG's on the PS2 over the last year or so, and some of them have even made it across the Atlantic to good old Blighty. Wild Arms 3 comes to mind, and the subject of this this review, Shadow Hearts, also made the trip - for which I am very grateful. Even better, the game can now be found in bargain bins across the land for the bargain price of £10 (about $15).
The game has been lovingly crafted by Sacnoth, some of which originally came from Squaresoft and worked on the Final Fantasy series, but I honestly couldn't tell you which ones. It is a pseudo-sequel to another game on the PS1 called Koudelka, but it is much broader in scope and story than that title ever was. Those of you RPGamers on a budget could do far worse than give this game a try. Now I'll get on with telling you why...
A good RPG these days needs to do something a little different in the battle system to stand out from the crowd and sustain the player's interest. In order to prevent battles from becoming a simple matter of mashing the X button until you win, a couple of twists have been introduced in Shadow Hearts. The first of these is the Judgment ring. When you choose to attack or cast a spell, a grey ring will appear with several green areas and a hand that spins round clock wise. If you press the X button when the hand is in a green area you score a hit, if it's in the grey area you miss. Missing sometimes just means you hit twice instead of three times, but it can also mean you lose your turn altogether, which you really don't want to happen if your trying to cast a healing spell. The judgment ring also appears elsewhere in the game in shops (to earn discounts on items, weapons and armour), and also appears in the storyline. It can be annoying but it does succeed in preventing things from becoming boring.
There's also the Fusion system, which is basically this games version of summoning creatures. The main character, Yuri, can fuse into many elemental monsters once he has defeated them in the graveyard of his dreams. This graveyard all revolves around the "Malice" system, which I personally found to be a major pain, as you always have to go back to the graveyard when your Malice level fills up. If it gets too full then "Fox Face" attacks and you don't stand a chance near the beginning of the story. There's also an SP level for each character, which caught me out quite a few times. Once your SP runs out, a character goes berserk until you restore their SP with a Pure Root or the battle ends. Some characters have far less SP than others (Alice for example) so you really have to keep an eye on how much they have left, especially in boss battles.
SH features some of the best music I have ever heard in a game. I am a big fan of Bjork (don't laugh), and the woman in the background of the battle themes reminds me of her voice at times. I did prefer the music in the Asian part of the game (the first half), but the score in the European part is very good too. As for the sound, the sound effects are pretty decent - nothing amazing. I did like the sound the final boss makes as he flies towards the party though. The voice acting is quite patchy - the main characters don't do a bad job but there is one cut scene early in the game where the voice over work made me cringe. If you have already played the game no doubt you remember the Sea Mother going "Shlooooooop! Shlooooooop!" as she tells her ghost story, but I for one found it comical rather than terrifying. When Alice speaks her English accent isn't very convincing either (I can detect a slight American twang to it)..
Shadow Hearts scores highly in the Originality department thanks to the battle system that I have previously mentioned and also in the plot of the game. The game is set in an alternative version of the real world in the 1940's/50's and is inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft. You will see black magic, weird twisted abominations, evil warlocks, demons and all sorts of other wondeful creations.
The story focuses mainly on the characters of Yuri and Alice, who are polar opposites. Yuri is a Harmonixer which gives him the ability to fuse with the souls of various monsters, and Alice is the daughter of a murdered priest. He begins the game by rescuing her from Roger Bacon, a well dressed English man who is after her for her strange magical powers. They go on the run together across Asia and Europe and befriend Zhuzhen, a magical adept, Margarete, a spy, Keith, a vampire, and Halley, who is a young boy also with strange powers. The story takes this band of misfits and sends them on an epic story of good vs. evil full of twists and turns that is never less than entertaining.
At times, Shadow Hearts has very good localization, and at others the dialogue just seems plain wrong. This was more of a problem early in the game and it means it may take a while for you to begin to like Yuri. For the most part though, the story is told with enough flair to keep you interested and can keep you playing until the small hours of the night. I have definitely seen worse jobs, but then again it's not the RPG equivalent of Shakespeare either.
When you finish Shadow Hearts for the first time you get the opportunity to save your game and then use the file to start all over again with all the Fusion Souls you acquired the first time through. There's also two different endings, a good one and a bad one, so there's enough reason to play through twice but it's by no means compulsory. I myself was intrigued enough by the characters and storyline to go and track down a copy of Koudelka, the game's predecessor, and when I have finished that I plan to replay SH too.
I have read a few other reviews of Shadow Hearts and they all seem to agree that the graphics are pretty weak. I don't really think is true, however. Sure, the backgrounds during random battles are rather sparse, but the pre-rendered scenes out of battle can be truly beautiful. There are also some of the best FMV's I've seen sprinkled throughout the game and the main character models are nicely detailed (I especially like Alice's short short skirt!). So okay, Final Fantasy X looks better, but in my opinion, it didn't have anywhere near the charm or the level of interesting gameplay evident in Shadow Hearts.
The monster designs go from the sublime to the ridiculous (frogs with faces instead of eyes and things that look like chicken drumsticks), but at least they show originality instead of the usual array of enemy types.
The main quest isn't too difficult to complete if you've played a few RPG's before and you're familiar with having one character healing, one fighter and one using offensive magic. If you decide to go for it and do the sidequests required to see the good ending or get the best weapons you may have to alter your strategy a bit and buy plenty of items that prevent status abnormalities or ring abnormalities. Because of the Judgment Ring system, your characters are open to all sorts of different effects, such as invisible hit areas, irregular spins or extra fast spins. Sometimes you can actually use this to your benefit, such as equipping an item that spins up the ring but gives you 25% extra damage.
If you take your time, savour the story and complete your Fusion Soul collection then Shadow Hearts can take around 25-30 hours to complete, but if you rush it I expect you can finish it a lot quicker than that. The game is thoroughly entertaining for all of that time though and I believe a fairly short entertaining game is much better than an epic 50 quest that begins to feel stale 30 or so hours in.
At first I wasn't sure whether I would like Shadow Hearts because of its dark and moody setting but on the contrary this turned out to be one of the games major strengths, along with the Judgment Ring/Fusion systems and the spellbinding music. It might not be one of the prettiest games out there but for the bargain price you can find this game for it's not worth passing it over just for that. If you see a copy of this game giving you a knowing look from a bargain bin, give in to temptation, take a risk and you may just find yourself playing one of the best games you'll play all here.
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