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A Shadow Indeed
By: Josh Czoski
Starting on an RPG is a huge commitment, with long playtime and requirement of an attention-span, and being stuck in the middle of one that seemed like it should deliver, but ends up falling flat, proves quite discouraging. Perhaps reviewers' desperate craving for a fresh approach to the traditional RPG caused the euphoric reaction to this game among its sparse fans or, again, the promising start it most certainly had. But the truth of the matter, plain and simple, is that Shadow Hearts is a below-mediocre, uninspired product all the way around.
The most common praises for Shadow Hearts include the theoretically fresh, "unique" feel as a macabre RPG, its setting in the real world around the time of World War I, and being geared toward an "adult audience". Enter the gimmick. Once in a while, clever new approaches do occur in game design. Parasite Eve, for instance, although far from perfect, accomplished some freshness in most of its features, where Shadow Hearts takes the mold of Final Fantasy VIII and artificially injects its ultimately superficial "innovations".
I believe putting these "unique" features to trial is in order. First of all, this is one of the few RPGs I know of that received an M-rating, but the only good reason for it is a violent opening cinema, as far as I ever noticed. The story does indeed begin with a good deal of dark atmosphere, largely because of the fact that everything about it is rather mysterious and ominous at first, and simply hearing references to real-world places and events of the time, although nothing indicating that the developers had a more-than-average historical knowledge, does indeed constitute reason for the seasoned RPGamer to become interested in how the plot will develop. Also encouraging is the much-vaunted era-aesthetic in outfits and locations. Somewhat discouraging from the beginning, however, is the main character, Yuri, acting with a contrived "attitude", hinting at one of the most disgusting insincerities of the plot: the characters. Ripped-off from the archetypical standard RPG, Shadow Hearts actually tries to tell a character-focused narrative, despite the early promise of an atmospheric or "horror" RPG at the beginning. The way characters fit into obligatory "RPG-roles"--comic-relief, the soul-searching young, reluctant hero, the discouraged-but-driven orphan, the multi-layered villain-are all stereotypes, and serve only to make fun of other real efforts to write characters with relevant struggles. The references to history really are not that integral to the plot either, and so the time of the story is easily forgotten (only the visuals remind one of the setting past the first third of the game). Most annoying of all are the tangents the plot takes, artificially lengthening the play time, having you go "save an orphanage", for example, and the insipid main story is more told to us, via those dramatic conversations with a villain kind enough to explain it all, than experienced by the player firsthand. After a short time, the previously-mentioned "unique" take on the story fades away, and in place, a progression of a plot that monkeys a Final Fantasy to the point of mockery. Do not be fooled; not only is this, at the core, another "band-of-heroes-saving-the-world" plot, it is a band and a world that are impossible to care about, thanks to a total lack of sincerity anywhere.
On to localization, we get very lame voice-overs when used. Otherwise, it really doesn't matter; I doubt the dialogue was Japanese-Shakespeare in the first place, and thus the translation likely preserves the canned "character" of it.
In the exact same fashion, the battle system "sounds" more original (with catchy vernacular for features) than it really is. In reality, practically everything about the battles, items, and equipment quote Final Fantasy yet again. Admittedly, the "Judgment Ring" is a good take on reflex-based challenge in battle, for which timed button-presses become a part of the effectiveness of almost every action. Naturally, for being very lonely as a legitimate standout feature, the Judgment Ring gets milked for all its worth in battles and in other scenarios such as upgrading weapons and even buying and selling.
A less-interesting original feature is the Sanity Points. In addition to HP and MP, which drain as the battle goes on, they threaten to make a character go insane and out of the player's control. These can be ignored completely in quick battles, but in long battles, this lousy attempt at uniqueness means you simply have to use an item to restore them as a battle goes on, and that is the extent of that "innovation". Overall, since the system apes a traditionally solid formula, battles fall into the boring-but-not-too-frustrating category, at least.
Probably the closest-to-redeeming factor in Shadow Hearts was its visuals. Technically, the 3-D engine looks like it was made for PlayStation only with smoother textures and frame rates. Otherwise, the artwork actually feels somewhat inspired, sometimes; the characters designs are definitely memorable, and the monster designs often surprise with their creativity. The rest of the time, the environments look mostly bland and uncreative, with the lights turned down of course, and the battle effects mostly look ridiculous as they (along with the rest of the game) scream "trying to be Final Fantasy". On the whole, though, whatever atmosphere Shadow Hearts may have (if not in my experience) is likely due to the visual style.
Another place where some mild quality is found lies in the soundtrack. The composer made a noticeable effort to acknowledge the different musical styles of the different cultures visited in the game, such as China to Europe. Otherwise, the soundtrack is also largely different than the usual RPG, as much of it is less melodic than the usual Square RPG and emphasizes rhythm a bit more. Unfortunately, poorly-chosen synthesizers end up making much of it sound as wonky as the scenarios they are written for. Some battle music and the overly-ridiculous Roger Bacon theme come to mind.
The most relieving prospect about this game is that no talent got wasted. No aspect of the game sticks out as particularly good or bad compared to the rest, and so the player may experience the game as a stable, unwavering snore-fest. Then again, one must remain at more than the lowest level of consciousness to pass the judgment ring gimmicks. Maybe we will get a macabre RPG with more of a vision in it than dollar signs someday, but until then, I do not believe in giving leeway to uninspired, insincere hackwork like this.
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