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What a sequel should be like
Three years after the first Shadow Hearts title, and five years after the original Koudelka release, Nautilus has finally finished their highly anticipated RPG; Shadow Hearts: Covenant. While none of the two previous games in the series recieved that much praise, this time, they really got it right. Shadow Hearts: Covenant has pretty much everything any gamer wants in an RPG, and everything in it is impressingly well executed.
Taking place during the first world war, and approximately 2 years after the end of the first game, Shadow Hearts: Covenant once again introduces us to Yuri, the young man with the ability to fuse with demons. Yuri is now nothing but a lone wolf, as Alice is no longer with him. He is constantly in deep sorrow, but tries to protect the few friends he has left. When the german army comes to take over the village where he resides, things start to go wrong. A member of a secret society, apparently part of the german group, puts a curse on Yuri, and all of his demonic powers are removed from him. Determined to find out the truth behind the secret society, Yuri sets out on yet another adventure.
Just like in the first Shadow Hearts game, players of Covenant will make use of the Judgement Ring (see my Shadow Hearts review for more info about the ring) in battle for attacking, using items and magic. This time around, however, the ring has developed quite a bit. The status effects are back (reverse/small/invisible ring etc), but now you can also change the ring to your benefit. Unlike in the first SH, every character now only has one ring, and that particular ring will never be replaced. By using various items found throughout the game, you can change the size of the hit/strike areas, increase the number of attacks the character can inflict in one turn etc. You can also equip accessories on each character's ring which causes various status effects on the enemy. Finally, you can also change the Ring Type on each character's ring. For example, if you wish to play with the "Techincal Ring", all the hit areas will become smaller, but you will inflict more damage if you hit them.
Magic in Covenant is gained by equipping certain crests on each character. Everyone except Yuri can use these crests, and the number of crests you can equip increases as you level up. Aside from this and regular attacking, each character also has a number of individual abilities that can be acquired in a number of ways. As with the original Shadow Hearts, Yuri gains access to new Fusion Monsters in the graveyard. As for the other characters, Karin can learn new sword arts by talking to the right people in towns, Blanca can learn new skills by battling other wolves in the "Wolf Bout" minigame, Joachim learns new arts by defeating his old teacher in various places etc. This makes the game overall much more entertaining, as most of the characters are totally different, not only in personality, but also in battle.
As a last paragraph for the battle system, I introduce to you, the combo system. This feature makes the battles twice as fun, but unfortunately also twice as easy. You can perform combos at any time, but preferrably when you know that you have four upcoming turns (so that you can perform a 4-member-combo). By choosing "combo" in the command menu, the party members will standby next to each other, preparing for the combo. You can start the combo at any time by attacking/casting magic with a character that is included in the combo. The combo's arent special attacks or anything, they're just everyone's turns stacked upon each other.. and the more hits you perform in one combo, the more bonus damage you will inflict. Lastly, if you perform a 4-person-combo, the last member of the combo will be able to cast "combo magic". These are really powerful spells that can't be accessed in any other way.
Given that the game is supposed to take place during the first world war, there are a lot of slang and phrases being used that certainly did not exist back then. Fair enough, this is fiction, it's a game. The translation overall is great though, and in many occassions will the characters' extreme use of sarcasm make you laugh. Comparing the three games in the series, Koudelka is the only one which is really different, from both other RPG's and the other two in the series. Neither the gameplay nor the plot in Covenant are anything revolutionary or original, yet both aspects are very entertaining and well executed either way.
Like in the previous installment, Yoshitaka Hirota and Yasunori Mitsuda are behind the soundtrack of the game. The style is very much the same as before, but the soundtrack is overall a bit more lighthearted than the previous. Still, all of the tracks are very fitting to the game, even if some of the themes striked me as a bit odd. Overall a very satisfying soundtrack though, just as one would expect from these two composers.
Concerning graphics, the first thing to say is that it's a large improvement above the previous title. Then again, considering that the original Shadow Hearts was meant to be for the PSX to begin with (and thus didn't look that good on the PS2), that's not saying much. When comparing Covenant's graphics with other modern RPG's, it still gets quite a high grade, but it's nothing extraordinary. The character models are very well rendered and detailed, but the rest isn't above average. A small bonus goes to very impressive CG movies.
In my opinion, Covenant (and most other new RPG's) could've been a lot harder than what they are. While there are some bosses that might give you a rough time until you know what to do, the only real challenge in this game is to keep up with the Judgement Ring. If you're able to pull off those perfect combo's every time, this game will be a breeze. Completion time varies from 30-40 hours all the way up to 60-70 hours if you want to do most of the sidequests and bonus stuff (which there's a lot of; extra fusion monsters, ultimate weapons & armors etc).
In the end, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is without doubt one of the best RPG's that were released in 2004. This is a game with a lot of quality and very few flaws that can easily be overlooked. With a very entertaining battle system, fun minigames and dungeons, and a mature plot, I don't see how anyone could be disappointed with it. Highly recommended.
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