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Originality in the Shadow of the Mainstream
In the final years of the PlayStation, a refreshingly unique game mixing Survival Horror and RPG elements named Koudelka was released. Unfortunately it was unheard of and ignored by the majority of mainstream gamers, however it has built somewhat of a cult following. At the end of 2001, its sequel Shadow Hearts was released. Like it's predecessor, Shadow Hearts brings a lot of unique ideas to the table despite shedding its Survival Horror elements for a more straightforward RPG feel.
Shadow Hearts is set in an alternate pre World War I era of the far east and England. Yuri, a 24 year old 'Harmonixer' with the ability to fuse with and change into monsters, is guided by a voice to help and rescue people in need. The voice leads him to Alice, a young exorcist with great power, who is being kidnapped by a mysterious foe named Roger Bacon. Bacon is interested in the girl for some unkown reasons and will stop at nothing to acquire her. The only one standing in his way is Yuri, leading to many altercations between the two parties. The story is definately a treat for those looking for something refreshing. Many twists and turns await as Bacon's plan and Yuri's past unravel in this dark and gothic feeling adventure. Events in the history are used to give more color to the story but are never depended upon. The cast of characters are developed well, particularly Yuri who's past the player gets a gimpse of through many unnerving scenes in the 'graveyard'. Fans of Koudelka will appreciate the references and characters who make a return also.
Overall, the musical score in Shadow Hearts compliments the game very well. The battle music is very fitting and blends in nicely. Many of the town themes are extremely memorable and a few of them very average. The voice acting is a mixed bag. Some of it is passable, but the rest makes you want to burst out laughing (the Sea Mother comes to mind).
Like the voice acting, the visuals are also a mixed bag. Overall I found the graphics to be washed out and plain. The unique characters and hellish monster designs are great, but the overall lack of detail detracts from the whole. Compared to other games on the Playstation 2, it just doesn't live up in technical aspects. On the other hand, the cinematics are fantastic and a real treat to watch.
The tried and true RPG formula of leveling, buying better equipment, and fighting bosses is present in Shadow Hearts, though with a few unique additions. For any action the player wishes to take in battle, whether it's using a special character ability, attacking, or using an item, they must succeed in what is called the 'Judgement Ring'. When the player selects one of these actions, a cirular object appears on screen with 1 or more 'zones' embedded on it. An indicator begins at the top of the ring and spins clockwise around once. The player must hit a button on the controller in each zone successfully for the action to succeed. Some actions have zones that are more frequent and narrow than others depending on how powerful the action is. While this is a refreshing change and actually involves the player in combat, it does get quite repetative. The game would have been better off leaving only the complicated actions to be determined by this test of skill. The Judgement Ring also appears in the field when doing certain things with conditions different from the ones that must be met in battle. Even more unique than the Judgement Ring is the concept of Malice. Malice is the accumulation of all the souls of monsters Yuri has defeated throughout the game. When enough Malice accumulates, Yuri's Malice level raises and he must go to the 'graveyard' to quiet it. If Yuri does not diminish the Malice, The Reaper itself will visit Yuri and claim him. While it could have been just a gimmick for the game, the Malice concept is cleverly intertwined with the story. It plays an important role in the development of Yuri as he struggles with his powers and his past. Sanity points also play a big role in battle. Each characters has a number of sanity points that they start each battle with. Every round, 1 point is subtracted. If the points reach 0, the character goes berserk and performs random battle commands on random targets until their sanity is replenished. This adds a welcomed layer to battle that you must keep track of to survive and conquer.
Average RPGamers will finish Shadow Hearts in about 30-35 hours if they take the time to do all the sidequests. Without the sidequests, expect to finish in around 25-30 hours. Shadow Hearts has an easy to medium difficulty depending how good you are at the judgement ring. Only a few of the bosses I would categorize as 'hard' and the hardest being an optional one at that. You probably won't see the game over screen many times unless you don't properly build up your characters. An alternate ending adds to the replay value, but not by much as that's pretty much the only extra the game has.
The interface of Shadow Hearts is your standard menu system found in most RPG's with the exception of the Judgement Ring. A few nice features are added such as monster and character data for everyone you have encountered as well as a thorough help system you can refer to for questions about any of the game mechanics. Overall the localization was good other than the voice acting, though I questioned some of Yuri's dialogue at certain points.
If you enjoy originality and don't care too much about graphics, then give Shadow Hearts a try. The great story, music, and characters are enough to draw a cult following themselves. If you are someone who values graphics highly, you might want to pass it up or give it a rental first.
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