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Points for Effort
By: Michael Beckett
One of the earliest RPGs on the PS2, Shadow Hearts has been touted as a revolutionary RPG and a solid reason to buy a PS2. While Shadow Hearts is certainly not a revolutionary game, it is by no means a bad one. With high-quality music and a number of innovations to an old battle system, Shadow Hearts may well be a worthy successor to Koudelka.
Innovation in the battle system has largely to do with the way damage and accuracy are calculated. Like the most elderly of systems, Shadow Hearts system is turn based, with turn order based on the Agility stat. However, unlike most turn based systems, instead of having the damage entirely calculated by the computer, an attack meter called the Judgment Ring is used. The indicator sweeps along the radius of the ring, and the player attempts to stop it at highlighted areas to determine the accuracy and critical probability of an attack. While this isn’t the newest of new ideas – the disturbingly dull Legend of Dragoon used a similar method – it does take a bit of a new direction with an old system. It is a bit depressing that with a few minor changes, an elderly system such as this can pass as genre-changing innovation in RPGs, but on the whole, the system works well, and unlike the battle system of Koudelka, it fits the atmosphere created by the rest of the game.
Menus and control in Shadow Hearts are well planned and executed, and there are really no problems with either, though I wish RPG designers would agree once and for all which button is confirm and which button is cancel. The interface as a whole takes a back seat to other events taking place, which is how it should be. The best interface is the one you don’t notice.
The composer for Shadow Hearts is a newcomer by the name of Yoshitaka Hirota, whose unique style lends this game a truly disturbing texture. Tracks such as “Wind Which Blows from the Dark” and “Coffin Fetish” set the creepy feel of the dungeons quite well, while battle themes like “NDE – Near Death Experience” and “China Ogre” are disturbing and exciting at the same time. Aiding Mr. Hirota is the critically acclaimed Yasunori Mitsuda, who appears to have handled both the game’s theme song and opening title. All in all, the two musical styles blend rather well, creating a unique and entertaining soundtrack. With all this sonic goodness, it’s a pity the rest of the sound is barely average. While footfalls and most basic sound effects are passable, the various monster squishes and screams all sound inappropriately silly, and the voice acting – oh goddess, the voice acting. Koudelka’s voice acting was top of the line. That, coupled with a god-like translation, made the characters of Koudelka the best thing about it. Shadow Heart’s voice acting feels like it was done by those with no talent, no interest, and no experience in or knowledge of voice acting. All I can say is at least the voices fit with the characters of the correct sex. Luckily, there are only a couple of places where voice acting is perpetrated, and therefore Music & Sound is saved from a fate worse than a six.
New ideas don’t exactly abound in Shadow Hearts, but you can tell the designer was trying. The Judgment Ring and the various ideas expressed in the game’s plot aren’t terribly new, but they do build upon themes commonly expounded on in the RPG genre. On the whole, Shadow feels like an attempt to expand on older ideas, to take themes that were used in early RPGs and bring them into the current genre mainstream. A noble goal in any case.
Shadow Hearts has a thoroughly unremarkable plot. The story of Shadow Hearts takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately fifteen years after the events of Koudelka. Although you don’t meet anyone who was involved with Koudelka until the game’s second act, you can feel Koudelka’s shadow all through the game. The story itself is a bit stereotypical, and there isn’t much of a chance to actually role-play, but the characters are likeable and interesting enough. However, the main gripe I have with the plot is the lack of any and all character development outside the two main characters, Yuri and Alice, and the lack of any motivation on anyone’s part; the characters seem content to let events blow them from one place to another without thinking about the whys or wherefores of said events. This is a big departure from Koudelka, which was almost exclusively character driven, and more importantly, was written by a man who didn’t lean on convention and cliché.
Another aspect of Koudelka that seems to have escaped the notice of Shadow Heart’s designers is the localization. The translation falls victim to that pitfall to which so many games have fallen – too much loyalty to the direct, literally translated Japanese. Experience has shown that direct translations from Japanese to English sound ridiculously silly – examples include Legend of Dragoon and Final Fantasy Tactics. Even as recently as Lunar Legend, translators don’t seem to recognize when the text they’re copying out is becoming cheese on a stick.
Shadow Heart’s replay value isn’t bad. A New Game + feature and a number of side quests improve what would otherwise be a once-through game becomes worthy of another play through. Also, in a fit of helpfulness, the designers have included a rating system which tells you how well you’re doing, how far you’ve walked, what percentage of items you’ve found, and what monsters you’ve killed. The Bestiary in particular is fun, and I enjoyed the arena a lot as well. On the whole, above average.
The visuals don’t really seem up to the advanced hardware of the PS2. The cinemas are very nice, but the gulf between the cinemas and the normal game play is considerable. Overall the visuals are about at the level of the very last days of the PSOne – not horrible, but nothing worth freaking out over. The overall visual style is very, very well done, on the other hand, and character design is, for the most part, quite professional. The illustrations of the items that are shown while checking their descriptions are high quality, interesting and subtly colorful, and quite beautiful on occasion.
Time to Complete is thirty to forty hours, not overly long. Difficulty rates Easy to Medium – not so easy that you don’t have to pay attention, yet not so difficult that you won’t win every battle the first time through. The difficulty varies a little depending on how good your timing is.
Overall, Shadow Hearts is a good game that really shouldn’t put itself forward so much. It isn’t a bad game, but it is stereotypical of the RPG genre; long-winded, pretentious and predictable. It has its moments, and can be fun at times, but it’s nothing truly new. For a game that was supposed to succeed Koudelka, I was really expecting more from it.
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