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Sleeper Hit of 2001
Most RPGs that were released during the same time as Final Fantasy X were almost instantly forgotten or ignored. It's a shame really, as some of those RPGs were really good. Shadow Hearts, is one of those games. Being a sequel to the tiny psx hit Koudelka, it brings quite a different adventure to what most RPGamers are used to, putting in a slight mix of RPG and Survival Horror.
While Koudelka's battle system was built up sort of like a Tactical RPG, Shadow Hearts returns to the old turn-based style. Your party in battle consists of up to 3 characters. Most of the things seen here are very basic.. you can attack, use items, defend and cast magic spells or use special moves. However, there is one thing that Shadow Hearts introduces that is unlike anything we've seen before; the Judgment Ring. When a character is about to perform any kind of action in battle, the Judgment Ring appears. Depending on what you're about to do, different kinds of sections on the ring will be highlighted. After that, a cursor starts spinning around the ring. Now, what you have to do, is to press X exactly when the cursor is above each highlighted spot. Of course, the difficulty of these varies a lot depending on what you're about to do. Also, the closer you are to the edge of the highlighted area when pressing X, the more powerful your action will be. Another thing that brings more difficulty into the battles of Shadow Hearts, is the Sanity Points. Each character has a different amount of SP in the game, which is drained when a character performs any kind of action. If a character's SP is depleted, he or she will go into berserk. I think this sort of explains itself.... keep all of your characters SP bars up, or you'll be having a lot of trouble. There are tons of different items that cures SP though, so there isn't that much to worry about. Most other things in the battle system of Shadow Hearts is quite basic and simple. You use MP to cast spells and perform special moves, and to earn more of those, you only need to level up. There is one exception though; the hero of the game. Not too surprisingly, he has a special talent... he is a Harmonixer. He can turn into different monsters which he first has to defeat in his own nightmares. This is essential for some boss fights in the game, and it is highly recommended to spend at least some time acquiring better monsters to turn into.
Shadow Hearts possesses a beautiful interface. The menus and controls are beautiful in all kinds of ways, and the camera controls is a vast improvement above the previous title. The world map could've been a bit more detailed though, but this can be overseen. I must add though, that it is quite different that a RPG takes place in a continent that isn't made up. Shadow Hearts takes place in Europe, where the party travels between various famous cities. This, combined with the Judgment Ring and a Harmonixer as a protagonist, is more than enough to give the game a fresh touch, even if the rest of the game is mostly stuff we've seen before.
Koudelka had superior voice-actors compared to all other psx games that were released during that time. Just like it's predecessor, Shadow Hearts also has voices for their characters, and they're just as good. I specially enjoyed the brittish accent of Roger Bacon. Overall, the dialogue and text in Shadow Hearts is just as well translated as it was in Koudelka, something most people should be pleased with.
While Shadow Hearts was meant to be a Playstation game in the beginning, they never bothered to start over entirely from the beginning when creating the game engine. Even so, I still think the graphics in this game are above average... only just. The CG movies are incredibly beautiful, but the in-game graphics suffers some flaws. The surroundings aren't that detailed, and the character models are quite blurry from a distance.
In the music section, Shadow Hearts follows right into Koudelka's footsteps. Shadow Hearts has the same odd music style that Koudelka had, mixing calm tunes with frightening horror themes as you proceed throughout the game. That the soundtrack was a huge success didn't come to much surprise though, as none other than Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono-series, Xeno-series) worked on it together with Yoshitaka Hirota.
Lastly, the plot. If I hadn't played Koudelka before playing Shadow Hearts, the plot experience would probably have been quite uninteresting. You are Yuri, the Harmonixer. After your parents died, you've roamed the land looking for the source to the mysterious voice in your head. Eventually, the voice leads you to a young girl called Alice, who seems to possess strange powers. In the beginning of the game, we also get introduced to Roger Bacon, who seems to be the definition of evil itself. As he desperately tries to take Alice away, a lot of questions pop up in the player's head. As usual, it is up to you to unravel the mysterious truth about Alice, yourself, Roger Bacon, and most importantly how this game is related to Koudelka.
Shadow Hearts won't take longer than 25 hours to finish off the first time. While there are more sidequests than in the first game, they are still quite few, and nothing that will keep you hanging around for more than 40 hours at most. There is a newgame+ function though, to get a different ending. There is also quite a few scenes in the game that you can make a difference in, depending on what kind of choices you make, although it's nothing major. While most parts in Shadow Hearts are simple, some of the dungeons can be quite difficult at times. Also, if you're unprepared, some of the bosses might beat the crap out of you before you know it, so be careful. Other than that, there shouldn't be any trouble.
In conclusion, Shadow Hearts is a very good game. It is very unfortunate that it was forgotten so quickly, as it surpasses most of the RPGs that has been released so far to the Playstation 2. If you ever see this game, at least rent it. You'll be surprised.
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