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Shadow Hearts - Review

PS2 RPGs Come of Age

By: Paul Koehler


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 7
   Interface 7
   Music/Sound 9
   Originality 8
   Plot 9
   Localization 8
   Replay Value 7
   Visuals 6
   Difficulty Easy to Moderate
   Time to Complete

35-50 Hours

 
Overall
8
Criteria

Shadow Hearts

  The Christmas season for 2001 proved to be an explosive one for videogames. In particular, a flurry of RPG titles were released for the PS2. One of the better ones is Shadow Hearts, brought to North America by Midway. A sequel to the PlayStation game Koudelka, Shadow Hearts stands on its own as a superior title with a great story and an amazing soundtrack. For those looking for an alternative to the Final Fantasy X hype, Shadow Hearts is the game to get. It also shows the gaming world that RPGs for the PlayStation 2 have finally come of age. For those who play Shadow Hearts, they will pleasantly surprised.

Signaling a shift towards an older crowd, Shadow Hearts' story takes place in the early 20th century and centers around two characters: a mysterious protector named Yuri and a murdered priest's daughter, Alice. Set in locales like Shanghai, Prague, and London, one of the game's best traits was the way it worked with the history of the pre-World War I era and fused it with its own elements of mysticism and magic. In an age of games like Pikmin and Legend of Mana, it is refreshing to see a plot that includes the Japanese Army, Inquisitor Knights, and London orphans in one package.

Central to the plot of the game is the mysterious powers of Yuri, as he is a Harmonixer: a man who can fuse with monsters. Because of this great power, Yuri is subject to the vengeance of the enemies that he kills on his quest, and as such must visit his nightmares to prevent the spread of their Malice. The Malice system is prevalent throughout most of the game, and a player that refuses to clear out Malice in the Graveyard has to deal with some of the main bosses of the game well before the party is able to fight them. While it can be very annoying at times to return to a save point just to access the Graveyard and reset the Malice meter, the system is an effective way to curb long level-up sessions, which for the most part are not necessary in the game.


Who's your daddy?
The hero: "You ain't getting away pops!"  

   Shadow Hearts' turn-based battles look ancient at first glance, but the game implements something called the Judgment Ring. When attacking, casting spells, or using items, players must hit the ring at specific intervals, similar to the trigger system of Final Fantasy 8 or Legend of Dragoon. Some players may opt for perfect hits, which cause more damage, but increase the chance of missing an attack altogether. The game also introduces Sanity Points, which are depleted each time a character goes through a turn. If a character loses all of his/her sanity points, they will go berserk. This adds another thing to consider in battles, and becomes more prevalent later in the game.

Battles are not the only place where the Judgment Ring is used, as shops and some plot events use it as well. Timed hits on the ring can also be used for buying items and equipment at discounts or selling them at higher prices. At times, the use of the ring seems a little overkill, but at the same time it does not take too long to adapt to it. Compared to some other recent RPG titles, Shadow Hearts is very linear. There is not a world map system, and most of the areas are very small. The game does open up a lot at the end, and while some events can be rushed through very quickly, they shouldn't be.

One thing that gamers will and should notice is the soundtrack. Newcomer Yoshitaka Hirota gives an amazing debut performance with an excellent score, as it gives Nobuo Uematsu a run for his money. Assisting him is Yasunori Mitsuda, famed composer of Xenogears and Chrono Cross. Lots of this success is due to the selection of the songs, as they vary according to their locale. Instruments like the Chinese ehru, or fiddle, are used in Shanghai while London's theme is an upbeat jazz track. Sound effects are probably best used throughout the game in the battles, such as the spell-casting sequences for each of the characters. The voiceover dialogues on the other hand, were horrible. Most of them were used in FMV's explaining certain plot events. The voice actors sounded third-rate - in particular the Sea Mother and her monologue was the worst.


Yuri owns you.
An example of the Judgment Ring in action.  

   Despite these flaws in the localization process, much of the dialogue is translated well, and this is important considering some of the conversations in the game Each of the characters has their own personalities, from Margarete's "James Bond" persona to Alice, the "sweet and innocent" girl. The maturity of the plot also makes the good localization all the more important. With the exception of the aforementioned FMV's, there are no voiceovers, and the dialogue shows each of the character's personalities well. Presented as well as the text are the graphics, as the game's use of pre-rendered backgrounds is a blessing. This created a look similar to Final Fantasy 8, the individual characters shined with their attacks. Although magic spells do not take a long time to cast in the game, they look impressive, and have great visual effects like the one of Yuri's attacks, pictured below. In addition, some of the battle arenas are the most impressive to fight in simply because they were created so well.


The Sephiroth
The best part about some of the spells is watching them being cast.  

While not too long, the game does offer multiple endings, similar to the Chrono series. Like any quality item hunt, the game has its share of secrets, including two powerful fusion monsters and several different ultimate weapons. These weapons and forms give the player a decided advantage, as their power surpasses anything else you could buy or obtain. In addition, RPGamers who want to perfect their use of the Judgment Ring will be glad to know that the game has a ranking system that keeps track of statistics like perfect hits. Shadow Hearts is not a game for the faint at heart. The plot is pretty thick with the issues of the time, and much of the history may disturb those who choose to remain ignorant. For RPGamers looking for a great story, good music, and a great game, they will be very pleased with Shadow Hearts, as it looks to be a sleeper hit for 2001. Finally, it is the first decent RPG for the PS2, and that deserves attention.





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