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Silhouettes in the Sun
By: Simon Seamann
It must be quite a lamentable fate to know that an RPG one has labored over for years is destined to be buried alive in the sands of obscurity by one's former co-workers. Such was the plight of the 2001 release of Shadow Hearts, hitting the store shelves less than a week before the unleashing of Final Fantasy X. Developed by relatively talented ex-Squaresoft employees, Shadow Hearts nevertheless remains a somewhat obscure testament to what happens when the reach of innovators exceeds their grasp.
While one could hardly fault a developer for following the Final Fantasy RPG template in such an age, it remains frustrating that an otherwise original experience is constrained by a system which does not fit. Throughout the game, the player is presented with the Judgment Ring - a device that requires the player to time button presses in order to do just about anything. While timing elements in battle are not especially unique, Shadow Hearts boldly forges ahead by requiring timing elements for every single action both inside and outside of battle. While this prevents battles from devolving into a mindless race to push the Fight command as with most Final Fantasies, it also opens the possibility for failure in casting a Cure spell, drinking a potion, and opening a door. The penalty for missing a button press outside of combat is rather benign, and involves either trying again or not getting the discount when buying items. In a strictly turn-based battle system with only a handful of late-game spells which cure multiple party members, however, a single blink or twitch can easily cost an entire turn, and possibly, the game. The introduction of the Judgment Ring also confers a new realm of status abnormalities, such as halving the "hit area," speeding up the bar, decreasing the size of the ring, or even making the "hit areas" invisible. "Frustrating" does not begin to describe these new additions to the Player Killing Ailments repertoire of enemies and bosses.
Aside from the Judgment Ring, Shadow Hearts incorporates another character resource: Sanity Points. For every round that a character remains in battle, they lose a Sanity Point until either combat ends or they go berserk. While this sounds like an interesting new mechanic at first, it really is not - Sanity Points are replenished fully at the end of every battle, and really only serve the function of limiting battles of attrition with some of the tougher bosses. A similar, equally disappointing innovation was the incorporation of Malice. Essentially, after a number of random battles are completed, the player's level of Malice increases through varied colored ranks. If the player does not go to the Graveyard to cleanse the Malice (a simple process which involves fighting a single enemy alone), random battles eventually feature monsters as tough as boss characters from later in the game. In practice, Malice is simply an excuse to force the player to fight another tedious battle and getting them to go to the Graveyard, a mystical location where the main character acquires new powers and occasionally furthers the plot. As with the rest of the game, the issue is not that elements such as Sanity Points and Malice are innovative, but rather that Shadow Hearts does next to nothing with them.
The waste of potential is not limited to combat alone - indeed, the entire game is rife with it. The setting is one of historical fiction, right around the turn of the 20th century. The main characters spend a lot of time traveling throughout Asia and eventually to Europe, experiencing some decidedly macabre material along the way. Unfortunately, nearly all of it has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot. So while the excursions into cannibalistic villages, exorcising powerful demons, and foiling insidious plots involving the murder of children to resurrect the dead are entertaining at first, they all begin to feel like overly-elaborate fetch-quests as soon as one realizes they have no real purpose other than setting mood. This feeling is only heightened by the extremely limited towns, entirely straightforward dungeons, and the bumbling protagonist himself. Although the game makes valiant strides towards the end in shoring up a rather convoluted plot into a cohesive whole, the endgame proves too unwieldy and inconsistent with the first half of the story. Obviously, Shadow Hearts does not claim a monopoly on plots which careen widely out of control to involve the fate of mankind, but it is one of the unfortunate few which were dishonest about it.
Following the careening plot twists is a similar careening of music quality. The wild swing of excellent tracks is somewhat forgivable considering the soundtrack was penned by both newcomer Yoshitaka Hirota and genius Yasunori Mitsuda. What is not forgivable, however, is the battle music used during the first half of the game. Beyond aggravating, it achieves an entirely new level of wretchedness as the hours wear onward, to the point where continuing the game becomes a serious effort. Luckily, the battle music permanently changes into something much more palatable around hour ten, and the various songs in the midterm are likewise improved, if not occasionally played out of character.
And thus, the crux of Shadow Hearts reveals itself to be the dilemma of wasted potential. Truly, this game features more innovation in a single package than most series do over their entire span. The monster designs, for example, are quite possibly the most vivid approximations of Lovecraftian horror ever seen in this genre. And yet, one has to battle with them through an archaic system almost as old as the genre itself, modified in such a way to prevent any real fun to be had. The boss battles were highly imaginative and highly frustrating affairs where a single mistimed button press erases almost an hour of work. The locales and tone were a delicious aside in furthering a plot that was far less interesting than the sidequests which constitute it.
So when considering a purchase of Shadow Hearts, ponder first on whether you are the type of person willing to forgo the possibility of having fun and sacrificing twenty-some hours of your free time in exchange to see something rarely, if ever, seen before in our beloved genre. That we must make such evaluations is a tragedy that, hopefully, the sequel has remedied.
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