Shadow Hearts: Covenant - Review  

Cool Judas
by Michael Beckett

40 to 50 hrs.


Rating definitions 

   Shadow Hearts; Covenant, the third game in the burgeoning Koudelka series, makes significant improvements over its predecessor in nearly every conceivable area. However, and while the game is very good and a lot of fun to play, certain parts of the game make it hard to reconcile with the other two titles in the series. Where Koudelka was deadly serious, a genuinely paranoid-making experience, Shadow Hearts; Covenant is really more of an adventurous romp with heavily comedic overtones. Given the scant number of people who played the first game in the series, this conflict will probably not be a point of much contention to most, but it gives me fits.

   The combat system of SH;C plays like an amalgam of several other systems. Covenant takes the timing-based accuracy system of the first Shadow Hearts, in which the hit and critical probability of your character's attacks are based on the player's ability to connect a sweeping indicator with hit areas on a circular target called a "Judgement Ring", and adds to it the initiative system of Final Fantasy X - characters take turns in order based on speed, higher speed netting more turns. In addition to this, turns can be linked together to form multi-hit combos, with attack damage increasing exponentially the more hits are tacked on. The final aspect of combat is a position system almost reminiscent of a tactical RPG; positioning makes a difference in combat as certain spells have an area effect that will connect with anyone inside the targeted area. In truth, the game plays as much like a Grandia title in it's combat system as it does elsewhere.

   One area where SH;C makes a great leap in quality over it's predecessor is in voice acting. Where Shadow Hearts had voice acting which literally made grown men cry, Covenant's is actually fairly good, with a solid cast that knows what it's doing. And it's a good thing, too; voice acting is far more present than it was in the first game, with each of the game's frequent and wordy cinema sequences being fully voiced.

Character design borders on the clinically insane. Character design borders on the clinically insane.

   And overall, the game isn't written or translated badly. The story is perhaps not the most emotional work ever laid down, but it does a solid job of providing an interesting narrative while avoiding most of the more irritating clichés. The translators did a very good job of making both the mythological references and the jokes accessible to a North American audience. But it's the jokes that really cause a problem.

   The first game in the Shadow Hearts line was a little-known TRPG called Koudelka. It was difficult, convoluted, and though it was perhaps less imaginative than Shadow Hearts; Covenant, it's storytelling was far darker and far more emotional. The story was highly character-driven, and more significantly, far more serious. With the cast of characters Shadow Hearts; Covenant, which includes a puppeteer whose magic depends on the whims of his dressmakers, a pretentious pre-teen princess in a fur hat and a pro-wrestling vampire who calls himself Grand Papillion, it is exceptionally difficult to reconcile the two games as being part of the same series. Again, it's not that the story is poorly written or that the characters are unsympathetic - quite the opposite, in fact. It's just that the game takes the series in such a radically different direction that SH;C feels very strange indeed when considered as a direct sequel.

   Similarly, the music of Shadow Hearts; Covenant is fairly different from the work in the first and second games in the series. Yoshitaka Hirota, the composer responsible for Shadow Hearts' soundtrack returns for this game, joined by veteran composer Kenji Ito, and the change from the previous game to this is palpable. Where SH's music was atmospheric and creepy with only moderate melodic overtones, the music of Shadow Hearts; Covenant goes heavily into rock with heavily classical overtones. It still retains some of it's earlier creepiness, but the sense of paranoia which pervades Shadow Hearts and Koudelka have been significantly toned down in Covenant. Overall, it's an eclectic and excellent soundtrack which does the game a great benefit.

Crests can be used to customize your character’s magic. Crests can be used to customize your character’s magic.

   It's fairly rare to see an RPG with a real-world historical setting, and Shadow Hearts; Covenant uses it's 1900-era setting with fair results. Though it takes place during World War I, the game's events are almost entirely removed from it. This attitude is reflected in most other incidents of any historical importance that the game deals with - SH;C is far more interested in the alternate in Alternate History than it is in the history. This doesn't damage the narrative to any great degree, but it is odd to think of one of the largest conflicts in human history as background noise. Still, SH;C is made a more unusual game more through it's actual plot than through it's setting.

   The visual style of Shadow Hearts; Covenant is a realistic one similar to that of it's predecessors, simply updated to conform with improving technology. Overall the visual style is solid, showing some good art direction; the game is visually dark without being overpoweringly gothic.

   Shadow Hearts; Covenant is neither particularly difficult nor particularly long. Although some of the puzzles may give a gamer pause, none (or rather, almost none) of them are fatal, and the only truly difficult enemies are the optional bosses. The game lasts around forty hours, though sidequests can extend the game to almost fifty.

   Shadow Hearts; Covenant is a game which perhaps should have been a stand-alone title. It is well written, well designed and has a unique and infectious feel to it, but the fact is that it feels far too frivolous, far too lightweight to reconcile with the overwhelming sense of death and despair in the other two games. On the one hand, it is always good to see designers willing to strike out in a bold new direction, but on the other, that new direction should not be one which would conflict with the established personality of a series - that's one of the main difficulties every person who sets out to make a sequel has to face, the problem of how to make a game original without betraying the general feel of the series. With it's over-the-top humor and slapstick, Shadow Hearts; Covenant betrays the general feel of the series, but it at least has the decency not to suck.

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