Shadow Hearts Covenant - Staff Retroview  

Chemical Warfare
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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40-60 Hours
+ Great combat system
+ Entertaining tale and cast
+ Superb character growth methods
- Most dungeon music is unremarkable
- Inaccurate history
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   The Shadow Hearts name was given another chance to shine after its last game was released very close to Final Fantasy X and somehow did not set sales records. Shadow Hearts Covenant turned out to be exactly what the series needed, a game with a unique feel that also happened to be superb. The annoying aspects of its predecessor have been tossed aside in favor of something that stays gripping from beginning to end, displaying inventiveness at every turn. This is a definite highlight of the PS2's library.

   Combat in the first Shadow Hearts was already far more interesting than the standard turn-based fare thanks to the Judgment Ring. Covenant takes its system of pressing a button at the right time to accomplish actions and improves it considerably, creating one of the most entertaining combat engines RPGs have to offer. The addictiveness of the Judgment Ring remains intact, with its slices of a circular area that must be pressed as a dial passes over them in order to initiate actions of any kind in battle, and much smaller segments of those slices that increase the action's effectiveness by twenty percent.

   A significant change for the better in Covenant is the ability to use combos. Characters can defer their move for the moment in order to stand adjacent to someone else, allowing the ones who do this to chain their attacks together. The longer a combo proceeds, the more additional damage it deals, allowing much faster defeat of powerful foes. Basic physical attacks now come in four permutations, which don't mean very much for solo action but can alter an enemy's position to allow certain combo moves much more effectiveness. Doing well with several aspects of battle performance now results in tangible bonus results such as items or experience, creating an incentive to win with skill.

   Battlefield geography matters in Covenant because just about every spell or ability that hits more than one adversary only affects a certain area. Small or large, the zone of effect for offensive abilities is unlikely to hit everything on the screen, necessitating a little thought about the actions to be undertaken. Precise planning is possible because a handy turn meter displays when each participant on the battlefield will next take an action, clearly displaying the effect of energy-intensive acts such as spells versus simply tossing out an item.

A man with a seemingly-sentient marionette is about to hit a killer snail.  Really. A man with a seemingly-sentient marionette is about to hit a killer snail. Really.

   Direct battle mechanics aren't the only place where Covenant allows thought, since its customization aspects are many. Players have the ability to tinker with the Judgment Ring directly to suit individual preferences, from turning off manual input to maximizing attack power by making each notch very slim. Attack boosts are gained throughout the game that allow extra strikes for each character's physical offensive, along with items to enlarge the size of each notch to make hitting them easier. The Crests that allow characters to use magic are completely interchangeable, and each member of the party gains new individual abilities through completely different means that vary from duels with wolves around the world to taking snapshots of the right enemies in battle. Going through with all of this activity is entertaining in and of itself, plus it ensures that the characters are wholly unique in a fight. The Judgment Ring itself can also pop up when interacting with merchants to alter prices in the party's favor, adding some adrenaline to an otherwise unexceptional activity.

   This individuality is only an extension of their personalities, which are varied and well-drawn. Yuri returns from the first Shadow Hearts with his caustically insouciant nature better expressed. The diverse assortment of characters who join him in this game are a memorable bunch, and plenty of entertaining dialogue passes between them as the plot progresses.

   The overarching story finds a young German lieutanant, Karin Koenig, pressed into service by a member of the Vatican in the cause of stopping a mysterious monster that shredded some of the Kaiser's troops when they entered the otherwise-insignificant French village of Domremy. It turns out the Vatican's representative, Nicolai, wasn't out for the well-being of the Kaiser's ambitions so much as the removal of the powerful obstacle Yuri and his fusions present, and Karin responds to this revelation by trying to make up for helping enable the Curse of Mistletoe. Nicolai represents the nefarious organization Sapientes Gladio, with plans to use the instability created by World War I for its own advantage. It's up to Yuri and his compatriots to make sure those plans come up short like the Schlieffen Plan.

   Covenant's story is hardly free of holes, but it flows well and stays interesting throughout. Its vision of 1915 is not exactly identical to the historical record, unless the Black Forest really has talking flowers and an alien invasion was prevented by beating a robotic dog in what is now St. Petersburg. Such goofiness doesn't affect the enjoyment of watching it unfold, and Midway did a fine job with the localization to keep the plot baffling on its own merits instead of through confusing English organization.

The works of Wagner are once again turned toward destruction. The works of Wagner are once again turned toward destruction.

   The original Shadow Hearts looked like a high-rent PS1 game — its sequel shapes up and looks like something the PS2 can respectably display. It helps that pretty FMVs are frequent enough to not be startling when they appear, but the exploration and battle graphics are very easy on the eyes. Unlike its predecessor, there is enough voice acting in Covenant to make its appearances welcome instead of jarring thanks to Midway's strong vocal talent. The music outside of battle is unfortunately more effective at setting a mood than being memorable, though combat tunes are very well done.

   Rushing through Covenant can produce a playtime under thirty hours, but investigating all of its fascinating side missions will easily push player involvement to around fifty. The game is accommodating to players who want to explore a little while before carrying on with the central plot, and it has very little content that is inaccessible after a brief moment in the story. Bosses can pack a punch, but will pose no great difficulty to veteran RPGamers.

   The improvement from the first Shadow Hearts to Covenant is massive, and the game deserves all the acclaim it's received over the years. It deserves inclusion among the top tier of the PS2's RPG library and will engross anyone with even the slightest of an inkling in experiencing something unique and worthwhile. The development team responsible for it has been dispersed to the winds across Japanese companies by now, making it unlikely that a similar high point for this series will ever be created. There is a third Shadow Hearts, but its reputation is unfortunately not equal to that monumental task.

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