Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the third title in a non-traditional series of RPGs released by Aruze. The first title, Koudelka, received something of a lukewarm reception but, despite its flaws, has since become a cult classic thanks to its unique story. Shadow Hearts, a side story to Koudelka, fixed many of the flaws of its predecessor and was praised by many as rivaling the likes of Final Fantasy X. Shadow Hearts: Covenant, a direct sequel to Shadow Hearts, expands on the gameplay of the first title while staying true to the unique storyline and setting of the series.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes place in an alternate version of early 20th-century Europe during World War I, six months after the original Shadow Hearts. The continent is in turmoil, and this version of Europe has the added nuisance of having to worry about magic and demon infestations. The hero of the story, Yuri, has a unique "Fusion" ability that enables him to transform into beasts that he has defeated. While defending a small French village from German soldiers, an exorcist named Nicholas curses Yuri, severely limiting his transformation abilities. Yuri then must start on a journey to heal his curse and defeat Nicholas and his cult, Sapientes Gladio, which is trying to conquer the world.
An array of colorful characters will eventually join Yuri on his journey. The cast includes the sword-wielding heroine Kallen Koenig, the werewolf Blanc, the Italian dancer and fortune-teller Lucia, the puppet master Gepetto, the vampire Joachim Valentine, the samurai Kurando Hyuga, and the Russian princess Anastasia. Each character has a unique set of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. For example, the vampire Joachim, who is also a wrestler, has "Muscle Arts" and a lot of physical strength but weak spellcasting abilities. Lucia, a strong spellcaster and weak physical attacker, can use Tarot Cards in battle which have a variety of random effects. The cast is easily one of the most diverse in RPG history.
As mentioned previously, the main character of Shadow Hearts, Yuri, has the ability to transform into beasts during combat. The monsters are unlocked by acquiring spirit energy from defeated enemies. When enough spirit energy is gained, Yuri can travel to "The Graveyard" to obtain new beast transformations. As the game progresses, these beasts can level up, which results in a change of appearance as well as new powers.
The battle system in Shadow Hearts: Covenant is standard turn-based RPG fair, with a twist in the form of the "judgement ring" system, which returns from the first Shadow Hearts. When a character attacks, casts a spell, or uses a special ability, a spinning ring appears around the character which is stopped by a button press. The command will succeed if the ring is stopped within one of the highlighted regions and fail if it is not. There are also smaller red regions on the ring that will offer additional bonuses to a command if hit. In Covenant, the judgement rings of each character are highly customizable. The number and size of the highlighted regions can change, and special attributes can be added to some commands, like poison effects on attacks. The customizations are added through items and are not permanent changes to the judgement rings. The rings also play important roles outside of battle, such as in attaining discounts in shops. For players who do not want the added challenge of the judgement rings, there is an automatic mode available.
A new addition to Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a battle combination system. By placing two party members next to each other and having them attack in succession, they can execute combination attacks if a trigger is timed correctly. Formation is important, and characters can be moved around the battle field if they are attacked by enemies, thus disrupting a combo. That being said, enemies can also perform combination attacks, so players must stay alert and pay attention to the formation of their enemies.
Sanity points also return from the original Shadow Hearts. Characters lose sanity points each turn, and sanity can be drained by specific enemy attacks. Yuri also loses sanity points when he uses his Fusion abilities. If a character's sanity falls to zero, they will go berserk, attacking friend and foe alike at will.
The graphics of Shadow Hearts: Covenant have been improved since the original title. The main game engine has moved to 3D and many of the cutscenes are executed in this engine. As in the first Shadow Hearts, there is also a significant amount of impressive CG video present. The soundtrack of Covenant was composed by Yoshitaka Hirota and Yasunori Mitsuda, who both worked on the first Shadow Hearts title, with contributions by Kenji Ito.
Because it was released around the same time as Final Fantasy X, the original Shadow Hearts did not reach its potential for success in North America. The newest title in the series, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, has improved upon nearly every aspect of the original title. Fans of the series as well as those who have never touched Koudelka or Shadow Hearts would be wise to give Covenant a try when it is released in mid-September.