When the original Shadow Hearts was released on PS2, it was
met with mild critical and commercial success. It was appreciated
for its somewhat darker tone, unique setting and sense of style. At
the same time, it was criticized for straying too far from standard
turn-based RPG fare with the introduction of the Judgment Ring and
for not living up to the standard set by
Final Fantasy X.
Although I never played the original Shadow Hearts, it
appears that the complaints surrounding the game have been largely
remedied in the sequel. The setting once again remains unique, this
time taking place in the mid 1910ís throughout Europe and Japan.
Yuri returns as the main character, with events and characters
throughout the game referencing the original (even including scenes
directly from that game). Itís a time of war (although never
mentioned directly World War I obviously took place during this
time), so expect plenty of political maneuvering, backstabbing,
posturing, and other no-goodness as Yuri and friends set out to stop
the evil cult Sapientes Gladio.
The basis for a good story is obviously there, but what really sets
it apart is the unique way itís told. The events that take place
are very dark, full of mysticism, rituals, and full of pure evil
creatures. At the same time, there are many funny moments
throughout the game (either certain actions or corny jokes) that
keep the storyline from getting bogged down in despair. For
example, periodically the party will meet up with a Ring Soul
(basically a cloud with rings around it) that sees their fate and
grants them additional attacks. The Ring Soul has a serious speech
prepared, but Yuriís curiosity eventually gets the Ring Soul to
waver from his standard speech. After a couple of meetings, Yuri
gets the Ring Soul to banter back and forth and divulge hilarious
details about his wife and personal life. In any other game, the
Ring Soul would simply give the same stoic speech over and over
again. FMVs abound, so much in fact that the game requires two DVDs
despite not being any longer than an average 30-40 hour RPG (50 if
you take on the side quests).
Aside from the unique setting and storyline, what really establishes
this gameís unique identity are the characters. Most major
characters, both playable and not, have a complicated personality
thatís shaped by events in their past and establishes their actions
in the present. Although many are one-dimensional (ex: Joachim, an
overzealous burly wrestler/vampire), theyíre established strongly
enough that they remain interesting anyway.
Gameplay is once again centered on the Judgment Ring. Basically,
the Judgment Ring is like the face of a clock with a hand turning on
it. When attacking or casting a spell, there will be several
ďactiveĒ areas of the ring that must be hit in succession. For
example, a character that can use up to three moves in one turn must
hit three separate areas in order to execute all three. There are
plenty of modifiers that make the experience more interesting,
including those that slow down the ring, make it an all or nothing
proposition (hit all areas or donít attack at all), and those that
give the ring new attributes. Magic works in a similar manner, with
higher-level spells requiring more areas to be hit successfully.
Hitting smaller red areas unleashes more powerful attacks, but going
for them means risking missing completely.
The judgment ringís influence isnít limited to just attacks and
spells however. Using items in battle brings up a ring as well, and
most have a red sweet spot that will make them more effective than
normal. Various NPCs allow the player to play the lottery (assuming
they have a ticket of course) with different colored areas
representing a different prize, and itís even used when buying and
selling items to get discounts if executed properly. Although itís
overused and sometimes results in tedium (really, having to hit
areas of a ring for every single thing does get old eventually), the
end result is a system thatís closer to Paper Mario than
Final Fantasy keeps things more interesting then in most
Graphically, Shadow Hearts: Covenant looks better than most.
Although towns are fairly small, theyíre full of neat details and a
unique style that mimic that of the early 1900s well. Some areas
are genuinely breathtaking, thanks to some smart camera work (like a
beautiful sunset thanks to a low camera angle). Areas outside of
town are a bit more repetitive, with similar looking corridors and
fewer details. For the most part character models are sharp,
although a few suffer from some disjointed polygons and hair that
goes right through the rest of the body.
The music is excellent, invoking an early 1900ís European or Asian
feel in towns and providing suitable atmosphere in other areas.
Many tunes repeat often (like in battle), but theyíre good enough
that it never really detracts from the game. The voice acting is
competent, but doesnít stand out as anything special. While Lucia
is extremely annoying, thankfully she doesnít speak often and the
voice acting of Yuri and others makes up for it.
Unique sense of style, from the mystical early 1900ís European/Asian
setting to the oddball humor and characters.
The Judgment Ring keeps the player on his toes, even for simple
tasks like using items in battle.
The storyline is darker than most RPGs, and keeps the player engaged
without bogging down.
The "good" ending is excellent, and made a few seemingly
insignificant moments in the storyline suddenly make sense (like the
unusual nature of Karinís papers).
The Judgment Ring is used a bit too often, and becomes annoying at
Several dungeons are boring, with repetitive areas and pointless
puzzles that have the player running around simply for the sake of
running. This in turn makes the random battles even more
The FMVs are a little too frequent and drawn out, interrupting the
pace and flow of the game.
With its dark storyline, unique characters, engaging gameplay, and
odd sense of humor Shadow Hearts: Covenant occupies a
unique place in the world of RPGs. Recommended for those of you
tired of the standard Final Fantasy formula, although
playing the original first is advised (I wish I had). It isnít
required that you play it to understand whatís going on here, but
it will surely enhance your enjoyment if you have prior experience
with several key characters and the overall back-story.