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Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Review By: Jared Black
 
Developer:  Nautilus
Publisher:  Midway
# Of Players:  1
Genre:  RPG
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card
Date Posted:  1-26-05

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 turn-based RPGs.

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.

HIGHS:

  • 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.
  • Beautiful locales.
  • 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).

LOWS:

  • The Judgment Ring is used a bit too often, and becomes annoying at times.
  • 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 annoying.
  • The FMVs are a little too frequent and drawn out, interrupting the pace and flow of the game.

FINAL VERDICT:

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.

Overall Score: 9.0

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