Shadow Hearts 2 is the third role-playing game published by Aruze, which previously released Koudelka and the original Shadow Hearts for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, respectively. While Koudelka was a somewhat flawed but aesthetically pleasing RPG, Shadow Hearts offered a much more satisfying experience, thanks to involving gameplay and an engaging story. For the follow-up, Aruze has handed the reins over to Nautilus, a subsidiary made up of members from the Sacnoth studio who worked on both Koudelka and Shadow Hearts. We had the chance to check out the recently released import of Shadow Hearts 2 to find out where the next entry in the promising series is going.
The Shadow Hearts series is set in the real world, which just happens to be filled with magic and weird creatures like most other RPGs. Shadow Hearts 2 is set in 1915, half a year after the main character, Urm, ended his journey in the original Shadow Hearts. It also happens to be set during the middle of World War I, which has a direct influence on the game's storyline as well as its atmosphere. Most of Shadow Hearts 2 takes place in the European countries that were involved in World War I, such as France, Italy, and Russia, with a detour to the Far East as the story develops further. Shadow Hearts 2's story starts out as Urm finds himself in trouble after fighting to protect a small village in France against German soldiers trying to take it over. The soldiers have their guns, but they're no match against Urm, who has the ability to transform into creatures that he met in his past journey. As a last resort, the Germans bring in an exorcist named Nicholas, who succeeds in putting a curse on Urm that weakens his abilities. What's worse for Urm is that Nicholas isn't exactly your typical holy man. In fact, he's not that holy. It seems that Nicholas is actually a member of a secret cult named the Sapientes Gladio, a diabolical clan that's trying to rule the world. It also turns out that Nicholas has a personal grudge against Urm.
The opening of the game takes an unusual twist when Nicholas decides to show his ruthlessness. He proceeds to kill off all the German soldiers and villagers by calling out the minions of his clan. Urm manages to escape, thanks to the help of an old man named Gepetto, who has been traveling around with him, and a surviving female German soldier named Kallen. Throughout the rest of the game, Urm goes on a journey to find a cure for his curse, and, of course, to defeat the mysterious cult that is taking advantage of the war to fulfill its ambitions. Fans of the original Shadow Hearts will be pleased to see that Shadow Hearts 2 brings back a number of familiar characters, such as Roger Bacon the wizard, and that parts of the storyline have direct ties to the previous game. However, you won't be lost if this is your first time playing a game in the series, since there are enough explanations and flashbacks included to fill you in on the backstory. The story develops at a very timely pace without any dragging and is good about offering new surprises as you progress.
Your party at the beginning of the game will be made up of survivors of the village massacre. Urm is the main character and still has his ability to transform into creatures, although it's been weakened some. Kallen, Urm's savior, fits the requisite role of butt-kicking heroine, thanks to her ability to fight with swords. Blanc is a witty werewolf that's as strong as any human being. Finally, Gepetto is a "puppet master" who uses a doll in his battles (he's a bit like Lulu from Final Fantasy X, although he's much more manly when using his dolls in combat). Gepetto also has some ties to the original Shadow Hearts since he happens to be the grandfather of Alice from Shadow Hearts 1. As you progress through the story you'll earn a few other colorful party members. Joachim is a muscular vampire wrestler who has been influenced a bit too much by superhero shows. Lucia is an Italian fortune-teller. Anastasia is a young princess of the Russian empire who has a strong mind and loves taking pictures. Finally, Kurando is a young samurai with a mysterious power. Each of the characters has unique strengths and different skills. For example, Joachim is physically strong, while Gepetto is good at magic. Lucia can randomly bring fortune or doom during the battles by picking a tarot card, and Anastasia can figure out the enemy's weakness and remaining life by taking snapshots of them.
While the special abilities are preset for the characters, the magic system in the game is a bit more flexible. You'll earn spells in Shadow Hearts 2 by finding "symbols" throughout the game, which can be equipped to whichever character you want to cast that particular spell. The unique system offers a nice bit of customization for almost all of the characters. The one cast member who lacks magical prowess is Urm. However, while Urm is magic challenged, he's not at much of a disadvantage. As mentioned, Urm has the ability to transform into different creatures, each corresponding to a natural element such as earth, wind, or fire. The transformation system in Shadow Hearts 2 is more streamlined than in the original Shadow Hearts. Urm has all the creature transformations from his last adventure available at the start of Shadow Hearts 2. The only twist is that he has to rebuild his powers since Nicholas has cursed him. During the game, you need to collect soul points, which accumulate when you defeat enemies, and use them to power up Urm's creatures. There's no need to clear out accumulated malice during the game like in the original Shadow Hearts, and powering up the creatures can be done from the game's menu screen. The "Graveyard" (Urm's inner soul) that appeared in Shadow Hearts is still present in the game, but it doesn't really need to be visited aside from event scenes that take place during the story.
The battle system in Shadow Hearts 2 is turn-based and adopts a number of systems from the original game while adding in a few new features. You're free to choose which characters to put into your party for the battles, although your roster will be locked for a few of the event scenes. At the core of the battle system is the judgment ring system, which is an onscreen wheel that looks like a radar display. Once you choose to attack, use magic, or use an item, a wheel will appear on the screen with a bar rotating around it. You need to press the controller's button and stop the rotating needle in the wheel so that it lands on specific shaded areas. If you get the timing right, the command will be successfully executed. If you miss, your action will fail. As you get better at timing the wheel, you can also try to land it on bonus areas that are narrow segments within the shaded areas of the wheel. If you manage to stop the needle on these areas, you'll receive a bonus that will enhance your selected action; for example, the bonuses might let you do more damage to the enemies or recover more life with healing magic and items. By finding items during the game, you can customize each party member's judgment ring; for instance, you can extend the shaded areas on the judgment or add an additional effect when you attack, such as instant kill. If you're just plain bad at stopping the needle, there's an automatic mode so that you won't have to go through the hassle, but it won't give you a few of the goodies like the bonus damage when attacking. The judgment ring system is also used in some mini-events outside of the battles, such as when you're playing a lottery or trying for a discount in the shops.
The sanity point system from the original Shadow Hearts is also back. Aside from the usual life points and magic points, your party will also have sanity points. One sanity point gets depleted per turn for a character, and when it runs down to zero, the character will go berserk, randomly attacking friend or foe. The only way to cure this situation is to finish the battle or to use an item to replenish your characters sanity. Managing your party's sanity is complicated by some of the enemies you'll encounter who have special abilities that drain your sanity points. As an additional challenge, Urm loses sanity points whenever he transforms into a creature.
The biggest addition to the battle system is probably the combination system. By aligning your party members next to each other, which can be done with a command on the fighting menu, you can execute combination attacks with your party members. The powerful attacks consist of having one character attack after another. You need to successfully hit a button that randomly appears on the screen to connect from one character to the next, but if you keep connecting the attacks, you'll be rewarded with extra damage, and you'll get the chance to finish off the combo with a special magic attack that can be launched only after a successful round of combos with all four of your party members. You need to be careful, however, that your party members don't get attacked while they're assembling to do the combo; otherwise, the enemies can push you out from your position. Fortunately, there's an indicator at the top of the screen that shows you the order of the players and enemies for the next two turns, so you can plan your strategy in defeating them. The enemies can also gather around to execute a combo, which is something that you need to always be careful of. Fortunately, you'll be able to shove your enemies into certain directions when you attack them, such as farther back on the battlefield or even up into the air. This ends up being useful when you want to put enemies into certain positions, such as aligning them into a row before using a special move that can penetrate multiple enemies. It's also useful when you want to push the enemies away from their current positions, such as when they're huddled together in preparation for a combination attack.
The graphics in Shadow Hearts 2 have been significantly improved since the original game. The polygon models are definitely up to the standards of the current PS2 games and sport a high level of detail. The most noticeable change is that the game and its backgrounds are rendered in full 3D. The change may seem subtle, but it makes a major difference since Shadow Hearts 2 doesn't have to rely on prerendered movies for most of its cutscenes. However, you'll still find some nicely edited CG movies that are impressively high-quality and feature cuts that wouldn't be possible with real-time rendering. And despite the game's move toward full 3D, the load times in Shadow Hearts 2 are very short and almost nonexistent when you play using the game's PS2 hard drive option enabled.
As far as length goes, Shadow Hearts 2 may seem a bit short for an RPG since it can be cleared in under 30 hours. However, there's a lot of replay value. You'll encounter subevents, and you'll find collectibles that can be scavenged after you've finished going through the game. For example, there are 72 magic symbols scattered around the world to collect, and placing them correctly on a special map can uncover new spells. There are also hidden costumes for the female characters, and Urm can uncover new items to transform into stronger creatures. Further, a lot of little touches have been put into the game. For example, there's well-drawn artwork and a written description for every single item in the game, as well as a library that features the event characters and monsters you've encountered. The game also keeps track of your gameplay records, like how many steps you've walked, how many times you've run from battles, and how many times you've succeeded getting perfect timing on the judgment ring.
Despite the fact that it's just the second entry in a fledgling series, Shadow Hearts 2 is an RPG that is on par with major titles, such as the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. The one key difference between Shadow Hearts 2 and other RPGs is its witty lines and the comedy thrown in during some choice moments in the game. This eccentric humor keeps the game fresh and offers the kind of freedom that other major RPGs have had to sacrifice in order to be called "mainstream." It's difficult to imagine many RPGs that would have a party member fighting with a frozen tuna as his weapon or that would have a subevent that includes 100 floors of wrestling rings and has you go up against fighters that have a dish of curry glued on their heads. Unfortunately, the best humor is in the dialogue, and it, unfortunately, doesn't translate too well into English, which brings us to the question of how import-friendly the game is. If you don't have a fair amount of knowledge of the Japanese language, Shadow Hearts 2 will likely be a bit of a pain and won't make much sense. The game is a language-oriented RPG that relies heavily on wordplay for its humor. Still, if you have knowledge of the Japanese language and you like RPGs, chances are that you'll enjoy the import. Non-Japanese speakers will have to hope that US publisher picks up the game for release in the states.