Shadow Hearts: From the New World Hands-On

We check out a near-finished North American version of the third entry in the Shadow Hearts series of role-playing games.

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Set in the United States during the Great Depression, Shadow Hearts: From the New World is Nautilus' upcoming sequel to 2004's Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which was set during the First World War. In the upcoming game, you'll assume the role of a 16-year-old detective named Johnny Garland, who, like many of his role-playing game peers, suffers from amnesia and has no living relatives. We recently had an opportunity to spend some time with a near-finished version of Shadow Hearts: From the New World, and we found it to be every bit as entertaining and humorous as its predecessor.

The game gets under way in New York, where Johnny runs his own detective agency out of the same building that he calls home. After sitting through an intro movie in which Johnny accepts an investigation from a strange-looking client who wants him to track down a criminal suspect, you'll get to walk around the small area of New York in which the detective agency is located and talk to all of the people that you meet. When you find yourself walking around and talking to strangers in Shadow Hearts: From the New World (or in just about any role-playing game, for that matter), many of the people you meet will have nothing useful to say at all, a couple of them will say something vaguely relevant or amusing, and conversing with one of them in particular will essentially pave the way for you to progress. You'll need to have a certain character in the first area talk to you about Times Square before you're able to go there, for example.

Conversations between characters are kept brief for the most part.

None of the conversations that we've had in Shadow Hearts: From the New World thus far have been interactive, and for the most part they've been very brief. In a handful of instances we've been required to answer a question and have been able to choose from three possible answers, but our goal has been simply to give the correct answer, not to steer the conversation in a particular direction or influence another character in any way. That the conversations in Shadow Hearts: From the New World are brief is a blessing, because the vast majority of them are presented only as text. And besides, the less time you spend standing around chatting, the quicker you can get to your next battle.

Unsurprisingly, the first few enemies you'll face in Shadow Hearts: From the New World aren't too difficult to deal with, and you'll be able to watch those battles in the form of tutorials rather than play an active role in them if you choose to. The tutorials do a great job of familiarizing you with the game's turn-based battle system, which isn't radically different from that in Shadow Hearts: Covenant but does incorporate some features that aren't typically found in other role-playing games. The most prominent of these features is undoubtedly the "judgment ring" system, which, at its best, makes every battle in Shadow Hearts: From the New World a test of reflexes as well as of character management and decision making.

In both its appearance and its functionality, the judgment ring is reminiscent of the three-click swingometer control systems that used to feature in golf games. The ring is essentially a big disc that appears on the screen each time you select an action in battle, and your interactions with it determine how effective those actions are. Your interactions with the judgment ring task you with stopping a sweeping line (imagine a hand on a clock) on colored segments of the disc known as hit areas (imagine, say, a slice of pizza) to perform the action successfully, and, if at all possible, making those attacks extra powerful by stopping the line on a much smaller, glowing segment known as the strike area (radioactive pizza?). The glowing segments are invariably positioned directly after the regular-sized ones, so trying to hit them is something of a gamble, especially since failure to hit a segment effectively ends your character's turn. It's possible to play Shadow Hearts: From the New World and have the judgment ring take care of itself automatically, but the strike areas will never come into play, and the combat will lose much of its appeal.

The judgment ring makes every battle a test a reflexes as well as of decision making.

Having one of your characters' turns end prematurely is disappointing at the best of times, and it'll be even more so if you're in the middle of a multicharacter combo attack, or if you've chosen to have one of your characters perform two actions in a single turn. Combo and double attacks can't be used every turn; rather, they'll become available to you after your characters have dished out or sustained a certain amount of damage and, as a result, filled up their "stock" gauge. One especially neat feature of the judgment ring system is that your enemies not only can hit your characters with status-altering attacks that have effects such as lowering your evasion rate, but can also mess up their respective judgment rings. It's a lot harder to hit the strike areas when they're made smaller or the hand is moving much faster, for example.

To date, we have four characters in our party: Johnny Garland, a female bounty hunter named Shania, a Native American gun-fu expert named Natan, and a colorful ninja named Frank, who speaks with something resembling an Eastern European accent. Each character has a unique skill set (Shania is able to transform herself into powerful spirit forms, for example) but can also be customized using the game's stellar charts system. Each character can have up to one stellar chart, which is based on a sign of the zodiac and lets you assign a different magical skill for each star in the respective constellation. The system can take a little getting used to since there are restrictions on what types of abilities can be assigned to certain stars, but it certainly gives you the freedom to create characters that suit your style of play.

We're only a few hours into Shadow Hearts: From the New World at this point, but we've already had the opportunity to explore locales in New York, Chicago, and the Grand Canyon. Other locations that we're aware of include Alcatraz and Roswell. Rest assured that we'll be paying them a visit before Shadow Hearts: From the New World arrives in stores in March.

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