What brought me to Shadow Hearts was its follow-up, Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Finding this rare game at a reasonable price (in used but very good condition) i set about playing it and was taken and amazed from the get-go. The strongest points of Shadow Hearts are probably its Story and some gameplay elements. Set in a grim and mysterious alternative of China and Europe, shortly before World War I, we find our Protagonists, Yuri and Alice, caught up in a web of magic, demons, conspiracy and power struggles of twisted minds. Almost the entirety of this game conveys a feeling of impending doom, even at the most lighthearted moments. You will become to expect every simple town buffoon to be a demon in disguise, anticipate foul doings behind every enterprise and generally not feel at rest much at all. In other words: all that you would want from a gothic horror story. Yet Shadow Hearts is most endearing, when it doesn't take itself too seriously and spots us some quirky humour, like the generic super evil guy getting hit in the head by a random piece of debris and letting out a muffled 'ouch!', just as he is about to make his impressive exit; or when a vain, female super-spy botches about everything there is to mess up and only through sheer luck makes it through and says with gall 'all part of the plan!'. But enough about the story, for that is for each player to find out and - indeed - enjoy, and more about the game itself. Basically Shadow Hearts is your general, linear RPG, with character stats, levels, areas to explore, items to be picked up, equipment to be adjusted and so forth. A couple of gameplay ideas make the game stand out, though. The male lead character, Yuri, for instance, has the ability to fuse with the souls of demons. There are 6 different elements and demon-souls for each element, that Yuri can fuse with. By defeating enemies of one particular element Yuri will be enabled to unlock more powerful demon-souls to fuse with. He can equip 3 of these souls at any one time and fuses with them using up sanity points to make their unique element-related abilities his own. Sanity points are another nice gameplay idea that makes Shadow Hearts stand out some more. Each character has a certain amount of sanity points. For each turn spent in battle each character will lose 1 sanity point, until the meter reaches zero, at which point the character goes berserk, which means that the player loses control over the character and has to deal with its unpredictable actions. This makes the player want to end some fights as quickly as possible and thus makes him/her use some of the more powerful abilities of each character more often, unlike some rpg when players like to 'eco-fight' a lot. But the most intriguing facet of Shadow Heart gameplay is the judgement ring. Whenever you want to take any action - be it attack, use one of the characters special powers, using items and also many times out of fights - a ring appears. For the action to be successful you will have to hit certain areas on the ring, while an indicator is spinning around once on the ring. Depending on the complexity of the action you want to carry out, this can be dumbfoundingly easy or infuriatingly hard. At times, specially within long gaming sessions, this game mechanic will become tiring and bothersome, but overall it keeps the player on his/her toes. You can also determine how good the outcome of your action will be by hitting the red areas, which will boost your attack or make an item more useful. Of course, these red areas are way harder to hit. The judgement ring makes the standard round-based command system of the game feel more lively and awards with a sense of accomplishment when you get a 'Perfect !' on a particularly unnervingly hard ring. Developers Sacnoth might have included some way to add an experience system to the judgement ring - making actions that are used more often, also easier to accomplish - but the unique idea of the judgement ring in itself is worth an acclamation. Yet there is more! There is... The Graveyard! Emphasizing Shadow Hearts' dark story and psychological nuances, the main character will often have to visit The Graveyard. Here he will have to basically do 2 things: one is to fight the accumulation of the malice of the monsters he has slain in his travels, as his not doing so, would result in the Grim Reaper's own appearance, which makes life unendurably hard; the other thing is to fight unlocked demon-souls for possession and future use in fusion. All-in-all Shadow Hearts gameplay mechanics feel very well balanced, as do the levels and abilities of the characters. At no point will any opponent feel extremely overpowering or overpowered and neither will the characters easily become godlike. While worrying about the judgement ring and the party's sanity points, the player will stumble through pre-rendered backgrounds and environments. The usually rather small areas (only a few screens at most) aren't the most astonishing to look at, but they do a great job at keeping up the overall feeling of the game. Great effort has gone into the character models. Not their details, but their animations and general look, because most storytelling will be done in real-time with the in-game models. Minute changes in posture or movement support the storytelling tremendously, bespeaking volumes on the thought that went into creating and applying these character models. Overall character design is also convincing, with some enemy character models even looking downright scary and some very original boss designs in the portfolio. Another winner is Shadow Hearts' Soundtrack. Many songs could easily stand on their own as the latest outing of some introverted ambient electronic and rock fiddler musician. Atmospheric and only seldom annoying, the music and sound effects fit smoothly into the whole. But the greatest aspect of Shadow Hearts is its exciting story. Sporting depth that is still very rare and hard to find in RPGs, Shadow Hearts isn't just a run-of-the-mill horror-love-lonesome-hero-save-the-world-story. While that is being served up as well, most parts of Shadow Hearts will concern themselves with deeper psychological issues like fear, alienation, anxiety, hostility and solitude. Even your opponents will be rewarded with rich backgrounds and motivations for they deeds they do, often making the villains seem less evil and more wretched, once their reasons are revealed. Subtly the story ties these things into the greater storyline and gradually easing the player into the shortcomings and failings of the main characters and the world they inhabit, which to a high degree mirrors our own.