Just now playing it and I really am digging it. What ever happened to the jrpg? And the turn based strategy?
Shadow Hearts: Covenant Review
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a great game that any fan of the role-playing genre would likely enjoy.
If you're a console role-playing game and you're not Final Fantasy, or you don't burst fully formed from the mind of a Square Enix luminary, it can be tough to garner notice among what some see as a field of also-rans. Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes the traditional turn-based save-the-world formula, tosses out any semblance of pretentiousness, adds its own bizarre style and humor, and then follows an original cast of characters on an enjoyable adventure. While not utterly unique in its execution, the game is a great example of the genre done well.
The game kicks off about six months after the conclusion of the first Shadow Hearts, with World War I slowly gaining momentum and disturbances flaring up all over Europe. Karin Koenig, an officer in the German army, is sent with her squad to seize control of the sleepy village of Domremy. Shortly after arriving, Karin and her forces are routed in the village chapel by a dark, winged demon. The monster is actually a young man named Yuri Hyuga (the antihero and protagonist of the first Shadow Hearts), who has the power to assume the form of a wide variety of creatures and is safeguarding the village from invasion. Not willing to take defeat lying down, the Germans soon send Karin back in, along with a mysterious cardinal named Nicholai who's armed with a holy artifact. The artifact puts a curse on Yuri, stripping him of all his learned transformation abilities, containing his considerable power, and really ticking him off. As it so happens, the attack on Yuri was part of a scheme by a secret society called Sapientes Gladio, which, like any respectable secret society, is up to no good. When the village is subsequently destroyed, Karin defects to team up with Yuri so they can figure out just what Sapientes Gladio is planning and how to free Yuri from his curse.
This all sounds suitably sinister, and it is--Shadow Hearts: Covenant is full of dark mysticism, ancient rites, demons, and plots for world domination. It's also full of absurdist touches like Joachim, a vampire trained as a pro wrestler, who fights with a giant mailbox when he's not in bat form. At one point in the game, your party gets lured to a lush island villa, where you have to lock horns with a fierce boss monster that happens to be a giant, fluffy, pink kitten. Yuri will at times narrate past events and accompany his grim dialogue with childish stick-figure pictures of the action, demons reduced to globe-headed scrawls with lopsided fangs. This is not to say that the game plays out as a comedy--the various dark events and scattered atrocities are taken quite seriously by the characters involved--but the way is sweetened by a good deal of irreverent humor. While all the jokes, sexual innuendo, and pregnant pauses are sometimes corny, there are plenty of genuinely funny moments that enhance the experience, giving it a charm that many plot-heavy RPGs lack.
When random and scripted encounters send your team into battle, you'll be presented with a turn-based system in which your characters will alternate with enemies depending on speed. Whenever you choose an action for any of your four party members, be it launching a melee attack, casting a spell, unleashing a special ability, or even using an item, a disc called the judgment ring will appear. A hand will start to sweep around the disc, and you'll need to time your button presses as the line passes through the colored pie slices that are present. Hit everything correctly, and your action will be successful. Many times, there's an extra red sliver on the trailing edge of a colored zone that will grant you a bonus if you hit it--attacks will cause more damage, items will heal more than usual, and so on. The rub is that these red zones require precision and careful timing to hit, and if you miss them, your move is over prematurely, or sometimes negated altogether. Lining up these criticals and hitting the zones just so is the addictive draw of the judgment ring system, which moves outside the traditional RPG practice of selecting an action and then just sitting back and watching your character carry it out. But there's even more to it.