Sacnoth, a development house composed of former SquareSoft employees, had a slow start with its first title, Koudelka. While lauded for its excellent CG sequences, Koudelka suffered from the mishmash blend of survival-horror aesthetics and puzzle solving, with unimaginative turn-based gameplay. Shadow Hearts is Sacnoth's latest creative effort and improves upon its predecessor both in terms of style and engaging gameplay, making for an experience that for many will undoubtedly be entertaining.
More of a side story to Koudelka than an actual sequel, Shadow Hearts is the story of Yuri, a young man with the power to fuse with the souls of monsters, and Alice, the daughter of a slain priest, who is hounded at every step by enemies who hunger for the power she possesses. Shadow Hearts is not your typical "boy saves girl" fantasy love story, however. Shadow Hearts takes the ideas you've become accustomed to from other RPGs and spins them in a new direction, providing you with a plot that is at once comical, scary, and most of all, exciting.
Shadow Hearts takes place on an alternate Earth in the early 1900s. Period pieces like the steam-powered Shanghai Express and antique airplanes set the stage for a world where magic is an accepted part of history, as are atrocious acts of murder and the occasional demon infestation. The game begins with a CG sequence, one of the few, depicting particularly gruesome deaths, which leads into many other territories that RPGs have seldom ventured. There are many instances where characters will make thinly veiled sexual advances toward others, and in some cases, the bizarre dialogue is positively hilarious. On the other hand, there are many sequences that opt for the disturbing instead of the humorous, depicting psychological disorders and other such touchy topics in a compelling manner. While strictly linear in nature, the storyline as a whole remains strong throughout and should keep most players thoroughly entertained.
The story mostly revolves around the male and female protagonists, but the other characters they meet on their journeys are equally well handled. Zhuzhen, the aged adept, serves as wise advisor, drunken lecher, and stalwart companion. Margerete, whom you'll meet early on in the journey, is the female equivalent of James Bond, with nifty gadgets, a sexy demeanor, and attitude to spare. Other playable characters will also join the group, and each has a detailed back story and definite field worthiness in combat. The NPCs you meet along the way are also suitably entertaining, and many of them can be downright scary.
In addition to its compelling storytelling techniques, Shadow Hearts also breathes new life into the standard turn-based combat of traditional RPGs with the introduction of the judgment ring. The judgment ring is the key element behind the timing-based gameplay mechanics in Shadow Hearts. Whenever your character needs to attack an enemy, use an item, cast a spell, or perform a challenging task outside of combat, the ring appears. You must then stop the revolving hand on the face of the judgment ring in three different sections--if you miss any along the way, your turn ends. The end portions of each target segment are indicated in red, and when you hit them properly, you are rewarded with a "perfect" result. Consistently hitting the red portions will deal more damage to opponents, but you run the risk of missing them and thus losing an attack opportunity. Modifiers can impair or aid your success with the judgment ring--these include items that slow down or speed up the indicator, enemies that will make you spin blindly or on a shrunken ring, and many more. The ring is put to use in just about every situation where chance is involved, including the game's minigame, a lottery of sorts where you are encouraged to find other lottery members and spin once on their rings, with a chance to win a rare prize. While some of you may find the constant reflex-testing of the judgment ring cumbersome, and at times annoying, most will agree that it serves to keep you on your toes, while also introducing a new challenge to a genre generally limited to the threats of direct damage or status ailments.
Another convention that has been turned on its head is the typical RPG's use of random battles. While progressing through the linear storyline without any stops will get you through just fine, you can also stop to defeat enemies for experience, money, and their soul energy. Yuri stockpiles the energy from these defeated souls, which manifest in his dreamworld graveyard as fusion monsters that he can challenge. Upon defeating one of the fusion monsters, Yuri gains the ability to transform into it during battle, expanding his repertoire of abilities in much-needed ways. This comes with a steep price, however, as the more souls he sends packing, the more malice they bear toward him. When enough malice is generated, the grim reaper himself will intercede in battles and cause much trouble for the stalwart hero. To clear the malice, you need to take Yuri into the otherworldly graveyard and defeat the malice's manifestation. This system of character advancement and malice management is well balanced and transitions smoothly into the rest of the game.
Shadow Hearts is an attractive game with good-looking character models that fare well on their own and push the story in real time in a way that many other games fail to do with FMV sequences. Well-animated prerendered backgrounds bring the distinct setting to life, and each new area you encounter is sufficiently different from the last and is appealing in its own way. Many of the areas are particularly small, however, and most locales are at most three to four screens in size. The characters and backgrounds aren't as detailed or as colorful as those in the most recent PlayStation 2 efforts, but the game plays very smoothly, with nearly unnoticeable load times between areas and extremely quick transitions in and out of battle. Many smaller details add up to give Shadow Hearts a polished look, including an inventory with attractive images of each item and a monster library where you can examine all of your past foes. Shadow Hearts tries its hand at a number of innovative approaches to visual storytelling, shunning conventional CG techniques and instead using live-action segments or still images. These inactive portions of the game are for the most part well done, but considering the skill that Sacnoth has at producing entertaining FMV sequences, and the quality of those that did make it in, you might wonder how much more entertaining Shadow Hearts would have been if it had been approached in a different way.
Shadow Hearts features a stunning soundtrack composed by a team experienced in setting an almost tangible mood through proper use of in-game music. The battle theme that accompanies the fast-paced action is particularly pleasant and sets a mood that both raises tension and invigorates. Certain tracks are absolutely haunting, and in spite of some repetition, the quality of the music never falters. Despite the almost perfect fit of the soundtrack, the voice acting leaves much to be desired. For the most part, the story is unveiled in the standard dialogue boxes, where text needs to be scrolled through section by section. When characters are actually heard, like in the small number of cinematic sequences, the results are less than appealing. The voices are exaggerated for the most part, and at key points in the game they can be downright intolerable. Topping this off, strangely enough, is the fact that the original Japanese voice work was maintained intact during the battle sequences, while a few snippets of English dialogue were added for certain characters. This unnatural combination is rather awkward, but it doesn't do much to detract from the overall experience.
In a year where quality RPGs were hard to come by, the PlayStation 2 goes out with a bang with the back-to-back releases of Final Fantasy X and its surprisingly formidable contemporary, Shadow Hearts. Midway has a winner on its hands with Shadow Hearts, which offers a refreshing new look at the genre. Despite its considerable depth, Shadow Hearts is easy to get into and yet maintains a satisfying level of challenge. If you're looking for an exciting approximately 40-hour diversion (and tongue-in-cheek adult themes aren't going to scare you away), then you should definitely try this one out.