Shadow Hearts: Covenant Preview

We spin the judgment ring and check out what's new in this demon-filled role-playing sequel.

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Watch a battle against a vicious demon in Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Double-click on the video window for a full-screen view.

The original Shadow Hearts was something of a sleeper, released in North America just before the mammoth Final Fantasy X reared its well-known head. Brought to life by Sacnoth, a development team comprised of former employees of what was then Squaresoft, the title showcased a unique battle system and an alternate history version of the early 1900s, replete with demons and magic. Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a direct sequel set half a year after the events of the previous game, and this time it is being developed by Aruze, a subsidiary of Nautilus (with some ex-Sacnoth talent). The game continues following the adventures of one of the protagonists of the original title, Yuri Hyuga, a young man who has the ability to take demon form. Shadow Hearts: Covenant appears to excel in the same areas as its predecessor, providing an entertaining mix of interesting characters and some oddball humor bound up with an engaging battle system that has gone through some evolution of its own.

The game is set in an alternate version of early Europe, just as World War I is starting to churn things up. You're introduced first to Karin Koenig, a young lady lieutenant of the Imperial German army who has been sent with a squad to seize the small French village of Domremy. Their advance is rebuffed by a large shadow-dark demon (which happens to be one of Yuri's many forms), who wipes out the patrol and effectively tosses Karin out on her rear. The Germans, being a tenacious lot, will not admit defeat and so they send Karin back to the village with a new companion--Cardinal Nicholai, called up from the Vatican to perform some exorcistic duties. After some heated dialogue and a plot twist, Yuri ends up cursed (by a holy sprig of mistletoe, of all things) and all of his special summon forms are sealed away. This all amounts to a really bad day for our antihero, who must now set out to regain his powers (against a backdrop of a world war) and learn more about the secret society that seems to be plotting his downfall.

Demons, talking wolves, and vampire pro wrestlers. What more do you want out of a Japanese RPG?
Demons, talking wolves, and vampire pro wrestlers. What more do you want out of a Japanese RPG?

The characters themselves are an intriguing lot. Besides the headstrong Yuri and the buxom Karin, you soon meet two more characters to join your fight against the unknown. Gepetto is an elderly gentleman who used to be a well-known puppeteer in Paris; his treasured companion and battle partner is a doll named Cornelia, with whom he will coordinate bizarre-looking attacks. In comparison, Blanca seems rather mundane--he's simply a highly intelligent white wolf, pitching in to help his friends with tooth and claw. As you progress, you'll meet a variety of other characters, from royalty to the religious, from fortune-tellers to vampire pro wrestlers. The eclectic cast is unique, and dialogue between the characters often slants to the humorous. Shadow Hearts: Covenant persists in not taking itself too seriously; for every dark moment we encountered, there was just as much levity.

You'll meet a wide array of enemies in the game as well, both human and demonic, and you'll battle countless scores of them in the random encounters that dot the game. Shadow Hearts: Covenant provides its own twist on the usual turn-based battle system, bringing a mechanic called the judgment ring in from the previous game. Any time you select an action in battle, from melee attacks and magic to using special abilities or items, the judgment ring appears on the screen. Within the ring are colored sections, and there is an arm that performs a radar sweep around the ring. The key is to press the X button while the sweep is in one of the colored areas, and if you hit all the appropriate zones, your action will be successful. In addition, there's often a red sliver right at the end of an action zone that will give you a bonus if you hit it--attacks will become critical hits, special moves will do greater damage, and even items will see a potency boost. However, if you miss hitting one of the colored zones, your attack will be over, so it's possible for you to forfeit that character's turn (and any items you tried to use) if you miss entirely. The judgment ring requires precision, concentration, and timing to master, but it's easy to pick up the basics quickly. Hitting the red zones becomes an addictive pastime, as you work to squeeze the most out of every attack, every spell, and every item.

The judgment ring keeps you on your toes and helps keep encounters from becoming rote.
The judgment ring keeps you on your toes and helps keep encounters from becoming rote.

However, you don't even have to do this if you'd rather not, as the game enables you to manage ring settings for individual characters. Setting a character to auto ring means that your attacks will always hit, though you'll sacrifice power by doing that. Technical ring makes hit areas smaller and it will completely negate your move if you mess up once, but it will boost your attacks. You can also use various items to do things like make the hit sections wider, make the bonus sections wider, slow the sweep of the ring, or add an extra attack.

Combo Strikes

New to the Shadow Hearts system are combo attacks. Normally, each character takes his turn according to his own movement speed, alternating moves with allies and enemies. A bar at the top of the screen will show you the attack order of all battle participants, so you can plan your moves in advance. When you select the "combo" option for a character, you then choose which character you will use to attack. Once you've done this, the characters will move to stand adjacent to each other, and when it's the second character's turn, you can either chain a bigger combo or begin the attack. To successfully initiate a combo, you must not only successfully navigate the judgment ring in the first attack, but also press one of the four face buttons on the controller as it flashes in the ring. You can pull off combos with as many as four characters (which is as many as you can have on the battlefield at a given time), and if you manage a full combo with four allies, you'll get an extra-powerful attack at the end. Combo attacks are good against tough enemies and bosses, though they require some strategy. You need to be tightly grouped for combo attacks, and an enemy assault can jostle one or more people out of position. Enemies also have the ability to perform combos, so you'll need to stay sharp and perhaps knock an enemy back if you need to.

Combo attacks let you gang up on enemies. It's not very sportsmanlike, but it works!
Combo attacks let you gang up on enemies. It's not very sportsmanlike, but it works!

All characters can learn to use magic (except for Yuri), and they do so by equipping magical crests found all over the world. Each crest has its own elemental nature and its own spell suite, and crests can be swapped freely between characters. Besides melee and magic, characters have the ability to learn their own form of special attack. Yuri's special ability is fusion, which lets him take the form of a demon; Karin learns special sword techniques; Blanca can battle other wolves and learn new moves; and Gepetto can turn in special cards to a tailor who will fit his puppet Cornelia with a variety of outfits. The outfits change Cornelia's appearance and will also grant Gepetto a special magic attack to use. If you're the type of player that loves to ferret out every extra in a game, Shadow Hearts: Covenant seems like it will supply you with lots to search for to keep your group competitive.

If that all wasn't enough, there's a final thing to keep your eye on during battle--your sanity. That's right, even the most seasoned army officer or super-intelligent wolf will lose their noggins after fighting supernatural enemies for a long enough time. Each character begins the battle with a set amount of sanity points. Each turn the character takes subtracts one point from the beginning total, and when his sanity reaches zero, he'll go berserk and lash out at anything, even at his teammates. You can rectify the problem by using special items that restore sanity. While most chance encounters are no trouble, it is the boss battles and longer fights that require you to keep a close eye on everyone's mental state, lest you lose a turn or a combo chance due to someone going rabid on you.

The game merges some lovely hand-drawn art with some wonderfully weird character designs and well-detailed environments to craft a truly unique world. Everyone animates well and looks good (though we're slightly mystified about the point of Yuri's fanny pack), and the enemies are varied and interesting. On one occasion, we were pitted against a giant blue spider with limbs that were fashioned to look like human fingers, which was simultaneously comical and horrifying.

Voice work in the game alternates between the conventional text boxes alongside a character portrait and fully voiced scenes. Delivery seems somewhat uneven for certain characters, but it didn't seem to interfere with the script too badly. The musical score, a real strength for the first game, also sounds solid, with some stirring, haunting new themes as well as some tunes from the original Shadow Hearts. For instance, fans of the first game will recognize the music at the end of battle.

It wouldn't be a role-playing game without lots of numbers.
It wouldn't be a role-playing game without lots of numbers.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant is coming right along as a deeper successor to a little-known, cult classic role-playing game. RPG fans who would rather move out of fantastical worlds will likely find this alternate version of the early 1900s to be a welcome change of pace, along with the oddball characters and the lack of deadpan storytelling. Those who missed out on the first game should consider the fact that Midway is offering the original Shadow Hearts as a preorder bonus for Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which is currently scheduled to ship for the PlayStation 2 this fall. We'll bring you more coverage of the game as it approaches release.

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jakeboudville

sounds nice