Shadow Hearts Hands-On

Shadow Hearts may have the Final Fantasy flair, but the introduction of its own unique Judgement Ring system may warrant a closer look at the game.

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Who would have thought that Aruze, a company well known for releasing pachinko-related titles on the PlayStation, would suddenly start developing games in an entirely unrelated genre? Shadow Hearts will be its first PlayStation2 title, an RPG that marks Aruze's first entry into the non-pachinko-related gaming market. Sacnoth, a company composed of ex-Square employees, is developing Shadow Hearts and is well known for developing previous titles such as the PlayStation's Koudelka and a number of Neo Geo Pocket games.

Shadow Hearts takes place in mainland China in the year 1913. You assume the role of Urm Huyga, a man who is searching for the person behind the mysterious voice in his head. You meet a young girl named Aris, who seems to have mystical powers and is being hunted by a group of evil men intent on harnessing her powers.

The game essentially follows the same cookie-cutter RPG formula made popular by the Final Fantasy games. The game sports 3D polygonal characters that move around on a set of 2D prerendered backgrounds. The battle encounters are random, and the battles are based in real time. You use a menu to select commands like performing attacks or casting magical spells. Shadow Hearts features a pretty innovative skill-based hit system--after selecting your action, you'll have to play the Judgement Ring--a timing-based minigame that determines whether your action is successful or not. The Judgement Ring is a wheel that has shaded areas on its spokes. It rotates at a speed determined by how difficult the action is. To be successful, you'll have to press a button to stop the wheel within the shaded areas. This system keeps you on your toes and makes combat a little more skill based. The Judgement Ring also determines whether you'll be successful at certain difficult events in the game--so you may have to battle the Ring to unlock a special treasure chest or perform a heroic feat.

Each of the game's characters has a unique special ability. Urm has an ability called fusion, which lets him transform into a monster. Though he is limited to only one type of monster at the outset of the game, he will eventually learn how to transform into a variety of monsters. Aris actually practices white magic and can cast healing and protection spells. Special abilities consume what are called sanity points. Sanity points work exactly like magic points in other RPGs and can be regenerated only with certain items. When a character's sanity points have been depleted, that character will lose his or her sanity and fly into a berserker rage, attacking characters at random for a period of time.

Shadow Hearts may have the Final Fantasy flair, but the introduction of its own unique Judgement Ring system gives the game a unique twist. The game is scheduled for release this June in Japan. No North American and European release has been planned at the moment.

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