Shadow Hearts Preview

Former Square employees are trying to raise the bar in next-generation RPGs with Shadow Hearts, a game that combines elements of both the fantastical and the historical.

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Square's RPG rivals are few and far between. Every once in a while, though, the gaming press will pick up on some small company's upcoming RPG and declare it "the next Final Fantasy" or, even worse, a "Final Fantasy killer." Instantly, said game is saddled with the burden of comparison, creating unfair expectations by gamers who anticipate a very specific type of experience. Obviously, not every RPG should be like Final Fantasy; games can survive on their own merits. The forthcoming PlayStation 2 RPG, Shadow Hearts, is no different--even if the developer (Sacnoth) is a studio made up of former Square employees.

Shadow Hearts opens in 1913 Paris. Europe is less than a year away from World War I, and the threat of hostilities looms over the city like a dark cloud. In this apprehensive atmosphere, a terrible murder is discovered: The body of an Englishman is found cut to pieces in a dark alley. The murder goes unsolved but not unnoticed by a mysterious European observer named Roger Bacon. The introduction flashes forward a month later, and we're introduced to Aris Eliot, a 20-year-old woman traveling by train across Russia to the Chinese city of Tairen. Apparently, Aris has developed a strange power: After exiting the train, she senses evil in a Japanese soldier, and, screaming in terror, she uses her voice to slice him perfectly in half.

At this point, Roger Bacon appears again, confronts Aris about her involvement in the Paris murder, and demands that she come with him back to Europe. He has been following her since she fled Paris and wants to use her powers for an unknown purpose. At this point, another of Shadow Hearts' characters enters the plot. A young boy named Urmnaf Borth Huyga, or Ur, comes to Aris' aid and helps her escape Bacon's clutches. Ur is an interesting study. He is a half-Russian, half-Japanese 20-something man who fled to China during the Russo-Japanese War 10 years before. More importantly, Ur is what's known as a "harmonixer," someone who uses a technique called "fusion" to draw on the powers of animals and nature to use them for himself in battles. Beyond the introduction of the three main characters, not much is known about the plot. Sacnoth describes what happens from here ambiguously, only saying that you'll embark on an epic adventure spanning the globe. Each character will begin to recognize the extent of his or her powers, and Bacon's true nature and purpose will be revealed.

Almost every new RPG tries to come up with some new way to make its repetitive battles more interesting and seem more important than they usually are. In Shadow Hearts, battles focus around the Judgement Ring system. Each character's abilities are centered on a literal ring that appears next to the character during combat. The ring gives you a couple of options: You can simply select an enemy and order your character to attack it, or, better yet, you can make a series of coordinated button presses that let your character perform a special move that's more efficient and more damaging. Of course, it's not as easy as memorizing a few patterns: You must also time your attacks, based on the position of your character's Judgement Ring. The better you are at gauging the quickly revolving position of the Ring, the better your chances at landing critical hits multiple times. The battle system also features sanity points, which mark your character's mental stability. For example, perform too many of Ur's fusions or Aris' exorcisms, and you'll see your character literally break down in front of you and randomly attack whatever is closest in a mad fury.

Shadow Hearts features high-polygon characters, with great texture work. Sacnoth promises that the characters' animations will feature a similar attention to detail: Clothes will sway independent of the models, and you can expect cool, unique effects to be used for Ur's and Aris' special attacks. In other aspects of the game, Sacnoth's Square roots are apparent. The team snagged one of video-game-music aficionados' favorite composers, Yasunori Mitsuda (well known for his work in Square RPGs Xenogears and Chrono Cross). In terms of design, the game is similar to the last three Final Fantasies on the PS. The developers opted to stick with 3D characters on top of 2D-rendered backgrounds. Thanks to the game's high resolution, the characters blend into the backgrounds better than in the Final Fantasy games, and the effect isn't as jarring; however, backgrounds are mostly unanimated, and they have a sort of lifeless, lacking quality that most legitimate 3D environments do not.

There are as many questions as there are answers about Shadow Hearts at this point. Obviously, the game does not want to be compared to Final Fantasy, nor does it strive to be any run-of-the-mill role-playing game. Therefore, the game will have to carve out its unique niche in RPGs with its Judgement Ring battle system and its liberal integration of both fantastical and historical elements in its unique storyline. Shadow Hearts will be out in Japan this summer and may make it to the US by the end of the year. Expect more details on the game's intriguing storyline and other features as the game nears its Japanese release date.

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