Full Review: This is one weird-ass game. And that's the understatement of the year.
In a genre dominated by Final Fantasy, and Squaresoft/Square-Enix in general, the original Shadow Hearts set out to do something different. A quasi-sequel to Koudelka, a late-gen PSone release, Shadow Hearts became somewhat of a cult hit, thanks to the bizarre story, weird humor, and the innovative Judgment Ring which made turn-based battles more than ?press X', rinse, repeat affairs. Sacnoth's epic didn't stray far from its PSone origins (it was a PSone game before being upgraded to the PS2) visually (save for the amazing CG's), but the gothic story and offbeat characters set it apart from the competition, and despite the mixed reviews (as you can see right at GT with the 6.5 score given out; of course the original writer has since been replaced by Senior Editor Bot v0.5) it developed that said cult following. Cursed by its graphical flaws and hampered by the release of that dastardly Final Fantasy X in late 2001, Midway's big gamble of translating and publishing an RPG might have been seen as a mistake given the circumstances, even if there was an audience for such a game.
However, 3 years later, Shadow Hearts II (known as Shadow Hearts: Covenant in the US) is here, and again, Midway has handled the publication of the Nautilus-developed (a revamped Sacnoth) RPG, taking yet another risk. In this case though, it's well worth the risk; everything has been improved. With an enhanced Judgment Ring, modern graphics and amazing CG spread across 2 DVD's, a gothic and yet greatly amusing story, and of course, weird-ass characters who all seem to come from the funny farm, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the exact thing a sequel needs to be - an improvement on everything. With no traditional Final Fantasy around to steal any thunder, and a fairly small crop of ?name' RPG's this fall on the PS2, RPG fans shouldn't hesitate to check out Covenant - and its predecessor for that matter, especially if you want to really grasp what's going on. Midway may not be the first name thought of in RPG publishing, but if they keep releasing Shadow Hearts (or whatever Nautilus is working on), they may be.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant picks up less than a year after the original game. World War I is in effect, though the United States has not entered at the time the game begins. Once again you fill the shoes of Yuri, the ?Godslayer' who defeated Albert Simon and the God he summoned in the original game. This time, however, the harmonixer (or, one who can ?fuse' with demons) has a slight problem - he is cursed. Thanks to the secret society Sapientes Gladio, Yuri has his powers sealed away and his very soul in jeopardy. However, along with his zany cast of party members, which include Karin, a hotter-than-humanly-possible German Lieutenant with wicked sword skills, Joachim, a morphing wrestler who attacks with various items including a giant tuna, Blanca, a Wolf, Gepetto, who's puppet does his attacking, and Anastasia, the Princess of Russia, amongst others, Yuri goes on another cross-continent adventure to avenge his cursing and again bring peace to the world, one sarcastic comment at a time. Be forewarned that knowledge of the original story is almost required to comprehend many of the plot twists and revealing, without it, the strengths of the game will not be as apparent. And there are many strengths - evil characters who are redeemed, conflicted characters dealing with their confusion, and of course, the biting, sarcastic sense of humor at nearly every step; yes, the game has many moments of your usual JRPG drama thanks to the gothic, demonic theme (some of this stuff is sure to offend someone), but more often than not, many events are genuinely hilarious and bizarre. It's all tied up by some dynamite translation and localization work, despite the oddity that the subtitles often do not actually fully reflect what's being said in the various cutscenes.
At its heart, Shadow Hearts II is a traditional, turn-based RPG - a different feel with all the real-time RPG's floating around. For some, the turn-based, random battles setup will feel archaic thanks to Tales of Symphonia, Star Ocean 3, and Final Fantasy XII all going the real-time route, but for others it will be an old-school happy feeling the first time the glass breaks and the battling begins. Thankfully, the random battle rate is fairly tolerable, and sometimes you might even find yourself running around trying to level up and actually struggle finding random encounters. Returning from the original game, the Judgment Ring is the centerpiece of the battle system, and provides much more interactivity. The Ring is just about what it sounds like - a circular spinning wheel that you have to press X at just the right time, which will then allow for a hit, or hits depending on how many strikes you have to use. The Judgment Ring goes until you mess up, or go all the way around - hit it 3 times but miss it the 4th and you'll get the 3 hits registered, but miss the first time and your turn with that character is effectively blown. What's new and cool is the combo system; now you can chain your characters together for a huge combo for massive damage. Long as you hit the button at the right time, you'll have a chance for this devastating attack frequently; especially handy in boss battles.
Even the Ring itself is fully customizable, using items acquired you can add status effects to attacks, change the amount of hits on a particular Ring, expand the size of the strike range, even set the Ring to automatic for the sissies who can't grasp time-based fighting. Like the characters themselves, the Judgment Ring can suffer from various status effects, like making the ring go backwards, making the strike points invisible, even making the ring impossible to see. On the other hand you can add positive status effects yourself, like a 5th Key that lets you go around the ring 5 times on one turn for a huge combo. The Ring also comes into play in the game, away from battles - though not used to solve some puzzles like the first one, it's used to get discounts and mark-ups at the Ambiguously Gay Duo's shop to save some money. In the case of SH:C, you can get up to a 50% discount on purchases and 25% more mark-up selling if you can hit the ring right - and getting the 50% discount isn't anything to smirk at, with such a narrow set of strike points. Unfortunately, one of the more annoying aspects of Shadow Hearts' battle system, Sanity Points, returns, though it isn't quite as bad this time around. Basically, Sanity Points are ?turns' - when a character runs out of SP they go berserk and thus uncontrollable until you can use an item to restore SP, or at least find an accessory that eliminates SP problems. Just in case though, be sure to equip SP restoring items, or wind up in trouble if you encounter a boss that strips SP away in mass quantity.
All told though, the battles are traditional in turn-based format - using a Final Fantasy X-esque ?Turn Priority' window, you can see who's turn is coming up next and plan ahead for attacking, healing, etc. It can also warn if a character is running low on SP; if their portrait turns red, they're in danger of going berserk. So even if the addition of combos and the Ring makes it seem different, it's very traditional and long-time RPG fans should have no trouble whatsoever getting it down. One of the nicest touches is how experience is handled - even if a character is not in a battle (there can be up to 4 in a battle at any time) they can earn experience points and level - not the full EXP, but roughly half of the earned EXP. This is exceptionally handy because then you can keep characters mostly strong and prepared in case they're needed (and in at least one case you will need all party members ready to go). This is accented by the ability to set up ?teams' - basically you have slots to fill in 4 primary party members, and you can switch from team to team at the touch of a button, taking the annoyance out of using menus to swap characters. Nice idea.
The magic system has changed drastically since the original Shadow Hearts. Instead of characters having individual skills they can learn, there are Crests scattered around with different support, healing, or attack skills that characters can equip. Yuri cannot use them since he has his Fusions, but everyone else can equip a great many of them to compliment their main attacks. There are a ton of Crests about, thus it's wise to sort them out and balance characters to have many skills to save asses at any time, or you can customize characters to be totally different than their expected skills. That's not to say characters don't have unique skills; in addition to Yuri's Fusions, Karin can acquire pages from a German stageplay which unlocks/enhances her swordfighting with special moves, Anastasia has a vitally important ?snap shot' ability that gives you HP/MP information for enemies, Joachim gets new moves from competing in wrestling matches with his equally strange teacher named?err?Teacher, and Gepetto can outfit his puppet with different outfits by turning in ?Stud Cards' to a particularly effeminate tailor who seems to be stalking your party the entire game with his equally-effeminate item/weapon seller. I told you this game was weird.
Even Yuri's Fusion stuff is a bit different. There's still the whole ?graveyard' concept, but no longer does he have to battle the fusions he acquires (well, most of them anyway, notwithstanding one of the coolest parts of disc 1), nor does the whole ?Malice' thing come into play (where you had to go back in and defeat the combined Malice to clear you up for a while). Instead, you acquire Souls dropped in battles, and thus use them to get new Fusions from the gravestones in the Graveyard, as well as level them up in menu screens. There are a lot more Fusions this time around, which does means a bit more confusion, but like the original, they're not required to really use a lot in order to beat the game. At the least you can use all of them at any time and not have to equip a few at a time like SH1 did.
Despite all that's new, the game mostly progresses in the same way as the original - towns, dungeons, and lengthy cutscenes here and there, etc. There's a world map, but you do not actually wander on it - instead, you go from point to point, or you can backtrack to areas you have been before. It makes the game a bit linear but yet eventually you earn an airship so you can actually go back and forth between Asia and Europe at will, which has some special stuff lying in wait for those curious. Each area has towns, people, etc, as well as the usual sidequests. The ?Lottery' game returns that uses the Judgment Ring, hit it right and you'll earn a good prize?or just a box of tissues. There's also a weird mini-game featuring Blanca, where you can battle various wolves spread across the game world. Beat them and you get a pawprint, and earning them all makes you King of the Wolves or something to that extent. Best part is, the wolves talk trash to each other in various ways and intellects. I told you, the game is weird.
The linearity in the story and progression of Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a drag, but the wild and entertaining story full of weird twists, insane cast of characters, beautifully gothic world, and the vast amount of humor really helps to make the game endearing - you will laugh out loud at the sarcastic comments from Yuri when faced against certain bosses or NPC's, or chuckle at Anastasia and Joachim's interactions (usually resulting in a kick to the back of the knees). While at the heart of it, SH:C is a serious, traditional Japanese RPG, there are few times when it's so overly serious that it becomes melodramatic - it realizes it's a game and never takes itself totally seriously (any game where you fight a giant pink kitty that steals your money is a tad offbeat, no?). That in itself is a great change from so many of the overly-dramatic RPG's, and feels fresh in comparison. The battle system may be a bit outdated compared to today's newer games, but the level of interactivity is unparalleled in comparison to other turn-based RPG's. Not everything is perfect - there's a certain feel of ease to playing the game long as you're a few levels ahead of where you need to be, some of the dungeons are a bit repetitive, and the game eventually ends, but so far in 2004 no other RPG (not that there's been a vast amount or anything) that has gotten everything pretty much nailed down. It may not have the non-linearity of Final Fantasy X-2 (which could be considered the last major RPG-with-a-twist on the PS2), but it has the charm of it, and despite the harrowing World War I alternate-reality, it manages to avoid being taken completely seriously and be entertaining throughout. Which is all you can ask for in a game that takes 30-40 hours to beat.
One of the flaws that hampered the original Shadow Hearts was its graphics - because it was a PSone game at the start, it didn't use the PS2 much aside from improved character textures and pre-rendered backgrounds. The towns were small, and so were the different dungeons. It was a mess, though the CG was stunning. In the case of Shadow Hearts: Covenant, all that has been fixed. Sure, it's not always stunning, but it's a huge improvement. Towns and dungeons are large, though still mostly pre-rendered, texture work is really good, backgrounds are outstanding and detailed, and character design/animation is very sharp. No longer do we have PSone polygons with a PS2 coat of paint; instead we have fully detailed characters and NPC's, using outstanding facial expressions, fully moving eyes in cutscenes, flowing hair, and realistic movement and animations. It all looks quite good. And then we come to the CG. Shadow Hearts had awesome CG, but hoo boy, Covenant tops it. While not as frequent as some other RPG's, there's quite a few lengthy, story-riddled CG scenes that will blow you away. They do not dominate the game, but when one pops up you know something big is going down. While they may not be quite as vivid or realistic as Final Fantasy X/X-2's CG, it's extremely impressive and shows the kind of production values that will serve Nautilus well in the future with other projects. The game simply screams polish from beginning to end, even though Midway committed the strangest blunder of all - naming the game Shadow Hearts: Covenant but keeping everything in-game titled Shadow Hearts II, it's a showcase piece of game art.
The audio strikes in with a great soundtrack rivaling the original, with a great assortment of gothic, creepy music and some instances of really strange goth-techno or something. It all fits in well and has the equally hilarious (the theme that plays when Joachim and Teacher speak is fruity as all hell) and somber (when poor old Yuri and Karin have their moments together) compositions to round things out. The first SH had very small snippets of voice, but most of it was terrible (Sea Mother, Sea Mother, Sea Mother?kill me now). This time around, the voice acting is more prevalent (though there are still plenty of times where you have just text bubbles, the cutscenes are for much more important things), and also much better. It's not campy or poorly done, instead it perfectly fits the game and its bizarre, quirky humor. Like the rest of the game, there's a very strong polish to the audio presentation.