Shadow Hearts - Review

Once Upon A Shadowed Heart...

By: Jennatar

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 7
   Originality 9
   Plot 6
   Localization 7
   Replay Value 5
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Medium
   Time to Complete

25-35 hours



   Shadow Hearts hit the PS2 marketplace without a splash. It's a game that few know exist, and fewer have played. The few reviews that dot the internet are generally bad ones, and while I see why this game might not appeal to some, it was refreshing to me. A gothic horror RPG (rare in itself) is met with a gameplay system so unique as to push the game into a category of its own.

   The combat system of Shadow Hearts is remarkably different (in a good way) than any other RPG I have played, so excuse the lengthy description of its magnificence. Firstly, characters have the standard HP and MP of all RPGS, but Hearts introduces Sanity Points (SP). Basically, for every turn a character takes (no matter what they do), they lose an SP. Once their SP reaches 0, they go Berserk and you lose control of them. There are items that restore SP, naturally, but it's more of a nuisance than anything else. Next off: the Judgment Ring. In order to perform any action in combat (attack, item, or special ability), you must hit "hit areas" on the Ring. This makes the combat challenging, as if you fail to hit all the hit areas a move requires (and more powerful moves require more hits) you forfeit your turn. Some see this as a major drawback to the game, but it really isn't that difficult. In truth, it takes a few seconds to hit (or miss) the hit areas, so combat moves rapidly.

   Leveling is automatic in this game (you don't get to assign "points" for each level, as you do in other games). The special abilities that the characters get are set to certain levels (with the exception of the main character, Yuri). Each character, however, has a different set of customized specials (which include some attack, healing, and supportive elements). Yuri is in a league of his own, however: his special ability is the ancient art of Fusion. Fusion allows him to become on of many monsters that reside in his soul, and as the game progresses you can unlock more monsters. You do not need to go through the annoying habit of "capturing" enemy monster skills that so plagued FF games. Acquiring more Fusions is straight-forward, and they come with three spells each. You can equip a maximum of three Fusion Souls at a time, letting you customize Yuri more than any of the other characters.

   The interface of the game is well constructed. No single part (or dungeon) of the game is long enough to bore you. The world map is quite literally a map, where you point the to destination you chose to go to. Hearts has achieved the high standard that we come to expect from an RPG -- it's easy to use, with one complaint and one compliment. You cannot unequip characters who are not in your combat party, and, after buying new weapons from a store, you must manually equip them (a serious problem when you just bought a new weapon for a character not in your combat party...). The compliment goes out to the extremely well-designed help system. Not only is there a "Help" and "FAQ" section in the main screen, but new items appear in them as the game progresses. The new items are also accompanied by a yellow "new" sign next to Help or FAQ in the main menu. The result is that any time you may go "huh?", you have only to check the Help for the new entry, and you're set.

The Judgment Ring -- he hit it =)
The Judgment Ring -- he hit it =) 

   The music of Hearts is good, but not ear-popping, stop-what-you're-doing-to-listen-to-it good. There are some nice scores, but the music mostly provides a backdrop to the environment. The sounds are remarkable, though -- at one point, when you walk across chain that is lying on the floor, you hear the chain jingle. Combat sounds are well done, with a single exception: the music that plays whenever a party member goes Berserk is uncalled for punishment. Summing it up: nothing extraordinary, and nothing so bad that I made a note of it (save that Berserk music *shudders*).

   I was tempted to give Hearts a 10 for Originality. I have never seen a game like this, and I doubt I will again. In addition to the unique combat system, and Yuri's awesome Fusion ability, the game takes place in Asia and Europe as it was just prior to World War I. The gothic horror theme of the game makes it impossible to say that this is just an average RPG, most noticeably in the setting and enemies of the game, which I'll get to in graphics...

One of the more sinister of Yuri's Fusions.
One of the more sinister of Yuri's Fusions. 

   As for the plot -- well, the plot is more at the character level than at the game level. There was a solid plot throughout the first half of the game, and the horror theme transformed it into something rather nice. Then the second half of the game came along, and the plot became something you had to chase after (literaly). It turned into a standard search for the bad guy, who coincidentally showed up wherever you were. Unlike the allies introduced in the first half, the first of the two allies that joins in the second half joined because (and I quote) he was bored, and receives absolutely no character development. At the end Hearts manages to pick up some of the plot's fragments and tie them into an awesome ending, but there are few plot twists and revelations that are associated with really great RPGs. What keeps you going through the gaps in the plot is the development of Yuri. I'm not going to give anything away, but suffice to say that (as with everything else about this game) it's unique.

   This game was originally released in Japan, though almost everything has been properly translated to English. The voice effects that accompany all the characters special abilities, though, are still in Japanese. Beyond that, the quick pace of the game and creepy settings appeal to everyone.

   Personally, replaying a game is unheard of to me, and so I might have given the game a lower rating than it deserved. If you hurried through the game, missing all the secrets, you might want to replay it. There are no quirks for beating the game, nothing to unlock if you beat it a thousand times. On a more positive note, the game is short enough, and all the aspects appealing enough that it'd be much more fun to replay than a 60 hour FF game where you have to spend 20 hours leveling...

   No, Hearts does not have the graphics that FFX does. It's settings, though detailed and eerie, are pre-rendered. The movie clips (all five of them) are amazing if you don't count the fact that everyone's skin looks like plastic. In-game movements are life-like -- basically, standard PS2 fare. One thing that Hearts excels in is how the enemies look. The standard enemies of most RPGs (pixies, animals, globs of goo, etc) have been replaced by creatures drawn from the depths of a psychopath's nightmares. Simply put, the monsters are really monsters, and make you want to eradicate them. For this reason I emphasize the "Mature" rating on this game: a typical monster may be a corpse-colored human whose bottom half was replaced by something resembling a roach's, splattered in blood, with an extra hand sticking out of it's stomach. And that is a conservative description.

A normal spider monster? Heh, must have missed it.
A normal spider monster? Heh, must have missed it. 

   Shadow Hearts rates an Easy-Medium difficulty: easy if you take the time to level a bit, and do some sidequests to get more powerful Fusions, medium if you don't. It's not a game where you'll get fed up after being unable to beat a boss seven times in a row -- personally, I only lost to a boss twice during the entire game. If you play on the safe side, get everyone's ultimate weapons and armor, grab Yuri's secret Fusion, and level to the 50's, the final boss is flat-out easy. Whether that's a good thing or not is up to you =)

   In all, Shadow Hearts is a worthy addition to any RPG collection. 30 hours of gameplay brings you to a satisfying ending to a haunting game, one so original you won't soon forget it. My advice is to grab Hearts, despite its faults -- you'll be waiting a very long time to see another game like it.

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