Shadow Hearts - Review

Once Upon A Shadowed Heart...

By: Jennatar

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

25-35 hours



   When it made its debut back in December 2001, Shadow Hearts didn't come out with much of a bang, simply because it was released at about the same time as Final Fantasy X. Many people may have forgotten to include Shadow Hearts on their Christmas wish-list, but it truly is a game that deserves a little more attention. Sacnoth, a company made up of ex-Square employees, really dug deep to create one of the most terrifying, entertaining, and enjoyable game experience to date.

   As countless RPGs do, Shadow Hearts features a world filled with monsters against whom you must do battle. However, Shadow Hearts introduces a new spin to the normal turn-based battles with the Judgement Ring. The Judgement Ring is in fact a roulette with a line which spins clockwise each time you select a command. Then, depending on the command you chose, you have to press the X at the right time within the highlighted area once, twice, or even up to 5 times. This makes for interesting and always challenging battles. And to spice things up, the end of some highlighted portions are critical hit areas ,which means that you can inflict or heal more damage if you time yourself right. This adds a little strategy to the whole process, as you'll have to choose between playing it safe, or going for the big hit. Along with the obligatory HP and MP, Shadow Hearts introduces SP (sanity points). Basically, you lose 1 SP each turn, and if your SP gauge is depleted, your character turns berserk and attacks on his own. The main character, Yuri, is called a Harmonixer, which is someone who can fuse with the souls of monsters. To acquire more souls, you'll have to defeat enough enemies of a particular element(there are 6 elements), access the courtyard in Yuri's mind (ouuhh), and battle the fusion monster.

   The Judgement Ring isn't limited to battles, however. You'll have to "battle" the ring on several occasions while exploring in order to open doors, treasures, or just perform certain actions. You'll also find the ring in shops, where you'll be able to challenge the ring in order to get a discount or even raise the price of items you're selling. To do that, however, you must first find guild cards located around the world. Each guild card allows you to challenge for a 10% discount or a 5% raise each time. For example, if you have 4 cards, you can attempt a 40% discount, but you'll have to spin the ring 4 times. If you miss, you'll have to buy (or sell) at retail price. Cards do not disappear, except when you don't follow the "rules" (I'll leave you the pleasure of finding about those on your own ^^). Speaking of finding things on your own (transition people, hoho!), Shadow Hearts won't leave you alone in the cold. The game features an in-game, in-depth, in-credibly useful Help & FAQ menu as well as a monster library to answer all your questions about the battles, monsters, or anything at all. It's a very nice addition that truly adds points to the overall polishing of the game. You can also get more info on any item by pressing square, which adds a nice touch to the menu (pun). The menu (pun) itself is well done and generally well organized, except for the fact that you can't equip or unequip characters unless they are in your party. Towns and dungeons are generally pretty small, which makes for some easy exploring.

Europe - 1913
Familiar cities, but I wouldn't go there on a trip if I were you...  

   The smallness of the environments leads to a few little problems in Shadow Hearts. First, while I usually prefer RPGs with lower encounter rates, I found Shadow Hearts' battles to be really, really scarce. It's not unlikely that you may breeze through a dungeon in only 3 or 4 fights. Second, you'll find yourself shopping more often than a depressed teenage girl with a platinum credit card. And the fact that shopping is pretty long with all those discount attempts only make matters worse. Fortunately, to sooth your shopping frenzies, you'll be accompanied by some very nice music. In fact, nice is a gross understatement, because the music is great. Yoshitaka Hirota makes his debut as a lead music composer with an amazing soundtrack. The feeling exuded from the colorful environments are masterfully reflected by Hirota's well dozed use of percussion, violin, piano and electronic sounds. The quality of it all is not only fascinating because of the compositions, but also because of the incredible sound quality used, some of the best ever heard from any console. As I was listening, I seemed to be picking up some familiar sounds. I later found out that the master himself, Mr. Yasunori Mitsuda, also had his say on the soundtrack. Fans of Mitsuda will be quite pleased with the 10 or so tracks that he composed and you might even be able to discern them if you listen real carefully. I even stood still in London (in the game) just to be able to hear the music again and again. Sound effects are mostly good, ranging from footsteps that change from surface to surface, to battle cries. The battle cries of some monsters are particularly spooky, which fits well with the rest of the game.

Nice battles, but unfortunately you won't see them often.  

The game could be categorized as a gothic, horror RPG, something you don't see every day. The fact that everything takes place in the "real" world (real if you take all the gore and creepy stuff out) before World War I is also a fresh and original idea. The concept is great, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired since the flow of the game is too reminiscent of other RPGs. You're left with nice characters in nice environments, but with a reheated plot of a maniac who wants to summon God to cleanse the earth. The general story is pretty lame, but the game is filled with little sub-plots that keep things interesting. You'll encounter a lot of maniacs and creepy people on your adventure, most of which have practically nothing to do with the big picture, but serve their part well at keeping things engrossing. The folks who worked on the localization process did a very good job indeed. The dialogues are nice and funny, and most of all they seem casual. The game also features FMVs with voice acting. The voice acting is decent, although I would've preferred the option of hearing them in original Japanese. There are also sequences which utilizes still drawings to tell parts of the sub-stories.

All and all, the game is of moderate difficulty. Battles don't tend to last very long, and as I've said before, dungeons aren't exactly marathon races. However, some bosses and pretty tough, and if you forget to bring a good healer aboard or even some status blocking items, you might find your characters going to the canvas more often than they should. Also, if you can't stand the Judgement Ring or if you have brain damage affecting your reflexes, you may have more problems then other people at completing the game, which shouldn't take you more than 35 hours.

Even though I have just finished the game, I practically can't wait to start another game. The uniqueness of the game is really something I enjoyed, but that may not be true for other people. There aren't many sidequests aside from the usual ultimate armors and weapons. There are also 2 secret fusions for Yuri, but if you pay attention to what you're doing and explore thoroughly, you might just find everything without the use of a FAQ. As I've mentioned many times before, the backgrounds have a very genuine and macabre feeling to them. However, the quality of those pre-rendered 2D backgrounds leaves a little to be desired. If you inspect them closely enough, you'll find them to be somewhat jaggy and not that sharp. The character models are also adequate, though not breathtaking. By today's PS2 standards, the graphics aren't that impressive, but they do look authentic.

In conclusion, the uniqueness of the game alone makes it a very recommended purchase for anyone. But if you add to that awesome music, a great looking interface, an innovative combat system and of course, horror, you've got yourself a very sweet game that will leave you wanting more.

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