Shadow Hearts - Staff Retroview  

Of Anachronistic Skirts and Magic Obscura
by Cortney Stone

25-30 hours


Rating definitions 

   Among the plethora of fantasy-laden RPGs with their castles, dragons, and kings of made-up lands, the Shadow Hearts series stands apart with its distinctive setting: 20th century Asia and Europe. In Shadow Hearts, the first in this pseudo-historical series, players visit Shanghai, Rouen, Prague, and London as they investigate paranormal phenomena and unravel tangled Christian and occult conspiracies.

   The story begins with Alice this-skirt-is-too-short-for-1913 Elliot, the daughter of a murdered priest, traveling on a train through China. A strange warlock named Roger Bacon attacks, turns the guards into hamburger, and attempts to kidnap Alice. Enter the hero -- Yuri Hyuga, a grumbling, brooding young man with the power to fuse with the souls of monsters. He thwarts the warlock, and in a rush of bravado via FMV, whisks swooning Alice off the train and into the dark. In between moments of contemplating getting up Alice's skirt, Yuri is compelled by a mysterious voice commanding him to protect Alice, who is, as many pretty blonde healer females tend to be, the key component in a dark ritual for summoning a destructive power. Their travels take them through Asia and Europe where they confront demons, ghosts, and various powers of the occult. They befriend a wide variety of characters: a Chinese sage, a sultry American spy, a London street kid, and a bored vampire.

   Indeed, Shadow Hearts has a recipe for a quality story. The plot elements are captivating and the story is filled with twists and turns. It is a game quite different from the usual RPG fare. It's delightfully irreverent; Alice hits things with a Bible, one of the game's "valuables" is a dirty magazine, and there's even a gay acupuncturist. It has distinctive horror elements; characters traipse through massive pools of congealed blood, battle sickening monsters, and confront blood-curdling poltergeists. Unfortunately, it falls into the same stereotypical pitfalls as other RPGs: the beautiful healer/damsel-in-distress, the macho hero who falls for her, and some bad guys who want to acquire real ultimate power, destroy the world, and/or own what's left of it. All this is conveyed through low-quality dialogue, although that is possibly from poor localization rather than bad writing.

Surely they know some Chinese herbal diarrhea remedies! Surely they know some Chinese herbal diarrhea remedies!

   That's another failure of this title: the localization. While the text contains only a few errors, so much of the dialogue is awkward, too colloquial, and even anachronistic at points. Some of the item descriptions are confusing. However, the worst crime is with the voice acting. Half of the voices are in Japanese, and the vocal pitches of the Japanese voice actors are vastly different from their English counterparts. For example, Alice's high-pitched squeak in battle clashes horribly with her mellow, British-accented narrative voice. On top of that, the English voices are generally horrible at acting. One actress fails so miserably in telling a ghost story that she should elicit hysterical laughter from the player rather than horror.

   The sound failures don't stop at voice acting. Many of the game's sound effects are quite laughable. Enemies sound comical rather than frightening, like children doing poor imitations of animals. The soundtrack is also quite mediocre, in spite of having Yasunori Mitsuda buried in the billing. Much of the music suits the creepy environments, with a couple of tracks standing out as mildly enjoyable, but none of it is memorable. Sadly, the most common theme in the game, the battle music, features an irritating prominent synthesized voice. The battle music changes to something less irritating halfway through the game, but this theme reappears in optional boss fights.

One ring to rule them all...wait, that's not it... One ring to rule them all...wait, that's not it...

   Shadow Hearts has outstanding visuals -- for a PS1 game. However, it's for the PlayStation 2, and the graphics are not quite what they should be. FMV character models resemble smooth plastic mannequins, battle graphics are a bit clunky, and environments consist of prerendered graphics, as seen in Final Fantasy VII. These prerendered graphics are not entirely flat; they may lack depth, but they are enriched with ethnic color and morbidity, depending on the location. Some of the cutscenes are rather artistic --combine static art and photography with narrative -- but none of them are truly outstanding, quality art.

   The saving grace of Shadow Hearts is its battle system, which centers on the almighty Judgment Ring. This ring appears every time a character attacks or uses an item. An indicator sweeps the surface of the ring, passing over highlighted sections. If a player presses the button when the indicator is in these highlighted sections, good things happen -- a stronger punch, a more potent item, a hotter fire spell. The Judgment Ring is easy to learn, and it can be refined to increase the challenges and rewards. In requiring the player to put in more effort for each attack, the game offers an improvement over merely entering battle commands and watching them play out on the screen.

   But even the Judgment Ring is flawed, as it plays a part in a couple of interface issues. One is that some of the random Judgment Ring minigames are annoying and difficult. Another is that the Judgment Ring likes to announce whether a hit has succeeded or failed in large print across the face of the ring, and these words can obstruct the view of other highlighted sections. Other than those issues, the interface is generally user-friendly.

   Shadow Hearts is a relatively short game, as it can be completed in about 25 hours. That figure, however, includes the completion of some "optional' side quests; these quests are actually necessary, as the final boss is extremely difficult without the bonuses. There are also two endings. The fork is approximately four-fifths through, so creating a separate file to pursue another ending will give the player some extra hours of game time.

   Those seeking something different from the standard fantasy RPG fare will find Shadow Hearts to be a welcome deviation. Its fascinating pseudo-historical horror setting and demanding Judgment Ring make the game worth playing. Unfortunately, the game is poorly constructed; subpar graphics, terrible voice acting, and half-hearted localization bring Shadow Hearts down quite a bit. Had the development and localization teams invested a little more time, the game would be more than just a cult hit.

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