Shadow Hearts: Covenant - Staff Retroview  

The Judgment Ring Goes for Another Spin
by Cortney Stone

35-40 hours


Rating definitions 

   "Europe. 1915. The Great War has spread across the continent like wildfire. A young German officer leads troops into the village of Domremy in France under orders to secure it for the empire and stamp out resistance." Toss in a baritone narrator and some grainy footage, and this is how it would play out on the History Channel. However, this is Shadow Hearts: Covenant, where historical framework shifts and bends around a tale of demon pacts, cursed souls, and a secret society with grand political schemes.

   While Covenant lacks the aura of horror of its predecessor, it retains the flavor of pseudo-history and occult along with the quirky, irreverent brand of humor seen in Shadow Hearts. As a true sequel, Covenant builds on the first game by continuing the story of Yuri Hyuga. It recalls events and people of its predecessor and stays true to the original story while developing a new tale with an elegant finish. In short, the story and localization are better and the dialogue is much more polished, although there is still the issue of anachronism. "Bite me" and television did not exist in 1915.

   The process of battling through hordes of monsters has been modified. As seen in Shadow Hearts, players must press the button at the right time as the sweeping indicator of the Judgment Ring passes over certain shaded areas. The system is still largely the same, but now the ring is far more manageable through customization. Players may add more hit areas, expand tiny strike areas, or eliminate the ring entirely -- but at a price. Other changes include having four party members instead of three, customizable magic through equipped crests, and character combos for sequential damage. Character skills are also more interesting to collect and use, whether they are Karin's sword skills learned from Wagner opera scores, the dancing attacks of Gepetto's puppet, or Princess Anastasia's summoned monsters from photographs.

Caption Karin looks skeptical, but not plastic.

   Interaction has been brushed up a bit as well, although certain flaws remain. With the Judgment Ring, the words "good" and "strike" have been moved to the outside edge of the ring; they no longer block one's view of the indicator. There are no pesky required Judgment Ring minigames this time either, only a sidequest. The only trouble is the camera. While it generally follows Yuri like an obedient pet, there are some tricky spots where the camera angle changes suddenly and awkwardly. Rounding a street corner in Petrograd, for example, yanks the player through three different perspectives in a few seconds. Peeking into a darkened corner in a dungeon could also uncover a new disorienting camera perspective.

   The most improvement shown in this sequel is with sound. Voice acting is of higher quality -- although not of high quality -- and it is all in English, unlike the partly Japanese and partly horrible voice acting set of its predecessor. Some characters have spot-on voices that suit them really well, and a few of the voice actors even went on to star in Grandia 3. The music has also improved; it's a collection of rock, pop, classical, and ethnic tunes. While a considerable portion of the soundtrack is not memorable, there is a handful of extremely striking songs. Unfortunately, some town and dungeon themes are extremely overused. It is annoying to have certain songs follow Yuri everywhere he goes in his travels.

Caption Amon's back, and he's still angry.

   Covenant steps ahead of the first game with superior graphics as well. The game is clean 3D, the FMVs lack the plastic look, and while the horror elements are toned down, the game has a dreary patina that fits the story. Character designs are very striking as well. Interestingly, the artistic still image cutscenes of Shadow Hearts are parodied in Covenant with comical childlike drawings illustrating Yuri's narrations -- another manifestation of irreverence. However, some battle animations are problematic. When characters are knocked into the air by an attack, they land on the backs of their necks. It looks painful, awkward, and poorly animated. Characters also seem to bump awkwardly into enemies when they execute a melee attack, as if they lack depth perception.

   In spite of a few flaws, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a great game. It is simply made better than the first game, with improvements in every category. It is also a little longer, with more main content -- a longer story and more places to visit in Europe and Asia -- and plenty of sidequests. Covenant is also consistently easy, with a few challenging sidetrips for the adventuresome. Fans and newcomers to the series will enjoy this title.

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