Review: Shadow Hearts: From the New World (PS2)

Shadow Hearts: From the New World
Developer: Nautilus
Publisher: Xseed Games
Genre: Turn-Based RPG
Release Date: 03/07/2006

My god, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to reviewing this game. I just ended up reviewing other games like Pokemon: Trozei, Scratches, Crime Stories and DDO. I just kept putting it off because I decided it would be better to review obscure games over this one. A month and a half later… Chalk it up to the fact I was supposed to be “retired” from Games reviews in Mid November.

Shadow Hearts: From the New World is the fourth game in the Koudelka series and the third game to bear the Shadow Hearts name. All four games have interlocking continuity the branches from the late 1800’s to 1929 and are the only roleplay series to deeply embrace actual historical events and tie them into a fictional setting. There is also at least half a dozen HP Lovecraft references, homages or tributes in each of the games. Nautilus, originally called Sacnoth (which I strongly prefer), started off as a development company formed mainly by ex Squaresoft (Now Square-Enix) employees who disagreed with the direction of the company’s Graphics and beating a dead horse policy over gameplay and a strong well-written story. Besides the Koudelka quartet, as Sacnoth, Nautilus also made Faselei! for the amazingly underrated Neo Geo Pocket Colour, a game that is considered to be one of the greatest tactical RPG’s ever made. It’s worth tracking down, no matter the cost.

Koudelka remains in my top ten RPG’s of all time due to the story, graphics, and the most unique RPG gameplay I’ve ever encountered. The first two Shadow Hearts games each received a 7.5 from me, and as you may well imagine, since it’s been FIVE MONTHS since a game has received that high a rating from me (Taito Legends with an 8.0), I was finally looking forward to playing some that didn’t dislodge the bile from my stomach up to my throat. So was I disappointed, or did Nautilus continue the most consistent record of excellent for any video game developer ever?

Let’s Review

1. Story

The year is 1929. We are fourteen years after Shadow Hearts: Covenant and the end of the Yuri storyline. Like Sakura Taisen, the series is leaving Europe after two straight games for America. This time, your main protagonist is a young man named Johnny Garland. He’s a 16 year old private detective, as odd a concept as that may sound to you. Johnny is an orphan with selective amnesia who is hired by a creepy hunchback named Gilbert who is a professor at Arkham University (Home of the Fighting Cephalopods and blatant Lovecraft reference #1) to track down a missing colleague of his. Johnny tracks him down only to witness him being eaten by a Deep One (blatant Lovecraft reference #2). Johnny is about to be the after dinner mint when a strange mix of woman and avian bursts through the ceiling and destroys the monster. Johnny faints and when he comes to he learns the woman is a Native American named Shania and she has bonded with the spirit of the Thunderbird. Yes, she’s like Yuri, except her spirits are malicious and evil. Johnny teams up with Shania and her bodyguard Natan and they begin to travel all over the US in search of Professor Gilbert and make new friends along the way.

At the same time there is a serial killer who is saved from a mortal wound by a strange mute woman who also enhances him with supernatural powers. How do the two stories intertwine? You’ll have to play to find out.

Shadow Hearts: FTNW is actually the worst of the three games story-wise. The characters are amazingly two-dimensional when compared to previous Shadow Hearts games, and even on their own, the characters are barely developed. The main characters are also pretty unlikable. Johnny is vapid and annoying. Shania has no personality to speak of, and really only Frank the played for laughs Brazillian Ninja is fleshed out at all. Mao the giant talking cat mafia don/Hollywood mogul is a close second. None of the characters, good or bad really leap off the screen into your hearts. There is no one of the quality of Yuri, Albert Simon, Koudelka or the rest of the cast from the earlier three games.

There’s also some major flub ups in the historical data as well. The game takes place in 1929 remember. There are things like you teaming up with Al Capone and breaking him out of Alcatraz. First of all Capone wasn’t in Alcatraz until 1934, and by the time he was there his syphilitic induced dementia had already begun to drive him utterly insane and he developed massive OCD while in there. It also painted the picture that Capone had control over the prison even though he was constantly sent to “the hole” in real life. Finally the game made it seem like Eliot Ness was a bungling incompetent and who had a love hate relationship with Capone. Nothing could be further than the truth.

This isn’t the only massive history timeline flub in the game. The plot also brins in Roswell, New Mexico into the story, even though again, the would-be alien crash and sightings in that city’s area didn’t occur until 1947; twenty years after the game is supposed to take place. They’ve also got entire Indian Reservations living in teepee still and as always, the clothing is circa current time instead of the appropriate era.

You may think this is me nitpicking and being overly anal, but it’s actually me proving a point. In Koudelka and the first two SH games, there was a lot more quality control in regards to the historical fiction parts. Both the SH and real life time lines synched up pretty well. It’s not even close to the case here, and as such, it’s a disappointing and drastic drop in the level of quality storytelling these games are generally filled to the brim with.

By the usual level of Nautilus’ quality, the plot of SH3 is abysmal. However, compared to a lot of other games out there, it’s simply poor. Major disappointment for me here.

Story Rating: 4/10

2. Graphics

Graphically, SH3 takes a bit of a nose dive as well, but not much of one. The backgrounds are still lush and well made. The character models, especially when featured in the cut scenes, are incredible. Frank’s outfit and Hilda’s weight fluctuation never fails to make me grin. When it comes to realistic and original character designs, Nautilus still manages to do a better job that Square-Enix, and that’s as big a complement as anyone can give a game’s graphics.

My only two graphical nitpicks are that Johnny looks pretty bad when you’re moving him around maps, and that the monsters this time around are rather drab and uninspired compared to what we had in the other games. They’re pretty nondescript and just not as clever or fun as their last few games. Maybe it’s just going to the well once too often.

Again, as I said at the beginning here, the graphics aren’t up to the same level of excellent one finds in the first two SH games, but compared to most PS2 games, this is still one of the best looking games for the system. The characters may not have personality, but they have style and flash.

Graphics Rating: 9/10

3. Sound

Aside from Matt Hoverman’s attempt to make “Killer” sound like an American Iori from King of Fighters (as well as the graphic engineers making him look like that particular character as well), the voice acting in the game is wonderful, Mao is perfect as a very masculine female cat with a voice of pure androgyny. Frank’s voice actor has made his character into my personal favorite one out of any game released in 2006 so far. Johnny is whiny and pretty unlikable, but Jamie McGonnicle does an excellent job on enhancing that image. And of course Marty Keiser continues to make Roger Bacon the best recurring character into this generation of video games.

Musically the game is just as excellent as the voice acting. Each area of the game has its own distinct sound and feel to it. My personal favorite is the repeating jazz tracks that come in the Chicago area. It’s very snappy and lively and helps to authenticate the jazz & big band era that was the late 1920’s. The music is never intrusive, always enjoyable, and again I find myself wishing these games came with an extra soundtrack CD, as I know I’d listen to it in my car.

Sound has always been a crowning achievement of any of the Sacnoth/Nautilus games, and SH3 is no exception. Superb in all ways possible.
Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control & Gameplay

The hook of the Shadow Hearts series is the Judgment Ring. The ring controls every aspect of combat gameplay. Unlike most turn based gaming which requires so little brain activity that any life form with the ability to randomly slap buttons can do it and still beat the game quote easily, the judgment ring forces you to work for your experience points.

How it works is this: As soon as you pick an action, a ring appears on the screen. Your goal is to smack the X button as soon as the line going across the ring enters the “success” region of the ring. The success region is divided into two colors: brownish-yellow and red. Getting in the larger brownish yellow area equals a success but getting in the thinner red area equals a “Strike” and thus more damage. If you hit all the red area on the ring, you get a “Perfect.” Sounds simple, right? Well, as this means you have to pay close attention to each action your character takes to ensure you pull it off, all Shadow Hearts games require a level of concentration most turn based gamers aren’t used to having. Although Strategy RPG’ers will find themselves having an easier time with the ring due to the level of concentration actually required for that gameplay, there still the matter of requiring excellent hand to eye coordination and some pretty quick reflexes to boot. As I’m primarily a 2D shooter and fighter gamer, the Judgment Ring isn’t a hassle for me (99% overall success rate and a 77% perfect rate), but it may be more the gamer who is used only to RPG’s.

I personally find the judgment ring aspect of the SH series highly enjoyable, well designed, and there are so many ways to interact it with, from items that change the speed of the ring or give you a large strike area, to the ability to change to one of four very different ring types to maximize your play ability. It’s just a breath of fresh air for a genre of video games that I find, with the exception of this series and Megaten, to be amazingly lackluster.

There’re several changes to the ring system in this third go-around with it. The combo system has been retooled and it’s amazingly simply to pull off four character combos. The ring can also be slowed down a lot sooner in other games as right away you can buy items that decrease the ring speed by 25 and even 50%!

SH3 also introduces a stock bar that when full allows you to pull off “Hard Hits” which knocks your opponents back and reduces the amount of damage they can do. The stock bar also charges your combos and allows you the opportunity to do a double attack. You may take two actions in exchange for your stock bar, but it can’t be the same action twice. This is great for characters like Johnny, who unlike previous protagonist Yuri, is not the best fighter in the world, and thus you can take pictures, heal your friends or cast a magic spell. SH3 really has opened up even more options for your characters to take in combat.

Although SH3 has the worst plot of the four games in the series, it has the best gameplay of them all. I’m in love with all the upgrades to the ring system and to the gameplay in general. People with slower reflexes may have some trouble with the game, but as far as Turn Based Engines go, Shadow Hearts: From the New World features quite simply, the best ever made.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 10/10

5. Replayability

This is always a hard category to judge for this particular game. It’s a very linear straight forward game with next to no deviation from the one path you are given. There are two endings, but the ending is based on a simple action taken with one particular character in the game. Speaking of the endings SH1 offered two great endings, SH2 offered two very sad but necessary endings, but SH3 offers 2 very bland and uninspired endings that leave you feeling rather blah after achieving either. The bad ending is pretty much the one that MUST occur if SH4 is going to follow the same characters.

There’s a few things the game considers subquests, but each subquest is achieved rather easily and never takes you off on a different road. Natan’s UWA quests are always in the same dungeon you need to go to anyway. Same with Frank’s and the so on. Only Mao’s attempt at making a movie filled with kung fu furries offers any deviation.

Characters have no modifiable stats as in Koudelka and nothing at all will change from playthrough to playthrough. The 8th time you beat it will feel exactly like the first.

The Shadow Hearts games have always been excellent. There’s just no real replay value to them.

Replayability Rating: 3/10

6. Balance

Thanks to the changes to the ring system, Shadow Hearts: From the New World is even more balanced than before. With new ring options allowing you to switch between styles of rings, you’ll be able to find what works best for your experience level. The combo system is improved in every way, and there’s a lot more ring customization than in SH2.

The downside is SH3 is a lot easier than the other two games. The monsters, and especially the boss fights, pack little to no punch and thus you will rarely have a single character knocked out, much less potentially losing a fight and having to start over from a save point. In my entire time playing through I suffered a whopping total of six character knockouts, almost all Johnny. It’s shockingly easy compared to the difficulty level of the previous games.

I’ll nitpick on the save system as well because it’s my personal belief that Save Spots should have gone out with 16 bit graphics. In this day & age, you should be able to save a game anywhere in case an emergency or the like comes up. I just always find having to run around for a save spot to be well…tacky.

SH3 just lacks the punch and difficulty of the earlier games. But what it lacks by being a cakewalk it makes up for by having a very tight, almost flawless version of the Judgment ring in place.

Balance Rating: 5/10

7. Originality

Fourth game in the series, third with the same name. It’s a new setting and with almost an entirely new cast and crew of characters, but it’s still the same old Shadow Hearts with a new face lift. It may be the most unique and underrated RPG series out there, but the series is starting to get repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of it, and this is the best RPG I’ve played in 2006 (as I don’t own a 360 and thus haven’t gotten my hands on Oblivion), but for the fourth Shadow Hearts, Nautilus is going to need to try something new to really make the game feel fresh and innovative again.

I love the historical fiction slant. Perhaps instead of continuing forward in time and make the next game predictably set during WWII, they could go back in time to the Boer War or maybe even older. Egyptian Shadow Hearts? Another solution would be to take a totally off the wall historical setting and make a game out of it. Falkland Islands invasion? Woodstock? Or some other event that has yet to be portrayed digitally thus really making gamers think outside the box. You have the perfect engine for it, and Nautilus has really engaging plots and ideas, so they could pull it off.

Still unique compared to other games, but Nautilus is in danger of following in the footsteps of Square-Enix and repeating the same issues that caused them to form Sacnoth in the first place.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

Serious classical Cthulhu Mythos storytelling intermingled with some of the most god damn bizarre things ever put into a video game series that has made it across the Pacific allows SH:FTNW to captivate most gamers. Compared to a lot of other dreck out there, it’s pretty outside the box and thus stands out amongst all the other turn based RPG’s for the PS2.

Two other things really help to keep you attached to your army of quasi-ninjas, Native American stereotypes, and whiny emo children. The first is the judgement ring. The style of gameplay is so fun that you keep trying to make yourself better and better at hitting perfects on the ring. It’s like gambling but without the eventual need to murder your kid sister and sell her entrails and organs on the black market to pay off the loan shark you have angered before he sends his goons after you.

The second is that Shadow Hearts tracks everything you do. It is the work of a bunch of people who obviously suffer from OCD in regards to statistical analysis. It tracks ever statistic in the game you can imagine. How many steps you’ve walked, each character’s individual battle stats, the total amount of cash you have made, amount of times you’ve run, monsters you battled, photos you’ve taken, max combos and literally DOZENS of other stats. You’ll find yourself curiously addicted to these stats and trying to raise them.

The game may have its story flaws, but that doesn’t make it any less of a black hole in regards to where your free time goes.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this game. Sure you’ll get a grumpy curmudgeonly critic like me who nitpicks some things, but I still enjoyed the game and am glad it’s part of my PS2 collection. It’s irreverent, unique amongst other turn based RPG’s and managed to treat the Cthulhu Mythos with respect while still have tons of references to flaming queens, furries, and mocking Brazilians.

I take back my first sentence in this section. There are some gamers I can see not having fun with Shadow Hearts 3 Those would be the RPG gamers who have spent their whole lives only playing games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and other games where you simply select actions from a menu and thus have no need of reflexes. This game has the potential to frustrate them if they’ve only played that sort of game.

It’s not as good as the first two games, but SH:FTNW has something for everyone to enjoy

Appeal Factor: 8/10

10. Miscellaneous

Even though the game is amazingly linear and a real let down compared to the plots of the first two games, enough can’t be said about how much there is to enjoy in SH:FTNW. The gameplay is simple yet challenging and wildly addictive. The storyline is bizarre, and although there are some serious flub-ups, it’s still enjoyable. This is by far one of the best games you’re going to see released RPG wise for the PS2 this year. There may not be much in the way of extras or any replay value but as a once-through I can’t think of a single reason NOT to recommend this game.

If you get the game (and I really hope you do), just remember the first three games in the series are even better, although Koudelka‘s very different gameplay might throw you for a loop.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

The Scores
Story: 4
Graphics: 9
Sound: 10
Control/Gameplay: 10
Replayability: 3
Balance: 5
Originality: 5
Addictiveness: 7
Appeal Factor: 8
Miscellaneous: 7
Total Score: 68
Overall Score: 7.0 (GOOD!)

Short Attention Span Summary
It may be a step down from the previous Shadow Hearts games, but From the New World is still an excellent game in its own right and sure to please anyone who makes the purchase. It’s the best RPG as well as the best game I’ve played in 2k6 so far, but sadly, compared to the crap I’ve slogged through this year, that’s not a hard award to win.