Review: Shadow Hearts (PS2)

Shadow Hearts:
Developer: Sacnoth
Publisher: Midway
Genre: Turn-Based RPG
Release Date: 12/11/2001

My New Year’s Resolution was to review every game I played straight through this year, so here we go. Shadow Hearts was originally released a year before I started working in the industry, but I did manage to review Shadow Hearts Covenant (10/18/2004 with a 7.5) and Shadow Hearts: From the New World (4/18/2006 with a 7) since I’ve been a reviewer.

What’s funny is even though SH2 scored higher, SH3 received more nominations from us and even a GOTY nominee for 2k6. Looking back through the older reviews I note that I proclaimed SH2 to be the best, and that in my SH2 review I said I can’t conceive of a way there will be an SH3 using the same characters. I was right! Rock on with my prognostication!

It’s sad to say that there will never be a Shadow Hearts 4, as the trilogy, and its prequel Koudelka were high quality games all around. Sacnoth, which would eventually be renamed Nautilus was dissolved by Aruze in Jan, 2007 and members of the team have left for other companies, ensuring that Shadow Hearts as a series is dead. Unless of course Aruze wants to make a cheap buck by putting out something without the soul or quality or any of the original games.

I know I should be reviewing this game, and I will get to it, but I do want to talk a little about Sacnoth for a bit because pound for pound, there was not a development team before or since that had the level of sheer quality games released to the public. There is seriously not a single game that they made that I would call less than “good.”

Dive Alert, Faselei!, Koudleka, and the Shadow Hearts trilogy. There may only be six games by this development team, but all are amazing “must-owns” in my opinion. Alas, we’ll never see the likes of this again.

Now, on with the review. As this is a Retro review, I will strive to stick to what was available on the PS2 (and other consoles of that generation) in late 2001. Admittedly, Shadow Hearts is why I got a PS2, but my heart at the time still belonged to my Dreamcast and recent purchase of the Nintendo GameCube. I will occasionally bring up the later SH games, but this will mainly be for story points rather than comparing the gameplay and graphical innovations, as that would be unfair.

Now, it’s obvious from my praise of Sacnoth that this game is going to get high marks. The question is how high will it be?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Shadow Hearts at its core is a love story between a gruff uncultured Japanese man named Yuri and a timid, religious Englishwoman named Alice. Yes, there are monsters to kill, a ton of references to the Cthulhu Mythos and Koudelka, and some fun historical fiction and perverse jokes to boot, but the one thing that permeates throughout the entire game is Yrui and Alice finding each other, falling in love and things ending about as close to a Shakespearian tragedy as gaming had seen to this point. If any of you dare say Aeris, you need a pistol whipping. It’s a sweet love story, harkening back to the kind of romance you’d see from the turn of the 20th Century rather than modern times. It’s a slow build with some romantic and sexual tension and it evolves organically over the 30 hours you’ll be playing the game. It’s not tacked on or rushed like with most video games. It’s the centerpiece of the story and everything else is secondary. Beautiful.

Of course, the secondary stuff is what most gamers will care about. Yuri meets Alice due to a voice in his head telling him to protect her from the sinister machinations of one Roger Bacon who wants to use her for some fiendish control/blow up the world scheme. Yuri manages to escape from Bacon and the two begin a series of adventures throughout Eurasia.

Along the way, Yuri and Alice make new friends ranging from a wise and smart mouthed Chinese man, a sexy French Spy, an ancient Vampire, a young British street rat with psychic powers, Koudelka herself, and even…Roger Bacon? How does that work exactly? You’ll have to play the game to find out.

I’m a huge fan of this story. It’s one of the best on the PS2, regardless of genre. Yes, Sacnoth takes liberties with the historical time periods in the game (Example – one of the major bad guys is a cyborg of sorts. Yes. In the 191X’s.), and there is a lot of Cthulhu related stuff running around in the game going all the way to Arthur Machen being a hidden lottery member (Check the cauldron in the London Orphanage towards the end of the game), but it’s still accessible to all gamers while introducing them to concepts live Lovecraftian literature or historical fiction. Unlike a lot of other games, Shadow Hearts makes you smarter for having played in, rather than being mindless escapism.

The only big thing that keeps me from giving this game a perfect score in this area is that Keith is put in without any real personality or depth, making me always wonder why so many people say he’s their favorite to use in the game. He’s 2-D. Another, albeit small, issue I have is that there were some Japanese to English translations errors so that some times the gamer has no idea what is going on. This is most apparent with the “Thou has not even won once” line that is repeatedly several times towards the end of the game.

Little issues aside, it’s still an amazing story. Package this in with some of the most unique gameplay for an RPG ever and you’ve got a winning combination.

Story Rating: Great

2. Graphics

Back in 2001, I thought the game was really pretty, even though some monsters were ripped right out of Koudelka and given a face lift. When I popped the game back in 2005 between Covenant and From the New World, I was surprised to see that the graphics hadn’t aged well. Each game in the series providing a striking graphical upgrade, even with only two years separating one member of the series from the next.

When I felt like sitting down and playing this in Dec of ’07 for a third time, I had upgraded myself to an HDMI cable and man, what a difference it made. Everything looked crisp and bright again – much better than my second opinion years ago.

I still have issue with a lot of the monster designs, as I did when I first played this game. Many are just palette swaps of each other and very few are original or horrifying. Most bore me, especially after you encounter them frequently. Even many of the bosses were underwhelming in terms of designs and look. The fusion creatures are just palette swaps as well, which is another disappointment. As the game is pretty short for an RPG (30 hours to do everything including all sidequests) they could have put in a few more monsters designs.

The playable characters were nicely done though, and I feel the background and interactive world environment were the best pieces of the game visually. Compared to other other games that came out in 2001 (Devil may Cry, Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, Metal Gear Solid 2, Silent Hill 2, Escape from Monkey Island, Onimusha, Soul Reaver 2, and ICO as examples), we can see that SH1 looked pretty good for it’s day. It may not have aged as gracefully as I’d have liked in this, the last gasps of the PS2, but it still looks very nice indeed.

I’m just glad the monsters improved as the series went on.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound

It’s the Slayers/Pokemon voice acting troupe, so you’re not going to find anything less than excellent vocal work here. It might warp some of you to learn Ash Ketchum and Alice Eliott are the same person, but it is indeed so.

I really enjoy the music of SH too. It has an amazing soundtrack featuring some pretty mellow tracks, which is surprising due to the dark and ultimately depressing nature of this game. Even the track playing in the opening cut scene when you let the game idle before starting has some very slow, ambient music. Most gamers might be expecting a more action, fast-paced musical score for a game like this, but having been to way too many gothie-industrial clubs in my lifetime, I can tell you this fits pretty well with the hardcore audience Sacnoth was aiming for. That doesn’t mean it correlates to the mainstream audience who will also pick this game up though.

One area where I have a small quibble is that sometimes, the Japanese voice work remains intact when it should be the English speaking voice actors commenting. This is most prevalent with Alice in battles, where her Japanese voice actor delivers the lines for all her special moves/magic spells. This is a bit of a disconnect and a minor annoyance, but it doesn’t make any sense that this would be left in.

In all, the combination of music, sound effects, and voicing acting are a good package. There’re some issues I have with the occasional voice actor (again, Keith) or where I’ll find the music is quality, but not fitting the scene in question. It’s still a good game aurally and I can’t think of other thing other than minor issues to pick at here.

Sound Rating: Good

4. Control and Gameplay

Bear with me, as this is going to be pretty long due to all the unique weirdness the game entails.

First of all, we have the Judgment Ring. The Judgment Ring controls all aspects of play. Unlike most RPG’s, where your actual gameplay is limited to selecting one of a plethora of choices, you have to have a degree of hand-eye coordination in order to master the Judgment Ring, and when the game first came out, this didn’t sit well with a lot of RPG fans, even though by 2007, the Judgment Ring engine is hailed as one of the best innovations for the entire genre.

The reason this wasn’t that popular is that most hardcore RPG fans like their games sedimentary. After all, RPG’s, aside from action games like Diablo, focus more on thinking skills than any physical dexterity or catlike reflexes. But with SH1, that all went out the window. Every action, be it using a healing item or doing a combo attack involves using the Judgment Ring. On the ring are 3 tan and red sections for a normal attack. For moves like magic spells or item usage, it can range from 1-4 green and red spaces. In order to complete a move, a spinner goes across the Judgment ring. A Player must hit the X button on the controller when in the colored section(s) of the Ring. If all areas are hit, then the attack is a success. Otherwise it is a miss. For aspects like healing spells or defensive items, it’s all the more imperative that you don’t have an itchy trigger finger.

The red parts of the Judgment Ring indicate “strikes”. Connect in these and your moves do more damage, heal more, give more defense, or whatever corresponds to the choice you made. This is a nice little bonus that encourages you to increase your skill.

There are variations on the ring from a “Push Ring” where you have to button mash to get the spinner down to a particular part of the ring in a specific amount of time to a repeat ring where the ring keeps going as you get continual hits, but also speeding up with each consecutive success. Oh man, I remember the “Ten Ring” at the end of the game when I wanted to get Yuri’s Ultimate Weapon. 30 success and by the end the ring was crazy fast, even for a guy who loves “Bullet Hell” games like myself. Yeesh. I love it though.

Another thing that stands out in the game is the affect of Malice on Yuri, and later Alice. Malice builds up as you defeat monsters. You can tell the level of Malice you build up as your necklace goes from blue to red. At any point along the spectrum, you can enter a place called the Graveyard to clear the Malice. This involves fighting a Malice Spirit. Once the spirit is beaten, the Malice count is reset. If the malice level ever reaches red, a major opponent will enter the real world to face you. In early stages of the game, it is a creature called Fox Face. Later on it will be one of four Malice Masks.

Other than these specific differences, Shadow Hearts plays like all turn-based RPG’s to a point. You have the good guys on one side of your screen and the antagonists on the other. Characters go in order of quickness, they move up, attack, and then move back. It doesn’t look that good realism wise, but it’s a trademark of the genre. The Judgment Ring makes the game infinitely more interesting than your usual TBRPG though.

One of the other things I love about the game is that it gives you a score. I miss having a high score in most games and then trying to beat it. Bettering myself has always been appealing to me, even if it’s things like improving my typing speed or getting a higher score on Devil’s Crush. This was a nice bit of nostalgia and it gives me incentive to keep wailing away. Currently my best is 15 in SH1, but I can get up to a score of 2 in SH3. Ah well, for some reason I’m rustier at the older game. Probably because you can’t customize the ring as much as in the two later guys. Still, having a score to meet/beat is a fun addition to a role playing game, and I love how it gives you all of your characters stats.

Shadow Hearts was easily the most original RPG of 2001, and perhaps the most original game of the year as well. The gameplay innovation was tremendous in concept as well as in practice and I can’t help but love this game.

For a turn based RPG, I’d say this and the Valkyrie Profile engines are the best in the entire genre. EVER.

Control & Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

Shadow Hearts tries very hard to give you some replay value for your game. There’s the ability to beat your own score as one example, but in the end that’s only going to appeal to a small percentage of gamers.

There’s also two ending: one good, and one bad. In truth, the bad ending is not only the easier one to get, but the canon one as well. The good ending involves doing a lot of stuff in a very specific order to even bring about the chance of getting the good ending. It may frustrate some gamers in their quest to get the good ending, only to find once they finally have achieved it, that well…there’s a small but significant difference.

Side tangent with the endings. Amongst the Shadow heart fanbase there is a big whiny debate over not only the first game’s endings, but more importantly the second game’s ending. Here’s the thing. In Japan, a Director’s Cut of SH2 was released where the developers try to shut the hell up out of the more rabid/embarrassing members of the fan base by explaining the endings and getting gamers to understand concepts like metaphor and existentialism. Of course, most American gamers can’t read/speak/write Japanese, and so the information has gone over their head, and US gamers continue to completely miss what’s going on in the two games ending wise. So because I have the Director’s Cut, as a favour to Sacnoth/Nautilus and ending the whining on places like Gamefaqs, here is what it going on.

1. SH1 – Bad ending is cannon
2. SH2 – Good ending is canon which causes everything to reset back to the very beginning of SH1
3. Repeat time loop.

At the risk of both explaining and yet trying not to spoil things, a certain character that a lot of Americans seem to believe dies at the end of SH2 does NOT. He is impaled but does not die. The impalement is a metaphor that this character has impaled reality itself as a whole and nothing can go on. In the director’s cut good ending of SH2, we learn this particular character has been through this time loop 3-4 times ALREADY. Yet this character is unable to change the past in the way that they want. So all of reality is trapped with the character until they finally figure out how to achieve to good ending from SH1 or instead make a change at the end of SH2 and go for the Bad Ending in order to stop the cycle of torment and emotional trauma. From SH3, we know that the BAD ENDING of SH2 is the eventual end of the cycle. The character does not succeed in fixing time in they way they want; instead they just GIVE UP. Sorry people, it’s dark and depressing and means you’ve been rooting for a person that fails in the end, but that’s kind of the point of the first two games. As much as we would like a happy ending – we don’t get it. Boo hoo. Cry on your message boards how your fan fiction is so much better than the official canon to the game and write me nasty emails that the developers just didn’t get their own creation. At least you still have your “Is she or isn’t she Yuri’s mom and was that incest we just saw.” Or you can be mature adults and go “Wow. I never knew the writers released an official version of what happened. I’ve been wasting years arguing on the internet instead of actually trying to do research. next time I will use facts instead of emotion. Thank you Mr. Lucard.”

Thanks to Matsuzo Machida for taking the time to confirm with me the above paragraph in order to make sure my interpretation wasn’t erroneous. You rock sir and thank you for the SH games. My apologies to those who are reading me for the person time and who have no doubt taken the perceived crankiness in the above rant as serious instead of sarcasm/good natured ribbing.

You may be wondering why I snuck this rant into the replay section of the review, but there’s a simple reason why. You want both endings and to figure out what I was just talking about? Then you’ll have to play the game more than once to see what all the drama and mystery is about. Just don’t get yourself caught up in the same loop.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

6. Balance

Shadow Hearts is a very easy game. The AI is a bit poor at times, and there seems to be a lack of why the computer controlled opponents do certain moves, but in the end, it’s not about the enemies being tough, it’s about you mastering the Judgment Ring.

The toughest thing in the game that you will endure are status effects that can range from speeding up your ring to making the ring invisible or shrinking your hit areas. You also can get items to do the opposite of these effects. In the end, just get some Crucifixes and Pocket Watches as soon as you can and equip your characters with these. Warning though: If you do this, you should consider the rest of the game to be one gigantic cakewalk providing no challenge whatsoever. Just a head’s up.

This is probably the biggest flaw with Shadow Hearts: it’s really easy. Especially compared to the latter games, which is kind of sad considering those give you all sorts of wacky ways to make the Judgment Ring easier to use. Still, it’s you who ultimately decides how good (or bad) you are at this game with your own hand to eye coordination being the biggest factor in how well you do.

Balance Rating: Mediocre

7. Originality

Shadow Hearts brought a lot of new innovation and originality to the turn based RPG circuit. The Judgment Ring, Scoring how well you did, stat tracking, bringing back historical fiction into gaming in a way it hadn’t been seen since Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, and helping to introduce gamers to American terror literature concepts circa 1880-1920. Rock on Sacnoth.

There’s a lot of cliches for the turn based RPG genre that still remain in the game. Fighting is still step up, attack, step back and in now way resembles what a battle would look like. The game is hardcore linear until the end of each chapter when options finally open up. New playable characters simply to provide more playing options then any real storyline advancement. So on and so forth. In the end, even with Shadow Hearts sticking to some familiar trappings, it still remains one of the most original RPG’s, if not THE most original released for the last generation of consoles,

Originality Rating: Good

8. Addictiveness

Shadow Hearts is a short RPG. You can finish everything in about 30 hours. I actually prefer this to the recent trend of pushing RPG’s to the 60-80 hour mark, if only because it shows SH has a streamlined plot rather than useless side quests that water down the core plot. As a reviewer, I prefer it when games focus more on the main aspects of the game rather than proliferate the thing with so many side quests, it appears you can never finish the main game if you jaunt out too far. SH was in and out of my PS2 in ten days, and yet I didn’t feel like I rushed the game at all. It was simply a strong, solid, FUN RPG that I was able to get into even though it has been out for six years and this was my third playthrough. That’s a great sign of the longevity of the game.

Gameplay wise I did find myself longing for the ring adaptability/customization of 2 (and moreso 3), but SH1 is where it all began and it featured the characters I prefer, which is what really matters to me.

SH1 might not be a game you can play for long stretches of time due to the hundreds of precisely timed button sequences you have to go through. I know for me, the longer I played, the worse I tend to get at the judgment ring, which is a sign to stop.

As well, the very last dungeon of the game, features a maze that can take you a VERY long time to get through. Think original Phantasy Star 1 annoying. There’s also five different bosses in this two stage dungeon and so you’ll be fighting a lot. For me, this dungeon just went on for too damn long, especially compared to how brief the other dungeons were in the video game. Five bosses is overkill even in a long RPG, and so it was a real shock to the system to play through this one, even though I knew it was coming. Not sure why they through this is, but thankfully this mistake was not repeated in the other games.

Addictiveness Rating: Above Average

9. Appeal Factor

The Judgment ring really helps to make Shadow Hearts an RPG for non RPG fans. One of my own biggest complaints with turn based RPG’s is that they’re too slow. As a gamer who prefers shooters and 2-d Fighters, I like my games action packed. Selecting actions form a menu repeatedly puts me to sleep, no matter how good the story is. The Judgment Ring makes the genre accessible to more action oriented gamers, and also becomes a gateway game for RPG mainstays to try games with more hand to eye coordination.

Shadow Hearts appeals on so many levels. it’s pretty and has Bishie character which appeals to the shallow Final Fantasy fanbase. it’s very existential and dark which appeals to the Megaten fanbase. It’s got (albeit erroneous) historical fiction, which parents will like, as will history buffs like myself who then nitpick the errors in the game to death. I can’t really picture anyone having serious issues with this game, unless they just can’t hack the Judgment Ring. Trust me though, if you can play a game of R-Type or Street Fighter 2, you can handle the ring.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

10. Miscellaneous

There’s no hidden extras aside from the sub quests in the game, but SH gets the highest possible marks here. I still feel SH2 is a better game, and after this third playthrough even find SH3 better, but this was the game that started the amazing trilogy in the first place. This was the game that finally convinced me that a PS2 was worth buying. Characters were well done, the plot was focused specifically on what my own personal wants and likes are for an RPG, it was folklore and historically heavy and it gave us a whole new was of playing an RPG. I adored this game, and still do.

Are there better overall RPG’s for the PS2? Yes. Are their games that captivated me as much as this one did when it first came out for the PS2? No, there aren’t. Even more importantly, Shadow Hearts lived up to the crazy hype I built up for the game before playing it. That’s rare, especially the 2007 version of me. While playing this for a retro review though, I could catch glimpses of the 24 year old me adoring this game. Whether it was nostalgia, deja vu, or just a good game that was still able to wow me like it did half a decade ago, it doesn’t matter. What matters was that I had fun with Shadow hearts yet again, and you will hopefully as well.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story: Great
Graphics: Good
Sound: Good
Control & Gameplay:Unparalleled
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Average
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled

Final Score: Very Good

The Inside Pulse

It’s out of print, but a lot of fun. I’d suggest playing this before Sh2, but Sh3 is stand alone for the most part. I’d heartily suggest the entire trilogy along with Koudelka to just about anyone.

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