Review: Shadow Hearts 2 (PS2)

Shadow Hearts Covenant
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Developer: Nautilus (Previously known as Sacnoth)
Publisher: Midway
Release Date: 09/27/04

Yes, it’s a bit late. But look how many reviews I’ve been doing! One thing I do want to point out is that YES, Nautilus IS Sacnoth. I have seen so many reviews and reviewers saying Nautilus is some new company comprised of old Squaresoft and Sacnoth employees and it has been causing me to smack my head against my desk each and every time I hear that crap. Sacnoth was a group of ex Squaresoft employees who said, “Hey! We’re great with graphics, but our gameplay, plots, and characters all suck. We want to actually make something that is as fun to play as it is to look at.” And thank god, they left Squaresoft and formed Sacnoth.

First game out of the hatch? Faselei for the NGPC. God was that game amazing! Tactical mech based combat simulation RPG that was portable. An amazing game that is THE most sought after NGPC title with the possible exception being Cardfighters Clash 2. Second game? Koudelka. You long time readers might remember it being listed on my Top 30 RPG’s of all time.. at number 9. Here’s the link Koudelka was wonderful. A mini tactical style combat with graphics that blew every everything else on the PSX. It destroyed all of the Final Fantasy games as any good offspring should, and packed in an incredible plot and some memorable characters as well, including those that went on to the Shadow Hearts games themselves, like Roger Bacon.

And then came Shadow Hearts which became a huge cult hit. Characters like Yuri and Alice captivated gamer’s hearts, and the graphics blew away (and still do) all three Final Fantasy games on the PS2. Shadow Hearts showed gamers that you could still be visually stunning, but also have original gameplay in the Judgment ring, a carefully plotted story, and characters that weren’t two-dimensional stereotypes. And best of all? It didn’t take itself seriously or as hollier than thou as the games put out by the company Sacnoth left.

And for some reason, Sacnoth decided to make a sequel. This surprised me greatly. After all, like the first two Sacnoth games, Shadow Hearts wrapped up perfectly without any real loose ends. Why were they making a sequel? And a direct sequel at that? Had some of Square-Enix’s mantra of, “If it’s pretty, they will buy it” seep into Sacnoth? It couldn’t be. What more could be done with Yuri? And which ending would they use? There were two distinct endings after all. And why not a Koudelka sequel? MORE KOUDELKA!

But the more I saw, the more I trusted Sacnoth, who slowly changed their name to the infinitely less cool handle of Nautilus. The game was visually stunning, had some interesting characters and the Japanese website kept drawing me in. Especially as one particular character (two if you count the bad ending), I assumed was dead in the first game were shown on the Covenant webpage.

And now it’s out. And a game I planned to have reviewed right away is pretty late. Why? Well two reasons. The first is that I got really addicted to Bubble Bobble Old and New and thus went straight from Covenant to that. The second is I replayed a good chunk of Shadow Hearts 1 because I wanted to make sure that the plots synched up and to compare gameplay.

But here we are! You’ve got one of Sacn… Nautilus’ biggest fans reviewing their latest games. Let’s hope my babbling commentary is what you’ve been waiting for.

Let’s Review

1. Story

Shadow Hearts 2 begins less than a year after Shadow Year according to the in game text. This is correct as Shadow Hearts 1 takes places in 1913 and SH:C is supposed to take places six months into WWI, which started technically in June of 1914 when Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian named Gavrilo Princip. The problem here is that even with these dates set in place, Shadow Hearts Covenant, both in game, and in the manual, claims the year the war started 1915. Oops on the fact checking there guys. If going by true history, that would mean SHC begins in January 1915, right after the first German air raid on Britain. However if we go by the game and its incorrect dating, it is January 1916 and right when President Woodrow Wilson launched his whistlestop campaign to support the war, starting in NYC and ending in Saint Louis in February of 1916.

What? I’m a folklorist. I know my dates.

Regardless of dates, the German Army attempts to invade the village of Domremy in Northern France. This unit is led by Lt. Karin Koenig (Future mother of the guy who played Chekov?) and is defeated by a solitary winged demon of darkness. She returns to Germany and brings a new unit along with Cardinal Nicolai Conrad who will try and exorcise the demon. Nicolai has come from the Vatican in Italy to aid the Germans against France.

Here’s the thing though. GERMANY AND ITALY WERE ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF THE WAR! In April of 1915, France, Italy, England, and Russia all sign the treaty of London and on May 23 1915, Italy declares war officially on the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Even before the treaty, they were not on the same page. German had forced Italy to be their ally in the Central Powers. Why would Italy help Germany, a country they loathed and were ready to bomb the crap out of at this time in history? Maybe Nautilus was thinking of World War II?

No. It all actually makes sense. You just have to play the game to find out.

Within the first hour of the game, you learn the demon is Yuri, the main character from SH1, you learn the game is going off the BAD ending, which I won’t ruin for you as some of you got Shadow Hearts 1 when you preordered this game. Yuri loses all of his powers and is cursed by a great magic, you learn who the real bad guys are in this game, and your team is formed.

Shadow Hearts 2 introduces you to a lot of new faces, but also some familiar ones as well. Roger Bacon and Albert Simon will be seen in one form or another in this game. Other historical characters such as Anastasia will show up (and be playable).

Aside from a few big blunders in the timeline and in regards to historical accuracy, Nautilus has done an amazing job of capturing the feel of the time period, making the background early 20th century in appearance. All the NPC’s fit the period as well in terms of clothing style and mannerisms. The only exception are the playable characters themselves who look and dress and act like they are from modern times. It’s a bit jarring, but it doesn’t detract from the fun. Although hearing crusty old Gepetto tell Yuri that he’s screwed is amusing when you realize that wasn’t even a slang term back then.

There’s a ton of famous historical characters references from Napoleon to Rasputin. Actual events and dates are chronicled and it’s wonderful to behold. Sure, I made a bitch session above on some little quips, but no game series since Megaten has put this much energy and research into making a game intelligent.

Shadow Hearts Covenant has specific subplots and side quests for each characters, but also talks about various themes. The theme of being alone vs. being with a group of friends vs. completing your life with one specific someone. Shadow Hearts tries to be deep and focus on a lot more than anti hero destroys all encompassing evil. And it shows.

There are some issues with the plot, but overall, Shadow Hearts Covenant gives you a story worth playing through thanks to a ton of memorable characters and watching their interactions with each other.

Story Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

Best looking Role Playing Game on the PS2. It embarrasses the graphics of SH1, which is an amazing accomplishment, and puts the FF games even more to shame. There’s not a better looking game in this genre for the Playstation 2, so graphics whores, get ready to drool like crazy.

Every character moves as if they were alive. No jaggies, no weird posture or befuddling style of walking. Everything looks amazing. The water, the towns, the forest. Even Blanca (not the Street Fighter character) moves and acts like a real canine would (except that it talks).

The only game I find as beautiful to behold as SH:C is Gradius V. You will be amazed at what the PS2 can be made to do by this game, just as we were all dropping our jaws at Koudelka.

Speaking of Koudelka, it’s interesting that Karin looks exactly like her, but with a palette swap…

Graphics Rating: 10/10

3. Sound

The voice acting is wonderful. Every character sounds perfect. It is odd to hear Wolves talk though, I’ll give you that. Everything from in game cut scenes, to the commentary a character makes after they land the final blow in a battle, it’s great to hear the characters. The only downside is Karin, as the dialogue given to her isn’t the best, but the actress makes the best of her lines.

But the music is tremendous. Each tune fits the region of the game you are in. For example, when you are in Paris, the music sounds so much like a stereotypical French tune. It’s perfect and you find yourself wondering where it came from.

Sound effects are excellent too. All the little nuances put into the game add an extra level of delight. Listen carefully when traipsing through the Paris subways, or to the noises in the Graveyard. A good ear goes along way in this game.

Sound Rating: 7/10

4. Control & Gameplay

Although Shadow Hearts 1 had the most original engine for turn based combat I had ever seen, there were times where it annoyed me. “Why can’t the strike zone be just a little larger. Why can’t I have a hit region that is just a smidgen bigger?” Things like that. And in Shadow Hearts Covenant, you can!

The Judgment Ring is what controls everything in the game. When it is your characters turn, a needles spins around a wheel. Your character will have to press the attack button one to three times (depending on the character and the action you are trying to take). If you press the button in the hit area, the move will succeed. If you press it in the red “strike” area, you will succeed above and beyond. Your attacks will do a little more damage or your healing items will give you back a little more. Things like that.

And Karin’s power is to effect the Judgment Ring. She can help you customize one by picking up items along the way. Maybe your character will get an extra attack at the expense of all his spots on the judgment ring shrinking a little bit. Maybe you’ll pick up items that increase the hit or strike range. Items that let you add poison damage to your attacks. Things like that.

The interface itself is flawless, but a gamer with half to be quick with the fingers and light on the blinking to have the reflexes it requires to master all the different rings each character has.

The judgment ring is so much more fun than the usual crappy turn based style of RPG where you have to pick from a menu and pick again and really, you do nothing. There’s no skill or thinking involved. Shadow Hearts Covenant makes you put effort into your game. But not in a way that if frustrating or impossible, but a way that is fun and rewarding. Not only do you get a good story, but you get some improvement in your hand to eye coordination.

If you’re the kind of person who usually detests turn based RPG’s, or the kind of person who prefers action RPG’s, Shadow Hearts Covenant will be the exception to your distaste.

Control Rating: 8/10

5. Replayability

Well there are two endings to Shadow Hearts. A good and a bad. But I have to admit, neither ending is very good, and both can be achieved on the same saved game data as it’s just one simple choice. The good ending is sweet, but weird and not very satisfying. The ‘bad’ ending is an even bigger letdown and feel just thrown on there. I don’t know. I guess I was expecting a lot more.

There’s really no reason to play the game more than once if you’re looking for super special extra stuff. However, the game’s story and characters make the game worthwhile and you will probably have to play a second time to catch everything Sacnoth put into this game. But SHC is a LONG game, and as fun as it is, playing this game straight through requires a lot of commitment and there are other games you may wish to play instead, especially because of how linear SHC is. If you beat it once, it’ll be almost exactly the same the second or fourth time you beat it.

Replayability Rating: 4/10

6. Balance

The problem with Shadow Hearts tends to be the same of any Turn Based RPG. If an enemy gets a sneak attack on you, has you surrounded and they all have attacks or spells that hit multiple targets, you’re pretty much dead unless you’ve been doing the ‘run around-random battle-waste double digits in hours leveling up’ cheese that this style of RPG has forced upon gamers until it became second nature. It’s a pet peeve of mine about these style games, but in Shadow Hearts is happens infrequently so it’s not that much of a problem.

Another thing that disappoints me are the save circles. That you can only save your game in certain places. I think we’re at the day and age where you should be able to save a game anytime, anywhere. Backtracking through a large dungeon after a cheap death only serves to aggravate a gamer. It doesn’t make a gamer harder to have specific places to save. It just makes it annoying. ESPECIALLY when combined with random battles.

But what does Shadow Hearts do right?

Well first of all, unlike every single other RPG with random battles, you can take more than five steps before one occurs. In fact, you can go quite some time without encountering an enemy. It’s wonderful. This puts a kibosh on cheesy style leveling up unless the gamer in question is that determined to be level 50 before you get out of France. It does however, make the scenario when the enemy gets a surprise attack all the more dangerous if your characters aren’t high enough in level.

It also balances each character out perfectly. In the original Shadow Hearts, it was all Yuri. Everyone else was an afterthought to be honest. In Covenant, each character has their own specific sidequests, and abilities that only they can use. Each character is just as useful as the last and it works out great.

The battles are also well designed and although each boss battle is a challenge, they’re not insane or something that has to be won more by luck that skill (See: Borgan in Lunar 2: Eternal Blue for the Sega CD).

Although Covenant has some issues here, it’s still better than your average turn based RPG.

Balance Rating: 6/10

7. Originality

Shadow Hearts Covenant may be a sequel, but it is still an amazing gaming in many ways. It ties together almost seamlessly with the original game plotwise. It takes the highly original idea of the judgment ring and adds a new flavor to it with customization that makes the game even more fun (and sometimes more challenging) to play.

It introduces a lot of great characters, many of whom are based on actual characters from history. It’s not something you see often in an RPG, or any video game for that matter. Almost any video game in a classical time period doesn’t bother to fact check. They just stick the game in that setting and let things rip, with no regard to historical accuracy. But companies like Nautilus (I keep wanting to say Sacnoth), Atlus, and Koei do a very good job of using real places, events, and characters in their games. And they deserve admiration for being able to use history and be creative at the same time.

Shadow Hearts Covenant is one of the most original games out there. And it’s kind of a sad commentary on gaming when earns this distinction by simply focusing on a strong plot and characterization and just little tweaks to actual gameplay.

Originality Rating: 8/10

8. Addictiveness

With all the various subquests, different characters, and way to customize your characters (Yuri can now totally customize which fusions he will use and in what order and even what level. You can just totally level up 1 fusion spirit and then move on, or you can do all of them at the same time little by little.), Shadow Hearts Covenant does an amazing job of drawing you in and keeping you riveted to the screen. You want to find out what the curse will eventually do to Yuri, who is behind the latest scheme in regards to world manipulation, if Yuri and Karin will hook up or if Yuri’s heart still belongs to Alice, and on and on. You will find yourself pretty mesmerized by the game.

Except, that well… you may not enjoy it as much if you haven’t played the first Shadow Hearts. And you might not enjoy both of them as much as you would if you had played Koudelka as well. All the games are great and can be played on their own. But at the same time, you’re missing out on a lot of the story if you don’t play all three games, because all are so tightly interwoven with each other. So you have to ask yourself if you’re really willing to play all three games.

Thank god Faselei has nothing to do with the Koudelka trilogy, eh?

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

The First Shadow Hearts was an underground cult hit. This one? Well it’s receiving massively high ratings across the board. It’s the best looking RPG on the PS2 so Final Fantasy fan boys will snatch it up and hopefully learn what a good game is. Hardcore RPG fans know enough to buy the game, and if you preordered Covenant, you got a free copy of the first game as well, meaning pretty much anyone who wanted this game has already purchased it.

Shadow Hearts 2 or PokeCol will end up being the turn based RPG of 2004. We’ll have to see which wins. But if you own a PS2 and you’re not a Strategy RPG fan (And you should be! DISGAEA!!!), then you do need to experience this game. If it’s anything like the first one, you’ll have a very hard time hunting this down in a few months.

Appeal Factor Rating: 7/10

10. Miscellaneous

There probably won’t be a Shadow Hearts 3 from what happens with either end. The story wraps up pretty tightly and all lose ends are finished off. The characters are all memorable and if you’re a longtime Sacnoth fan, you will mark out when any old characters reappear.

The controls are wonderful, and I love everything from collecting pieces of a Wagnerian opera to having my pet wolf engage in canine cockfighting to finding homosexual pornography in order to get my creepy old man new twisted outfits for his puppet. Everything about Shadow Hearts 2, whether I like it or not, shows a lot of care and effort, and most of all love, being put into the final product. Sacnoth/Nautilus releases very few games, but the games they do release are must owns for any system they are on.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10

Short Attention Span Summary
A sequel I never thought would come out manages to surpass the original in every way. It’s a shame to see this storyline come to an end, unless Sacnoth pulls something very weird out of i’s sack of tricks or makes a sequel to Koudelka, this may be the last time we see these characters or the Judgment ring. Nautilus may be the company’s new name, but the games are still at a level of constant quality very few other companies can match. I mean what other developer can say they have a track record of 100% in regards to amazing games?



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