Shadow Hearts – Sequel, Spin Off, Start Over or Stay Dead?

Welcome to this week’s, “Sequel, Spin Off, Start Over or Stay Dead?” Each week we’re going to look at a dormant franchise that was once pretty popular, but for some reason has disappeared into the sands of time. Diehard GameFAN staffers will have four options for what they want to have happen to the series and you can see them in the title of this piece. For a little more detailed description see below:

Sequel – A direct sequel to the franchise. This means if it used sprites and was in 2-D, that’s how you want the next game to be as well. This might involve putting the game on a handheld system instead of a console, but it keeps the nostalgia and classic feel alive.

Spin Off – This is where you take the characters or a specific character is a totally different direction from the established franchise. Examples include Luigi’s Mansion, Hey You, Pikachu!, Shadow Hearts (From Koudelka), and so on.

Start Over – This is a reimagining of the series from the ground up. Perhaps it’s time to bring the series into 3-D. Perhaps you want a totally different control scheme or to throw away the old continuity. In a nutshell, this is taking the brand name from the old series and that’s about it. Everything else is new and re-envisioned.

Stay Dead – This is pretty obvious. This is a toxic franchise that you don’t want to see return in any way shape or form. Let the dead rest.

This week, we’re continuing a look at horror themed games for the month of October. This particular series is actually a spin-off from one of the best looking games ever released on the PSX, Koudelka. However where that game was a straight up horror series, this franchise slowly but surely mixed comedy into the franchise. The entirety of this series was released solely on the Playstation 2 and after the third game was released in 2006, the development team of Sacnoth aka Nautilus (Which was made up of old Squaresoft employees who left due to hating how insipid the plots of the Final Fantasy games were) was dissolved and left to scatter to the wind. Still, this trilogy of games is fondly remembered as the best horror RPG series of all time. Let’s see what the Diehard GameFAN team thinks should happen to Shadow Hearts

Shadow Hearts

Matt Yaeger – Spin Off

I’m not the biggest fan of RPG games. While there are a handful of ones I love, I consider most of them to be soulless experience grinding hamster wheels that feel like watching a long poorly translated foreign movie, except it pauses every couple of minutes. With a bad RPG battle system, I feel like it’s mostly automated and barely requires my input. I like games to at least feel like I’m interacting with them.

Shadow Hearts had a great battle system. The Judgment Ring requires me to actually pay attention and using it well could increased/decrease the amount of damage taken during battle. The game had a ton of options for customizing the ring so that it wouldn’t hamper the experience if you sucked at it. It was a small thing, but enough to draw me into the battle system more so than other RPG games. Well that, and the perverted main character. I also loved the influence of famous horror writers in addition to Asian mythology was fantastic. It was a perfect blend of horror and silliness that no other series has ever been able to pull off.

As the series went on, I felt the characters got weaker and it started using the Judgment Ring for far too many things. It started feeling like a chore instead of like a great alternative. It was such a unique style of RPG that I’d like to see a spin off with new characters and possibly a return to the setting of the earlier games instead of the old west like in the third one. Revamp the Judgment Ring or scrap it altogether for a similar system. Anything that would breathe fresh air into the series.

Mark B. – Sequel

Tough call on this one. On one hand, I loved the first game with a passion, but on the other, I never beat the second game and I’ve never PLAYED the third game (I own it, I just have yet to unwrap it), so I’m kind of ambivalent to the fate of the series at this point. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the overall concept of the games, the fantasy history they occupied was pretty cool, and Yuri was an outright awesome main character, but I felt like the developers needed to do more than they did with the Judgment Wheel. Them after Shadow Hearts II retroactively decided that Alice needed to die to keep the story going, I kind of lost interest in giving a shit about the story.

Don’t give me that look. She lived when I beat Shadow Hearts, it’s not my fault Yuri’s a putz.

Anyway, that all said, the series has had a several year break thanks to the development house having essentially been dissolved and all, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that a sequel, if done correctly, could generate some decent interest, The name is still fairly well known in RPG fan circles, so I’m going to say that a sequel is probably the best choice of the lot. I think there are some good stories left to tell in the alternate reality the game takes place in, and with some gameplay tweaks and updates the series could feel fresh and interesting. Remaking the first game or starting over entirely seems like a waste, scrapping the franchise seems unfair, and I don’t see any reason to spin-off what was essentially a spin-off of Koudelka, so I’m going to cast my vote for, “doing something different with the Judgment Wheel and making a sequel”, and hope for the best.

Dave Olvera – Stay Dead

Shadow Hearts is a sequel, or spin-off, of Koudelka. I enjoyed Koudelka despite not fully enjoying Koudelka‘s combat. Why? The story, characters and setting were different from most RPGs at the time (set in the turn of the 19th Century to Early 20th Century).

Shadow Hearts improved on most everything that was problematic in Koudelka – especially the combat. Gone was the hybrid strategy/hex based combat system and in came the Judgment Ring (a spinning wheel where timing determined just how successful you were). While this system could be used again (and I would like it reborn), I would rather not see the series Shadow Hearts brought back just to cash in on its mechanics.

The story of Shadow Hearts was a mish-mash of real history, historical errors and game universe changes taking place just before World War I in an alternate history. The stories don’t end all too happily, the characters grow and there are some strange time line crossings that make things very strange. The first two games of Shadow Hearts are darker in tone by a wide margin when compared to the third game in the series. The world is saved but Yuri, the shape changing protagonist, suffers and must make sacrifices as he battles to save the planet. Yuri isn’t some chosen one, he just happens to be cursed with a power that just might save us all – plus he’s sort of a dick.

From the New World takes a comical approach, sometimes too comical. An alternate roaring twenties with the usual real world folks (hello Howard P. Lovecraft!), the third game was fun but it showed that there was nothing more the Shadow Hearts series could do unless they went for the Final Fantasy route of same name – different stories approach.

Instead of continuing the series with the Shadow Hearts name the Judgment Ring could have been adapted to new games or they could have continued the darker pseudo horror RPG stories the first two games went with instead of making a light hearted, somewhat related third game. The third game isn’t complete crap – it’s fun in its own way but since it is saddled with the Shadow Hearts name it ends up not living up to the series’ history. No new game should suffer that same fate.

Since Nautilus/Sacnoth is no longer around (though lives on in feelplus) the Shadow Hearts games should rest with the developer. The main storyline ended and was not a cheap, cop out ending. Both endings of Covenant are good ways to tie up the game series and with Yuri dead, there is nothing really to do with the main storyline. As I’ve said before: leave some game series dead. They have run their course, told their story and need not be disturbed.

Alex Lucard – Spin-off

As the GameFAN staffer who has reviewed all three Shadow Hearts games, I can honestly say that I’m kind of glad the series stopped when it did. I found each game in the series to be a step or two down from the previous one and since Aruze dissolved Nautilus and the staff reformed under feelplus, the games haven’t drastically dropped in quality. I mean Lost Odyssey was good, but it paled to the Shadow Heart series, Blue Dragon Plus was mediocre at best and Ju-On is being touted as one of the worst games ever made.

I attribute this slow decay in quality to the loss of the head of Sacnoth, Hiroki Kikuta. Kikuta was the visionary force behind giving us arguably the best game on the old Neo*Geo Pocket Colour, Faseli! and then it was followed up by one of my favorite RPG’s of all time, Koudelka. Koudelka had one of, if not THE, best horror story in gaming, playing out exactly like a Victorian or Lovecraftian tale, with character acting and talking exactly as they would have in the late 1800’s. I loved the weapons break, the character customization when you leveled up and how half the game was straight up character development and creepiness. The only problem was the weird tactical combat engine. Now, I enjoyed it because I love SRPG’s, but I can completely understand why many people hated it.

True story. The Judgment Ring battle system was originally meant for Koudelka and was designed by Kikuta. However the rest of Sacnoth wanted a more Final Fantasy turn based engine because they knew gamers were a cowardly, superstitious lot afraid to try something new. Thus the eventual Koudelka engine was born. Sadly, the game was rarely if ever mentioned by the press here or in Japan, and when it was, it was praised for the plot and reviled for the level of difficulty and combat. Which is exactly what Kikuta feared would happened. Disgusted by his team’s fear of change and the fact Sacnoth’s main backer, SNK, was about to go bankrupt, Kikuta resigned.

After SNK died the first time, Aruze took control of the Sacnoth team, which changed their name to Nautilus and made Shadow Hearts using the battle system Kikuta wanted in the first place. The rest is history.

My personal feeling on the matter is that feelplus/Sacnoth/Nautilus had proven over the years that they can’t function without Kikuta. They peaked with their first two games and everything slowly went downwards. However, with Kikuta in control, or after he left and they went with his original vision, Sacnoth made some of the best RPG’s every made, especially in regards to story. My thought is that although Shadow Hearts should stay dead and buried after the third game, but that the judgment ring engine still has a lot of life to it along with the Koudelka story being the best Sacnoth ever produced so why not kill THREE birds with one stone by doing a spin-off and remaking Koudelka with the same plot and story progression, but this time with high definition next generation graphics AND the original engine Kikuta wanted for it in the first place. The end result would be Koudelka the way it was originally meant to be along with it (hopefully) getting the respect, attention, and praise the game has always deserved. As so few current gamers have played the original, they’d get to see just why Koudelka is so revered by old school horror fans and hopefully wake feelplus up.

Of course, Koudelka is still worth playing in its current form, so track it down people!

Finally, for those that haven’t played the SH trilogy or the Koudelka prequel, here’s reviews of them all.

Shadow Hearts
Shadow Hearts Covenant
Shadow Hearts: From the New World

End Result :
Spin-Off: -2
Sequel – 1
Stay Dead – 1
Start Over – 0

Well, this is the first time Spin-Off has won one of these columns. It does seem like there’s still life left within the Shadow Hearts series. It’s just too bad we may never get to see it come to fruition.

Next week, we cover our last Hallowe’en themed game. Remember Demitri, Donovan Bane, Rikuo, and Lord Raptor? Well, Capcom obviously doesn’t…



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