Hello for another week, my Lusi-sprites. Today I come to you bearing the gift of a game review for a game that is not cute, and lacks any potato simulation. Shockingly this game is a game that I have played through many times despite the aforementioned lack of cuteness and potatoes. This game is none other than Shadow Hearts, a gothic-style RPG for the Playstation 2 circa 2001. Developed by Sacnoth and published by Aruze and Midway, Shadow Hearts is the sequel to the Playstation survival horror game Koudelka.
Shadow Hearts takes place in what is presumably an alternate reality. It is set in a version of the real world’s Asia and Europe in the early 1900s. War is looming upon multiple fronts in a sad mirror to our actual histories, with some demon-summoning and human sacrifice added. The game bravely skirts the line between being a period piece and a science-fiction drama. Much of the game takes place in recognizable locations, such as Shangai and London, but they are certainly not accurate depictions of the actual cities.
The story in Shadow Hearts revolves around Yuri Hyuga and Alice Elliot. Yuri is the quintessential anti-hero. He has a massive chip on his shoulder and a snarky, irreverent attitude to go with it. He meets up with Alice early in the game and finds himself donning the mantle of her protector. Alice’s father is a Priest, and Alice herself seems to be infused with holy power. She has incredible and largely untapped magical resources within her, and it is for this reason that her father is murdered, and the obligatory Forces of Evil want to kidnap her. There is this summoning ritual that requires great power and sacrifice, pretty standard evil demon stuff. Yuri and Alice travel together, gaining other allies with backstories that are as twisted as their own. Their rag-tag group of misfits sets out on the traditional journey to uncover the evil plot and save the world (twice).
Shadow Hearts distinguishes itself from other RPGs by being so dark, brooding, and at times frightening. The tactical elements of Koudelka are abandonned, but the gothic horror setting remains. Murder, sacrifice, mental illness, child abuse and sexual impropriety are all touched on, and no effort is made to soften the subject matter for the audience. The in-game scenery is dark and dreary, rife with blood, bones and instruments of torture. The characters fight disfigured and misshapen ghouls and demons in almost every battle. The terrifying nature of the game and its enemies is even incorporated into Shadow Hearts‘s battle mechanics. Along with the traditional HP and MP, characters also have SP which stands for Sanity Points. As the battle progresses the characters will lose SP until their SP reaches zero, at which point the character goes insane and cannot be controlled. The mental stress of their surroundings and their freakish enemies literally drives the heroes mad with terror.
Gameplay in Shadow Hearts is fairly traditional, aside from the setting. Characters can explore towns and dungeons, items and equipment can be purchased or found, and there is a smattering of sidequests to keep completionists happy. In battle characters can attack, defend, use items, or use abilities unique to that character. Yuri, for example, is a Harmonixer. He can transform into a hideous demon and utilize that demon’s unique attacks and atributes. Each character has unique abilities tailored to suit their backstory and personality.
Another innovation gameplay-wise in Shadow Hearts is the Judgement Ring. Characters must time their actions to correspond with the movement of the Ring. An indicator sweeps clockwise around the Ring, and the player must press the confirm button on the controller at the appropriate time. Most Judgment Rings will consist of green “hit” areas and white “miss” areas. Within the green areas will be small red “critical” areas and pale “moderate” areas. Hitting anywhere within the green sections will allow for a successful action, however that action will be weaker if the moderate area is hit, and more powerful if the critical area is hit. Players who can master the timing of the Judgment Ring in battle will find the game progresses much more easily. The Ring is also used for certain out of combat events and puzzles, but it is primarily used in battle to attack or attempt to cast spells and abilities.
All in all, Shadow Hearts is a fairly short game (clocking in around 15 hours) that blends traditional RPG elements with the survival horror stylings of Koudelka. The characters are well-developed and engaging and the story has enough plot twists to keep the player interested. It offers a refreshing change from the typical “boy saves girl, boy falls in love with girl” RPG. Yes boy saves girl, and yes boy falls in love with girl, but this story is absolutely no Final Fantasy.