"As the camera pans down on the street corner outside a church, we see the bloodied and scattered remains of a body strewn all over the cobbled street. This gruesome collection of bloody flesh and bones is all that remains of a priest who was murdered here by something that couldnít possibly be human. The body is desecrated beyond recognition. And to make matters worse, the preist's daughter, Alice, is missing. It looks as if she may meet a similar fate. Shadow Hearts establishes a very da..."
As the camera pans down on the street corner outside a church, we see the bloodied and scattered remains of a body strewn all over the cobbled street. This gruesome collection of bloody flesh and bones is all that remains of a priest who was murdered here by something that couldnít possibly be human. The body is desecrated beyond recognition. And to make matters worse, the preist's daughter, Alice, is missing. It looks as if she may meet a similar fate. Shadow Hearts establishes a very dark atmosphere in its very first few seconds.
And this is just the beginning.
A train speeds across the countryside in the dead of night. An elderly and well dressed British man strolls through the carriages, politely letting old ladies pass him. The manís name is Roger Bacon, and he is on his way to the front of the train where the dead priestís daughter is being held by Japanese soldiers. Without so much as a wave of his hand, each guard is decapitated and killed by flying demons as Bacon strolls past with a smile on his face. He grabs the girl and puts her to sleep. It looks as if his plans, which at this point are unknown, are about to be completed.
Enter Yuri, the rude and cocky teenager who is guided by a mysterious voice in his head. Roger simply smiles at our young hero and sends his demons to attack, ripping Yuriís arm off. With his free hand, Yuri grabs the demon by the head and squeezes, the demon's head bursts like a grape. He then picks up his disembodied arm and it magically reattaches itself. He grins. Yuri is no Squall Leonhart. Yuri is a tough guy.
He soon escapes from the train with an unconscious Alice in tow, leaving Bacon and the train behind him. After putting her down on the ground gently, he thinks about doing naughty things to her that would make the usual RPG protagonist blush himself into a bright red complexion. The sexual innuendo and dark humour of Shadow Hearts complements the dark atmosphere of the game perfectly.
While Alice initially distrusts Yuri (and we canít blame her), the two become much closer as they travel together, and share many adventures as they travel across Asia and Europe. While the main story arc is essentially the reasons why Alice is being hunted, there are several other arcs that are introduced to create a vast tapestry of individual character stories. Who is Roger Bacon? Whatís the deal with Yuri? And who is trying to destroy the world?
Unfortunately, the delivery of these story arcs gets very messy. This is due to the episodic nature of Yuriís adventure. The party will often face a challenge that seemingly has little to do with the story at first. The best example of this is the cannibal village that Yuri and Alice visit soon after escaping from the train. These stories initially serve as character development, but then usually takes a backseat to learning about the village. Youíll pick up a talisman and defeat a boss, which all seems very natural, but youíre often left confused as to why you had to do those things. Each episode is important to the overall story, but when you donít know why youíre doing it, they can become somewhat tedious.
Depending on how you look at it, the story is either incredibly brilliant or itís a tangled mess. Thankfully, all the arcs of the story are resolved in good time, leaving very few plot holes. And the Ďepisodesí themselves are usually quite enjoyable, thanks to the cast of characters who can remain funny and serious at the same time. It has a very unique style.
Though the story problems can be forgiven, the same cannot be said about Shadow Heartís lack of polish. While the dark atmosphere is intact, and the backgrounds and characters look good, the monster sprites and backgrounds in battle leave a lot to be desired.
The music is impressive though, with moody and somber scores sometimes complimented with haunting vocals. The battle music in particular is a chilling piece to listen to. And although the battle mode has good music, this is another area where Shadow Hearts falters. The enemies are ugly and poorly detailed, and the animations are terrible, adding to the lack of polish.
The Judgment Circle is a unique but annoying addition to the battles. For every command that youíll use, you will need press the X button with good timing. Some regular attacks require up to four well-timed button presses to execute properly, which is just ridiculous, considering how often youíll need to use them. What is even more ridiculous is the fact that you even need to use the Judgment Circle with items!
The only thing the Judgment Circle achieves is slowing the battle down considerably. Timing isnít even a hard task to accomplish, and the fact that you have to do this all the time simply makes the battles boring.
The boring battle system is made even worse by the fact that your enemies have a lot more hit points than they require. Even a simple random encounter takes upwards of three turns to dispense with, as the damage you dole out is rarely ever enough to bring them down. Random encounters should not normally take more than two minutes. And some boss fights can last upwards of half an hour! Most battles (even bosses) arenít even hard at all. It just becomes a mind-numbingly repetitive exercise of Ďattack and healí for stupidly long amounts of time. Itís not my idea of fun.
The long battles become an even greater problem due to the introduction of the Ďsanityí stat, which drops by 1 each round until the battle is over. If a party memberís sanity hits zero, the character will go berserk and will no doubt waste all your items if you donít kill the enemy quick enough. God help you if you donít have an item to replenish sanity. It can become a frustrating end to a long battle. Sanity is a fairly unique idea, but not necessarily a good one.
The one element of battle that Shadow Hearts does right is Yuriís ability to transform himself into a variety of demons, each coming complete with their own unique skills. By killing monsters of different elements, you can earn new demons to transform into.
Shadow Hearts has all the makings of a classic RPG. It has a dark atmosphere, which works very well, it has an interesting cast of characters, and an interesting though convoluted story. It is unfortunately let down by a lack of polish and a slow and clunky battle mode. But Shadow Hearts isnít a bad game, and it isnít too hard to look past its flaws and find some enjoyment in it. You may become too attached to Yuri and his friends to care about anything else.
Community review by jerec (January 08, 2005)
On very rare occasions, Jerec finds a game that inspires him to write stuff about. The rest of the time he just hangs around being sarcastic.
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