"Much like its predecessor, Shadow Hearts: Covenant thrives on difference. It is not an absolute departure, but more than most it takes several of the most taken-for-granted role-playing game conventions and turns them on their heads. These differences, while not always positive, make Shadow Hearts: Covenant a unique and refreshing entry into a genre characterized by saturation and conventionality. "
Much like its predecessor, Shadow Hearts: Covenant thrives on difference. It is not an absolute departure, but more than most it takes several of the most taken-for-granted role-playing game conventions and turns them on their heads. These differences, while not always positive, make Shadow Hearts: Covenant a unique and refreshing entry into a genre characterized by saturation and conventionality.
While most role-playing series feature entirely different stories, worlds and characters from entry to entry, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a direct sequel. The premise is made all the more compelling and unusual by the developer’s bold and unexpected decision to canonize the bad ending of Shadow Hearts and build a new game from there: Alice Elliot is dead, the rest of the original Shadow Hearts cast has moved on with their lives, and Yuri Hyuga, having lost his one true love, wanders Europe searching for purpose and happiness in his own.
He finds short-lived solace in the French village of Domremy, but The Great War is already under way, and the German army sends a squad led by Lieutenant Karin Koenig to capture it for the glory of the German empire. With the taste of loss still fresh at a relatively young age, Yuri zealously fights for the people and the places he cares about, transforming into the demon god Amon and slaughtering the patrol. Mysteriously, he spares Karin, and even shields her from the gruesome death of an errant grenade with his impervious demon wings. A second expedition is sent, this time accompanied by Nicolai Conrad, a Vatican exorcist wielding the Holy Mistletoe. It does not end well: Karin is betrayed by Nicolai, who reveals his ulterior motives as a member of Sapientes Gladio, a secret society; Yuri is cursed by the mistletoe; and Jeanne, a young, local girl of no older than ten, is murdered.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is not afraid to be tragic. With the help of Blanca, a wolf, and Gepetto, an aged puppeteer, Yuri and Karin barely escape with their lives, but not without cost. Though Yuri is alive, the curse of the Holy Mistletoe has sealed his demon transformation abilities and will slowly destroy his soul by erasing his memories and personality. Karin is effectively exiled from her homeland, on the run for her life because of the events she witnessed.
What has been revealed here is a mix of history and fantasy, with probably more of the fantasy. History, rather than confining the game to the factual occurrences and characteristics of the real world, is used as a springboard for a unique fantastical tale impossible in a purely fictitious setting. Men turn into demons, magic can be used by equipping magical crests, and the wildlife encountered is often distinctly supernatural – but all in Europe. One of the creatures that inhabits the abandoned mineshaft on the way to Wales is a hybrid human-scorpion. If that does not sound weird enough, it specifically has the torso and lower limbs (tail included) of both, and the head of neither.
One of Covenant’s marked improvements is its integration of story and history, though this is partially thanks to the fact that geopolitically 1915 was more of a happening year in Eurasia (or the world even) than 1913. Instead of history simply serving as a background for a story independent of it, the first world war has a direct and personal effect on the lives of the characters that causes and guides their journey. The adventure takes them from Paris to Florence to Petrograd and beyond, where the infamous antics of Grigori Rasputin, one of the game’s main villains, are explained in terms of his involvement as the leader of Sapientes Gladio and his possession by the demon god Asmodeus. It’s an alternate history of conspiracy and sorcery, a fanciful sort of behind-the-scenes interpretation of what could have happened on the sidelines of a major world war.
The game progresses via a reasonably effective, if repetitive, structure that hinges on the alternation between town and dungeon. Towns have benefited from the game’s overall visual upgrade, but as in the original they remain comparatively stripped of the pleasurable, incidental feature of simply being able to explore diverse, colorful and distinct places. They are small, spanning only a few screens, with very little to explore and usually only one enterable building (some even have none). The same quiet, homey tone plays in the background of nearly all of them, further reducing the distinctiveness between them. They provide a single, all-purpose shop but not even an inn. As a result, town visitations are perfunctory exercises in Shadow Hearts: Covenant, basically reduced to their barest function: the finding of a key NPC to unlock the game’s next dungeon.
Whether creeping through the literal dungeon of an island prison or infiltrating Sapientes Gladio’s Italian branch headquarters, every dungeon now constitutes at least a minor labyrinth, perhaps in recognition of their brevity and simplicity in the original. In some cases, the navigation of the entire dungeon is itself the puzzle, as with the optional Dog Shrine, in which tiles placed on altars create the dungeon’s paths. The most intriguing one is the optional Doll House, which is populated by sentient dolls who must be identified based on descriptions of their personalities from the late owner’s diary. Nearly every dungeon in Shadow Hearts: Covenant exudes feelings of desertion and loneliness through a combination of ominous musical ambiance and literal physical emptiness (when not in battle). With few exceptions (some arguable), the only time you see any sign of life besides Yuri and the party is when the screen shatters upon the initiation of a random battle.
The unique backbone of the battle system is the judgment ring: a clock-like hand rotates around a disc, and button input is required as it passes through designated areas. Nearly every active action, be it attacking, casting magic, or even using an item, uses the judgment ring. It may not seem like much, but consider what it achieves: it abandons the passive exercise of simple menu operation in favor of a system that demands active participation through a test of timing and reflexes. Battles are more involving as a result because they stress performance in addition to managing an economy of battle actions. This focus on performance is amplified by mechanics of reward and punishment: failing a judgment ring revolution will make an action weaker or sometimes negate it entirely, while hitting small, designated sweet spots will make it more powerful than normal. It also introduces an entire array of new status abnormalities specific to the judgment ring.
This structure is both typical and not. Towns and dungeons are integral role-playing game elements, but less prominent in Shadow Hearts: Covenant are extended, interactive, scripted story scenarios, such as Final Fantasy VII’s opening bombing mission or Final Fantasy VIII’s attack on Dollet. When used liberally but appropriately, they add variation and create a cohesive, integrated, and – when done best – seamless bond between the interactive and non-interactive elements of the game. The effect of this difference is that Shadow Hearts: Covenant has a much clearer distinction between story and gameplay, and the two feel somewhat disconnected from each other.
Story advancement is instead achieved almost exclusively through cutscenes, which are primarily conversations with little physical action. As such, their strength relies heavily on the quality of the voice acting. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the cast is voiced by anime dub regulars, this requirement is met only half way. The voices are suitable for their respective characters, but the people behind them lack acting skill; consequently, they tend to overextend their limited emotional ranges whenever events become emotional, dire or serious.
Though the main story is dark and serious, attempts at humor have been shoehorned into the game. This largely means the presence of flamboyant characters who are most likely homosexual. The most prominent examples are the game’s twin shopkeepers, one of which will tailor new dresses for Gepetto’s marionette in exchange for collectible cards of nude, muscle bound men. The game’s most outrageous sidequest, the Man Festival, requires you to climb a tower of wrestling rings while battling an army of skinny, thonged men, eventually culminating in a final battle with a much fatter one, who exclaims “Those who fail in the Man Festival must receive as a punishment the winner’s full manhood!!”
It’s a jarring and conspicuous contrast to the seriousness of the main story, partially because it is so out of place for a mainstream role-playing game. It is perhaps the first salient challenge to the genre convention of the primacy – even exclusivity – of romance as a heterosexual affair. Homosexuality is completely absent from most role-playing games, either because of potential controversy and/or normative exclusion. Unfortunately, the challenge ultimately reveals itself as disingenuous: instead of championing, celebrating or accepting homosexuality, it caricatures it. These are not believable, developed characters gradually falling in love with each other; they are shallow, static, overly flamboyant stereotypes. It is precisely one of the things that makes the game so different, even though it is stupid and misguided.
But in the end, Shadow Hearts: Covenant finds beauty in its difference: noticeably imperfect and uneven, but beautiful nonetheless. The ending can be described as bittersweet, confusing, unfair, but there is one thing it certainly is not: a typical role-playing game ending. It is far too sad for that, even though it is not, strictly speaking, a sad ending. Rather, it is an ingenious but flawed solution to a sad state of affairs. Shadow Hearts: Covenant may not always be better, but it is truly something unique.
Community review by radicaldreamer (June 24, 2009)
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