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Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PlayStation 2) review


"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.

Rating: 8/10

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Community review by radicaldreamer (June 24, 2009)

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zippdementia posted June 27, 2009:

This review reads like an ice cream pizza tastes. Every individual ingredient is tasty, but you wonder if they've all been put together in proper fashion. You also worry about your cholesterol, but admittedly your review doesn't have that affect on me.

To get to the point, your review says something good, technically proficient, and game revealing in most paragraphs. But the paragraphs come presented as a jumble, and the flow is strangely absent. You'll go from talking about presentation to talking about gameplay, and then from that to story, though you've already covered story. Also, there ARE some paragraphs that seem pointless, or at least very weak.

"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."


Neither of these actually says much. They could easily be cut without hurting the review.
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zigfried posted June 27, 2009:

Apologies to Zipp if it looks like I'm picking on him -- I'm using his feedback as a way to decide what reviews to read. (Existing feedback is usually what gets me to read a review)

I have to completely and totally disagree with Zipp's point about those two paragraphs. Those paragraphs clearly distinguish different methods for integrating story into a game. I've heard people say before, "if an RPG isn't going to let me control the action, then make it a cutscene dammit" -- but in this review, Mr Dreamer pinpoints the potential issues with taking the cutscene approach, and as an added bonus explains why scripted scenarios can work.

These paragraphs also tie directly into the review's first sentence. The entire review could be said to be a support of that one sentence. In that sense, it is an extremely cohesive piece that absolutely sticks to its guns to make its point.

Because of that, in general I thought the review flowed well. There was a spot or two that felt a little jarring, but it was more due to sentence length than any actual disconnect between ideas (see: beginning of paragraph four... not entirely sure why that sounded weird to me, but it did. Maybe it's just too damn powerful? In which case it would fit better at the end of the previous paragraph as a concluding point, as opposed to being an introductory point for a new paragraph.)

//Zig
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radicaldreamer posted June 27, 2009:

Flow is one of the things I tend to agonize over while writing, since it is something that tends to escape me. One of the solutions I've observed is to simply talk about the game as a whole instead of talking about its constituent parts, though I don't know if such an approach can apply in all, or even most, cases. Other than that I've always just tried to read other reviews that I've been told flow well and try to emulate them (always remember NT220's Lufia).

However, regardless of how they flow or are integrated, I do feel that the paragraphs mentioned contain a few important points that would be lost by cutting them. Maybe streamlined, reorganized and/or rewritten.

EDIT: Always interesting to see completely different opinions on the same piece of writing. This certainly isn't like a video game competition where the outcome is a strictly calculable occurrence and the win screen professes the absolute truth.
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zippdementia posted June 27, 2009:

I'm going to defend my position on this one. Or at least say that I see Zig's point, but I think the paragraphs in question still need to change. Look at this sentence for example:

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.

It reads very confusing. I know what you're trying to say, but it would read better to say

Shadow Hearts: Covenant lacks extended, interactive, scripted story scenarios, such as Final Fantasy VII’s opening bombing mission or Final Fantasy VIII’s attack on Dollet.

Then your next lines about scripted sequences makes more sense. Though this line is still wierd:

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.

The effect of what difference? You don't mention any difference before this. I'm not sure how it lacking scripted sequences is creating a distinction between story and gameplay, until I get to the next paragraph.

Story advancement is instead achieved almost exclusively through cutscenes, which are primarily conversations with little physical action.

Ah, okay now I get it. This line should really be part of the above paragraph, and probably come before the last line. With that taken care of, you don't really need a section on voice acting, unless the voice acting was bad enough to draw you out of the game experience.
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Halon posted June 27, 2009:

Hmm, this is the first time I've seen a review compared to pizza and ice cream. I think.

Anyways you'll see my thoughts on the review when the results get posted!
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radicaldreamer posted June 27, 2009:

I disagree. Voice acting at any level is worth mentioning because specific qualities have different impacts. The exception is if it is barely present, such as in the original Shadow Hearts. Consider the case of Resident Evil and its laughably bad acting. Unfortunately I can't even think of an example of a game with great voicing acting so I'll have to go immediately to the effects of voice acting: consider a game with great voice acting, with actors who actually have the talent to make emotional situations not only believable, but involving and compelling.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant is somewhere in between that, so it doesn't have the same effect as either one. Unlike Resident Evil you don't immediately write it off as something stupid and not to be taken seriously. But it's not at the level of drama as that hypothetical game with good voice acting. When situations are calm the voice acting in Shadow Hearts: Covenant is fine, but whenever emotions get a little stronger, you need to take a little more effort to suspend disbelief than in the case of that hypothetical game.

Even when compared to FFX, a game that is fairly comparable in voice acting quality, the effects are different. There is no one as amazing as Auron in Covenant that you always look forward to him saying anything, but there is also no cringe-worthy intentionally forced laughing that makes you want to turn the volume down until it's done.
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jerec posted June 27, 2009:

What sportsman said. I'd like to jump into this discussion... but not yet. :P
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zippdementia posted June 27, 2009:

Unfortunately I can't even think of an example of a game with great voicing acting...

Bam. That's it right there. Unless the game has abnormally bad voice acting (as does Mytran wars, which I'll be reviewing in a week or so) or unusually great voice acting (mostly games that keep the original Japanese language) it doesn't seem worth a mention.

But now we're getting off the main point, which was everything else I said about those paragraphs.
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radicaldreamer posted June 27, 2009:

I had trouble thinking of an example at the time. I was tempted to say Metal Gear Solid, but the voice acting in that is often held back by the series' ludicrousness. I'm sure there are many games out there with great voice acting that I just haven't played yet, especially anything on the 360 or the PS3. Though if I put some thought into it, I do recall Starcraft and Dawn of War having great voice acting.

I kept talking about this because I still disagree. Mentioning it only in the case of extremes ignores the fact that the diverse gradations of middle ground have their own unique effects on the totality of the gaming experience. The point I make about the voice acting is also a little more complicated than simply the labeling of good/bad/okay, since it is about the actors and their (in)ability to handle diverse acting situations, which implies that the quality of voice acting isn't uniform. I don't accept that there is a broad neutral territory, and that only significant deviations from it are worth mentioning. FFX and Shadow Hearts: Covenant both fall into such a neutral, but the experiences of their respective voice acting are very different. If nothing else, it's important just because it features so prominently.

As for the rest, I do mention the difference, but concede that on the whole the writing may simply not be clear enough, and that sentences could be reworded, rearranged, and added for clarity.
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zigfried posted June 27, 2009:

The Riddick games have great voice acting, in the sense that I never even thought of it as voice acting. They were just characters on the screen talking to each other. That's probably why I didn't even think to mention it in the review.

//Zig
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True posted June 27, 2009:

Given his Av, I think Radical would agree with me here, but in my opinion Lunar is one of the best games in regards to voice-acting.
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zigfried posted June 27, 2009:

I love Lunar, but I actually thought the acting in that (both episodes) was overdone. I got used to it after a while, but the first few hours bugged the hell outta me.

//Zig
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radicaldreamer posted June 27, 2009:

Lunar is one of my all time favorite games but I actually think the acting is not that great -- but one of the reasons that's okay is that there really isn't that much of it because most of the game isn't acted out. Most of the story is conveyed in text, and both games succeed in that endeavor because of the quality of the writing.

Ghaleon was especially overdone, but his themes were epic!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWbPd0zwGgg

Deus Ex is a case where voice acting would definitely be worth mentioning.

"Mr. JC Denton, in da fresh, as daaark and sirius as his bruthar!.
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zippdementia posted June 27, 2009:

I mean, there are cases where voice acting SHOULD be mentioned. I just don't think you make a strong enough point in your Shadow Hearts review to justify it.

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