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The Moonlight War novel by S.K.S. Perry

Shadow Hearts (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shadow Hearts (PlayStation 2) review

"On a train heading through China, Alice Elliot finds herself in custody of the Japanese military who intend to deliver the girl with mysterious powers to their homeland. Unfortunately a dapper English gent named Roger Bacon has other plans. He effortlessly summons hideous demons to devour the heads of the soldiers who meet their grisly demise without a fight. Bacon would have soon kidnapped Alice had it not been for a brash young man Yuri and his natural talents as a Harmonixer – one who transfo..."

On a train heading through China, Alice Elliot finds herself in custody of the Japanese military who intend to deliver the girl with mysterious powers to their homeland. Unfortunately a dapper English gent named Roger Bacon has other plans. He effortlessly summons hideous demons to devour the heads of the soldiers who meet their grisly demise without a fight. Bacon would have soon kidnapped Alice had it not been for a brash young man Yuri and his natural talents as a Harmonixer – one who transforms into demons.

Upon escaping with Alice, Yuri reveals the source of his heroics: a mysterious voice commanded him. Yuri is frequently compelled by a disembodied presence to protect and guide Alice. And so the two go on to venture through Asia and Europe on the brink of World War I. Shadow Hearts progresses into usual J-RPG clichés including a quickly and rather inexplicably developing romance and the typical ‘end of the world’ scenario brought on by the villain (and of course it’s our job to stop it, etc). Along the way several strange characters join the party including Zhuzhen the Taoist priest skilled in the arts of “Yin & Yang and Feng Shui,” Margarete the world famous spy, Keith the 400+ year old vampire, and Halley the London street rat with psychic powers. Though the characters and dialogue can be weird and whacky at times, Shadow Hearts has a dark, macabre atmosphere reminiscent of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series. Scenarios include a blood-soaked village of cannibals who admit the party in because of Alice’s supple, soft and delicious feminine physique and an orphanage where children are liquefied into primordial soup to resurrect the owner’s dead mother.

The game is a typical J-RPG with several twists – some good and some bad. The turn-based battle system includes three-person parties with standardized features: front and back rows, the usual commands like attack and magic, status effects, an opposing element system, spells and skilled earned at specific levels and so on. The major addition is the inclusion of the Judgment Ring. Every action during battle brings up a large circle with a dial that moves 360 degrees. Areas of the circle are shaded in set configurations dependent on the command. Your objective is to hit the X button when the dial swings into the shaded spot to successfully attack, cast a spell, or use an item. More interestingly is the inclusion of small “sweet spots” on Judgment Rings. Landing the dial there increases the effectiveness of the command by dealing more damage, healing more health, or increasing defense by a higher percentage. Going for a sweet spot can be tough and you’re more likely to completely miss hitting a shaded region, meaning you’ll likely lose your turn. Fortunately repeated use of attacks and spells aid in learning the rhythm of their set ring shape, allowing for an advantage in battle and adding a fun and simple real-time component to an otherwise archetypal turn-based battle system.

There’s also a rather Lovecraftian element with Sanity Points. Each party member has a set amount of SP, though it can occasional increase after gaining a level, and they lose one point each turn. Upon hitting zero SP, the party member goes berserk, attacking and healing allies and foes alike. Likely you’ll never think about SP during a random encounters, as enemies will be dispatched in two or fewer turns (Alice for example will have the lowest SP of 5 or 6 at the beginning of the game). During boss fights, things get hairy unless you waste a turn to use sanity-healing items. In practice SP is a rather dubious addition that only prolongs battles by forcing you to waste time healing an otherwise pointless meter for 80% of the cast. Sanity is only important when it comes to Yuri. He’s got a lot of SP to spare because he can sacrifice large amounts to transform into powerful demons like a four-armed giant with strength-boosting spells or a grotesque gargoyle that spews black fog capable of inflicting instant death.

Despite the SP meter, I enjoyed Shadow Hearts vintage battle system with the Judgment Ring spin enough that I wished there was more time to spend with it. The game’s biggest flaw is its too short. The main quests clocks in at a scant 15-16 hours, and the few side quests won’t add many more. Shadow Hearts feels like a full game since you go to so many places, but every place is too small. Some dungeons are only a few screens long, and they’re often very linear. The random encounter rate is also low and there’s never a need for grinding. I’m all for avoiding needlessly dragging a game out with mindless level building, but it’s not good when I’m wishing to spend more time in each locale either.

You’d think there would have been plenty of time to expand the dungeons because Shadow Hearts looks like a smoothed out PlayStation game. Character models are blocky and the backgrounds are static 2D pre-rendered screens. Emotions are conveyed through flailing arm gestures and cartoony sweat drops rather facial expressions or changing character portraits like later RPGs. The few CG scenes in the game are subpar compared to Squaresoft’s work from the previous gen hardware. The game’s mediocre graphics are especially embarrassing considering Final Fantasy X was released eight days later in America. Fortunately the art-direction is dark and fantastic with a dreary color palette and many gruesome enemy designs, such as nude torsos clutching brains impaled on spears or fearsome canine with carrion legs growing out of their mouths. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of chilling dark ambient, weird noises, and ethereal singing. Unfortunately the sparse English dubbing is horrible often giving more comic relief than anything. Some voice work was even left in Japanese making it jarring when characters completely change voices and languages midbattle.

Playing Shadow Hearts in 2010 was nostalgic. It feels like a lost PlayStation RPGs beefed up for PS2. I warmed up to it quickly thanks to its simple yet effective combat system using the Judgment Ring as well as its creepy atmosphere. It’s unfortunate there isn’t more content to the main quest because with complete copies inching toward the game’s original full price sticker from 9 years ago, it’s difficult to come away without pangs of disappointment.

Rating: 7/10

Genj's avatar
Community review by Genj (August 20, 2010)

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CoarseDragon posted August 30, 2010:

Yuri's ability to transform is a major part of the game and I wished you had expounded upon that a bit more, but not to get sidetracked to much, I really liked this review. Good job.
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sashanan posted August 31, 2010:

Margarete the world famous English spy


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