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Shadow Hearts From the New World (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shadow Hearts From the New World (PlayStation 2) review

"Cola for Kids"

One of the things I appreciate about the Shadow Hearts (SH) games (and I include Koudelka as the first of the series) is that they have all been aimed at an adult demographic. Complex stories with bloody death, betrayal, heretical magic and grand ambitions were tempered with a love story at the centre of it all. Every game features a couple, though not necessarily the one you might expect, and an emotional toughness in the characters, which provides a rock upon which these themes are built. So I approached this fourth game in the series with the anticipation of a wedding guest, eager for more champagne and ready to make a toast to another powerful story which would pull at my heart strings and play sweet music. But what I found was cola for kids.

The game is pretty to look at, the music is nice, the spells are spectacular, and the gameplay sometimes challenging, yet all this disguises an empty heart. There is just no passion, no grandeur, nothing to celebrate. The expectation of a central love story of sorts has led some players to search for one, and to give undue attention to the villains of the piece, Killer and Lady. They are ciphers, as their names suggest, and yet their appeal is greater than that of the so-called heroes of the game. In fact, I harboured a desire to see them triumph rather than the protagonists, which makes for an odd tension at the heart of the game.

The story revolves around a child. All right, Johnny might be 16 but he's a youngster, and he has lost his memory. (Oh, amnesia, that well trodden plot device.) Despite his orphaned status he has a cheery disposition and his only unusual trait is that he is a detective in 1920s New York. He teams up with Shania, and her sidekick, who are both Native Americans driven by the desire for vengeance after Lady destroyed their village.

Vengeance is a one dimensional motivation and Shania is a one-dimensional character, although these faults might be overlooked by those who crave some luscious female flesh since she indulges in lengthy stiptease animations for her fusion type attacks. Fortunately, you can elect to curtail these. A disparate group of characters eventually join together to chase all over South America, and form a kind of alliance with Al Capone as they track down Lady and Killer. He's a serial killer, so we're told, who for some unknown reason, beyond the fact that she saves him from the police, decides he will protect Lady: not that she needs protection, but there you go. Throw in a brief appearance by Roger Bacon, the long suffering ancient and wise alchemist first encountered in Koudelka, whose role has been reduced to a means of introducing another character, and whose voice acting is horrible; and add another villain into the mix, Professor Gilbert, who is signalled as evil (in case you didn't realise it) by the simple fact that he is an ugly hunchback, and that's about it.

It's a parochial tale, despite the large scale environments, and the historical connections of the previous games are missing. New York and Chicago in the 1920s cannot really compare to the gloom that pervaded the stories set around the time of First World War and the last days of the Russian empire. Although the design and music follows the same style set by the other games, they somehow miss the mark, and come across as pretty, but forgettable.

Fortunately the excellent turn-based combat of the other SH games is reprised. The wonderful judgement ring is used for all attacks: you must hit parts of a spinning ring to execute any attack. Different characters have different set-ups on their ring and all of them are very easy to use, so that isn't a challenge. In Shadow Hearts Covenant (SHC) there was the option to make combo attacks which could be very powerful and very useful, and the same option is here, but there is a stock gauge which has to be filled before a combo can be initiated. In order to execute a combo with everyone in the party you need them all to have a full gauge, but since enemies often have attacks that deprive you of stock, actually accumulating it is quite hard to do, and this means that the option of combos often is not available.

This inability to combo at will makes the gameplay frustrating and annoying, and some boss battles lasted much longer than I would have liked. Also, the special skills of each party member are not that interesting, with the exception of Hilda, another member of the Valentine vampire family, who has a unique skill that allows her to be played as plump Hilda (with mostly healing spells), slim Hilda (with powerful attack magic) or as a bat, with no spells but increased attack power. Although everyone except Shania has access to spells as well, these have to be slotted into a system which is awkward to use. You find magic crests and use these on one of twelve charts (which also have to be found in various ways) based on the zodiac. Only one chart can be equipped to one person at a time, so you might have spells slotted into one that you are not using, and also some spells won't be allowed in some slots. It's all just a bit of a pain to keep having to juggle these charts and change the slots or where the spells are placed in order to make the best use of them. Although there is an option to alter the charts to allow for different crests to be fixed, it's expensive and a bit pointless to bother since you quickly gain additional crests.

There are many optional sidequests, but some of these interrupt, rather than complement, the gameplay. Having to continuously take photos in order to collect lots of snaps of the same enemy to exchange for more cards of enemies, or letting Mao, a talking drunken cat, deliver the finishing blow so she can collect various cat coins for another sidequest, is just a nuisance. However, some of the other character-based sidequests are entertaining, even if they are echoes of quests from SH and SHC, such as the creepy Doll's House or the Sushi house series of battles. Actually, if you don't do the sidequests you'll find that the game is over very fast as following just the main story won't take that long. In the latter stages of the game things improve when we learn more about why Johnny is a orphan, but by then it is almost too late, and my interest, at any rate, had irrevocably shifted to Killer and Lady.

One other distinctive feature of the SH games is their humour. Now, this is a hard thing to judge, but right from the start a hallmark of these games has been the mixing of horrific events alongside comic moments, as well as times of real passion, anger or despair. Sadly, all these qualities are lacking in FtNW. There are a couple of characters included mainly for laughs, the afore mentioned cat and a Brazilain Ninja (don't ask) by the name of Frank. You might be accused of lacking a sense of humour for not finding either of these two funny, but to my taste the humour is forced. Altogether the script lacks sparkle, and even the soul spirit conversations are trite.

You might think I am being critical of a game I don't know well, or that I bear some resentment at the loss of Yuri, the protagonist of the two SH games. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yuri's story was completed in SHC and it was appropriate that he be allowed to rest, and I have played this game three times in my quest to discern good things. But each time I play I become more disillusioned. This review might have been very different if I had written it after playing the game once only, as it is not a bad RPG by any means, it is just that it could, indeed, SHOULD, have been so much better. The rich wine I first tasted with Koudelka has been turned into stale cola, which, even if kept for a long time, won't improve with age.


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Featured community review by threetimes (November 20, 2011)

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jerec posted November 20, 2011:

After playing and loving Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 (and Koudelka) I couldn't think why I couldn't get into this game, despite the same enjoyable battle system being in place, but you've nailed it. The characters were so bland that it was just impossible to care about their little adventure, and the change in setting did not work for the series. Also what was up with Killer and Lady? I never got far enough in to find out what their deal was.
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threetimes posted November 20, 2011:

Yeah, I know a few people who just couldn't finish the game they hated it so much after the others. And Killer's motivation and history is never explained, although you do find out about Lady. Major spoilers stuff.

And thanks. I pared this down a lot to try and keep it focussed. Left out all the stuff about how Johnny sucked, literally.

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SamildanachEmrys posted November 30, 2011:

This is the only SH game I've been able to get hold of, and I enjoyed it (though I haven't replayed it), so it's interesting to me that the previous games are superior. The problem is they're kind of hard to obtain.
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threetimes posted December 01, 2011:

Yes, they are, but worth the effort. Just avoid buying the strategy guide to SHC as it's probably the worst guide ever produced. Full of errors, no maps, all round rubbish.
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JujuZombie posted May 29, 2012:

Yeah I finished this game because I'm a big fan of the series too, but this one is a real letdown. You explained it very well why. Sure, it's loads of fun to play, in fact the gameplay is probably the best out of all the games...can't argue that. But it just doesn't have that charm and feel of the other games, which is why I liked them to begin with. Instead, seems to me like a juvenile collection of dumbass humor and a buncha crap I can't take seriously. I didn't like how it didn't connect to the mythos of the series...well, I guess Roger Bacon was there...or whatever that old dude name's was, I forgot. But eh. Awesome review. :)
Also, Lady and Killer (wow, nice names there guys) are not Yuri and Alice, damnit. XD

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