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Shadow Hearts (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shadow Hearts (PlayStation 2) review

"I'm going to come out and say it. Shadow Hearts is easily my favorite RPG, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give it a 10 for everything. That would be close minded. I try to keep an open mind when playing a game and when reviewing it, meaning I try my best not to be biased at all. With that out of the way, I really do think it's a shame that Shadow Hearts was released around the same time as Final Fantasy X. That's most likely the main reason why this game was overlooked, and was only recently..."

I'm going to come out and say it. Shadow Hearts is easily my favorite RPG, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give it a 10 for everything. That would be close minded. I try to keep an open mind when playing a game and when reviewing it, meaning I try my best not to be biased at all. With that out of the way, I really do think it's a shame that Shadow Hearts was released around the same time as Final Fantasy X. That's most likely the main reason why this game was overlooked, and was only recently discovered by more fans of the RPG genre. Players that missed out on this game (including me since my friend told me about the series a couple of years ago) really missed out on a good RPG. It's not as large as Final Fantasy X, but I do think it's just as good as it, if not better.

The story of Shadow Hearts follows the trail of a young man named Yuri Hyuga. Yuri is a special case, mainly because he's able to fuse into different demons at will, making him far from the norm. While on a train, a massacre happens by the hands of a wizard named Roger Bacon. After a few more scenes, Yuri is told by the voice in his head (seriously) that he has to protect Alice from Roger, as her powers are key in destroying the world. From that point on, Yuri stands by Alice, guarding her with his life.

Sure, the story may seem a bit cliche at first, but as you venture further into the game, you'll just realize how deep the story gets, which just engrosses you to keep wanting to learn more and more about it. The game is based around a gothic horror type of them, following in the footsteps of the game before it, Koudelka. Because of this, the story has a lot of darkness in it, conveying stuff like magic and gods at you, but while in all of that, the story still maintains to have a good depth of humor, mostly consisting of sexual innuendo, some of it pretty clever.

For an early Playstation 2 game, Shadow Hearts has a pretty much 'hit or miss' graphic engine. Right off the bat you'll notice how the character models are pretty jaggy, and how they seemed to have been rushed into production. You'll be able to clearly see how the characters look during battles most of the time, making it feel like it was supposed to be a late era Playstation game. The FMVs, however, are absolutely gorgeous, just like Koudelka's FMVs. My only gripe with that is that there's only a handful of FMVs throughout the game, and only about 2 of them are actually longer than a minute.

The environments, on the other hand, really do fit in with the theme of the game. Like I pointed out earlier, the theme of the game revolves around a gothic horror type theme, and because of this, you can expect some dark, damp areas throughout the game. That's not to say that it's horrible, since it makes you feel like you're actually really playing in a horror game. You have areas where it's cloudy, no moon nor stars, and at other points, you're running across villages splattered with blood and bodies all over the place. This certainly brings the theme of the game to life, and it's nicely done.

Shadow Hearts has probably one of the best soundtracks that I've heard in a long time. It's just composed so well, and there are a lot of brilliant tracks on it that just make the horror theme so much better and it just makes it come alive. It has a mix of both dark, chanting type themes, and some happy go lucky type themes, and they both fit in with the moods of the current situation. That's not to say that the sound all around is perfect, though. Shadow Hearts lacks voice acting, and even then, as an early Playstation 2 game, that's really no excuse for it. While there is a little voice acting, it's only done during the FMVs of the game, and the voice acting is so bad during them that you'll probably wind up turning down the volume or muting your TV. Chances are though that you won't mind the text reading, since some of it is well written.

Shadow Hearts probably has some of the best gameplay out right now for the entire RPG genre. Shadow Hearts is well known for being innovative and introducting the much loved Judgment Ring. Basically, the ring appears whenever you try to take an action. If you attack, the ring appears. If you want to cast magic, the ring appearss. If you want to use an item, the ring appears. Whenever the ring occurs, depending on which action you're taking, you'll see a different amount of hit/strike areas. Once the ring appears, a sweeping bar will start going across the ring. Your job is to stop the sweeping bar over all of the hit/strike areas on the ring. These areas are easily identified since they're the colored areas on the ring. If you're able to hit the bar on a Strike area, you'll do more damage with that attack. However, if you miss the ring, you'll either attack as many times as you hit a hit/strike area, or you won't attack, period. The basics of the ring are so simple and easy to understand, but at the same time, the ring means so much that you're pretty much sealing your own fate with it, depending on how good you are with the ring. The ring, however, is a bit shaded, and it can be a bit hard sometimes to keep track of the sweeping bar.

The battles in Shadow Hearts are turn based, meaning that after one side attacks, the other side attacks, but because of the ring, you simply can't just mash X, since you actually need to pay attention to the battles while they're going on. During battles, you have your standard HP and MP stats, but you'll notice a new stat: SP. This stands for Sanity Points. Every turn, each character will lose 1 SP on their turn. If a character reaches 0 SP, they'll turn berserk and start going out of control, meaning you won't be able to control them manually anymore. Yuri's fusions eat up a set amount of SP in order to fuse, but after that, he only loses 1 SP per turn, so along with keeping an eye on the Judgment Ring, you also need to keep an eye on your characters sanity.

You'll probably notice that as you play along, you'll notice that each character has their own set of skills. Yuri has his fusions, whereas Alice has her healing spells. Zhuzhen has his fire based attacks and so on. Most of the characters skills are based off the elements they are (Alice is Light, Zhuzhen is Fire and so on). You learn new skills by gaining levels, which in the end leaves no room for customization, and just leaves a character to follow a straight, set path. That's not to say that the skills have no uses, because some of them are really good and have their uses during certain battles.

Shadow Hearts has plenty of sidequests to do. While they're not really all that long, they're still there for the picking, and there are a couple of missable ones. There are sidequests for each character, as well as some decent rewards, usually including something for a character. However, the sidequests themselves aren't long, and aren't really all that challenging once you've gotten the basics of how the enemies in the dungeons work. Also something interesting in Shadow Hearts is the lottery system. You can find Lottery Tickets throughout the game, and talk to certain people to play the Lottery. Basically what the Lottery is when you give a ticket to a member, a ring will appear with different colored areas. Each colored area represents a different prize, and each ring and the width of the hit areas are different, so it's not really easy to get the best item all the time. Problem is, there are only a few Lottery members throughout the entire game that actually have a decent prize worth winning, as the other big prizes can just be sold for some extra cash.

Shadow Hearts itself, along with the sidequests, is a pretty short game. If you rush through the game, without doing the sidequests, you're probably looking at a 25-30 hour play through. If you do decide to do the sidequests, you're probably looking at a 30-35 hour play through. Shadow Hearts can also be a pretty difficult game at the beginning, but after about 5 or so hours, the difficulty of the game seems to tone down a bit, but it may still prove to be a challenge for newer players to the series or the RPG genre.

All in all, Shadow Hearts is certainly a great RPG that has a lot to offer. It offers a new battle system, a great soundtrack, and a deep, engrossing story with a gothic horror theme that plays out nicely in the end. If you're looking for a game with any of those listed above, you'll certainly enjoy Shadow Hearts for sure.

peterl90's avatar
Community review by peterl90 (June 09, 2007)

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