From the Archives: Shadow Hearts – A Classic Series from the PS2 Era

Back in the PS1 and PS2 eras we were very much enjoying a Golden Age across a variety of different game genres, but many people regard this as a very special time for the JRPG in particular.

This period in gaming history gave birth to some truly “timeless” and gloriously experimental titles which remain immensely entertaining today, despite their obvious technical limitations.

Several such examples can be found in the Shadow Hearts series, a collection of games that sound completely batshit crazy on paper, but which actually turn out to be some of the finest role-playing games I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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I came to the Shadow Hearts series rather late following literally several years of urging from a friend of mine who had long been a series evangelist. Eventually, I managed to locate some cheap copies via Amazon and settled down to investigate.

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, as I was completely unfamiliar with the series — coming to it with “beginner’s mind,” as it were. In a way, I’m actually quite glad I came to these games without any preconceived notions, as it allowed its more… bizarre elements to genuinely surprise me — particularly when they were backed up by very solid gameplay and storytelling.

The first Shadow Hearts game, for the uninitiated, is actually a direct sequel to the equally strange PS1 RPG Koudelka. You don’t have to have played Koudelka to appreciate it, thankfully — Koudelka hasn’t aged as well as its successors, or, as some might argue, perhaps wasn’t that good in the first place — but there are plenty of references in there for those who have played it.

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The series’ shtick is that it sticks some vaguely Lovecraftian-cum-Gothic horror atop the backdrop of the run-up to and outbreak of World War I. During your journeys as series protagonist Yuri — a “Harmonixer” who has the power to shapeshift into various demonic forms — you’ll team up with a variety of weird and wonderful characters, including a demure British girl called Alice, a vampire called Keith and a gadget-toting spy called Margarete.

To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil the joy of discovery, but suffice to say that this is a globetrotting adventure which remains super-compelling throughout thanks to its unconventional narrative and quirky characters. Despite its inherent silliness, though, the game plays it all admirably straight, which somehow makes it all the more entertaining when crazy stuff happens.

Shadow Hearts hasn’t aged quite as well as its sequel, which we’ll come to in a moment. Its dialog is largely text-based (though this does mean you get to have fun renaming your characters — a forgotten pleasure in these modern days of fully-voiced epics), its visuals are based on polygonal characters running around on pre-rendered backdrops Final Fantasy VIII-style and the whole thing looks and feels fairly “old.”

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That doesn’t stop it from being good, of course, but if you’re the sort of person who easily suffers from culture shock when revisiting old games, you may wish to bear that in mind.

Arguably the best thing about Shadow Hearts is its combat system. Initially appearing to be a rather conventional turn-based “Attack, Magic, Item” affair, it quickly reveals itself to have a number of interesting mechanics — specifically, the Sanity system and the Judgement Ring. The former effectively serves as a “time limit” for battles — every turn, your characters suffer sanity loss, and if this drops to zero, they go berserk and become uncontrollable. Certain abilities carry additional sanity costs — Yuri’s transformations into demons are a notable example — meaning that a careful eye must be kept on this stat during longer battles.

The Judgement Ring is the highlight, though — it’s arguably one of the greatest JRPG mechanics of all time. Rather than simply hammering the X button to pick a target and attack it over and over again, everything you do in Shadow Hearts requires the use of the Judgement Ring. Attacking requires that you rhythmically press the X button as a needle sweeps over a ring. Hitting the button on an orange area causes a hit; hitting it on a red area causes a stronger hit; hitting it on a blank area causes a miss.

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Different characters have different attack patterns, and certain abilities also have their own complex patterns to learn. Over time, you’ll learn the patterns and rhythms off by heart — which is good, because there are certain items and abilities which cause the Judgement Ring’s visuals to disappear altogether, but you still need to use it.

The interesting thing about the Judgement Ring is that it’s not just used in combat. It’s also used in situations where a tabletop/pen-and-paper role-playing game might call for a “skill check.” Picking a lock? Breaking down a door? Negotiating a discount in a store? Up pops the Judgement Ring, and it’s up to your own physical skills as a player to ensure the task runs smoothly. On paper, it sounds like it should be incredibly obtrusive, but in practice it works extremely well, and becomes a natural part of the game within a very short space of time.

Shadow Hearts also does a few other interesting things. It has two endings, for starters, and surprisingly what is technically the “bad” ending is actually the canonical one so far as the sequel is concerned. This is probably understandable, however, given that getting the “good” ending requires an immensely convoluted series of steps that I defy anyone to accomplish without a walkthrough to hand.

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It also has an interesting approach to acquiring new abilities for Yuri. Successfully defeating monsters earns various colors of “Soul,” which can eventually be used in the strange graveyard that lives inside Yuri’s mind. Earning enough “Soul” to unlock a new Fusion monster requires that Yuri defeat it in one-on-one combat — something which isn’t normally too difficult, but which often proves to be a good test of what the player has learned about the combat system.

On the whole, Shadow Hearts is a solid JRPG from an era where developers were just starting to come to terms with what the PS2 could do and how it could distinguish itself from its predecessor. Consequently, the game feels rather like a PS1 game with somewhat better visuals, but it’s well worth playing in its own right, and particularly if you plan on enjoying the majesty of its wonderful sequel.

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Compared to its low-poly, blocky, relatively “primitive”-looking predecessor, Shadow Hearts: Covenant will doubtless prove to be a pleasant surprise if you ever give it a go. Aside from a stubborn refusal to even contemplate the possibility of widescreen displays, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of that rare breed — a PS2 title that actually still looks pretty good even in this HD age.

Ditching the pre-rendered backdrops in favor of a fully-3D environment (albeit one from fixed camera angles) makes the whole game considerably more “cinematic” — and makes it feel a lot more like “a PS2 game”. The character models, too, are packed with detail and full of life. Also, they have really nice hair. Seriously!

Shadow Hearts: Covenant picks up where the bad ending of the previous game left off. As previously noted, I say “bad,” but in practice it’s the ending that most people would have got, given that the “good” ending had some seriously obtuse requirements.

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I shan’t spoil the exact circumstances of that ending because it’s ultimately not actually that relevant — Covenant stands by itself as a story, though those who already know the characters will doubtless have a greater appreciation of it.

Like its predecessor, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is set in the period around World War I. One of the lead characters — Karin, who graces the game’s cover art — is, in fact, a German officer, though this ceases to be in any way relevant after about the first hour or so of gameplay, and her rather stylish yet sexy outfit for the majority of the game will also probably help you conveniently forget it’s supposed to be the early days of the 20th century.

The story revolves around the previous game’s protagonist Yuri and his attempts to track down the faction of evil sorcerers known as Sapientes Gladio, who just happen to have cursed him and caused him to lose all the fusion monsters he had acquired by the end of the first Shadow Hearts.

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Along the way, Yuri and his gang of increasingly-bizarre companions inadvertently recruit Princess Anastasia Romanov into their group, and end up, among other things, fighting Rasputin, who is actually an evil wizard. Well, that explains a few things.

The admirable thing about Shadow Hearts: Covenant, much as with its predecessor but to a much greater degree, is how straight it plays it all. Its premise, characters and ongoing plot are utterly ridiculous on paper — there is no getting away from that fact — but it takes it all so beautifully seriously throughout that you can’t help but become enraptured in what’s going on. Even when “what’s going on” is trained wrestler/vampire character Joachim battling his way up a tower of wrestling rings stacked atop each other and populated by semi-naked gentlemen wearing plates of curry on their head. I know, right?

Yes, somehow, despite its inherent bizarreness, Shadow Hearts: Covenant manages to spin a completely coherent tale that is fun, entertaining and emotionally engaging throughout. You genuinely care about these characters, as odd as they are, and want to see them succeed in their efforts to make the world a better place.

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The other reason you will want to see the game through to the end is its excellent combat system, which remains consistently fun throughout the whole game. Loosely based on the timing-based “Judgement Ring” system from the original game, Shadow Hearts: Covenant’s battle system features a much wider variety of attacks, combos, a new importance on tactically positioning your characters and physics.

That’s right, physics — each monsters has one of several “weights” and thus responds differently to various types of attack. Light monsters can be knocked up into the air easily and then pummeled repeatedly on the way down, for example, while you’re probably better off trying to knock a heavy monster to the ground and then laying the smack down while they’re trying to get back up.

One of the big draws of the battle system is that every character has their own little quirks and unique features. Yuri has his monster fusion abilities as before; Karin has a variety of dramatic, flourishing swordplay attacks; Gepetto (yes, as in Pinocchio) has a puppet he can power up by collecting “Stud Cards” and giving them to the flamboyantly homosexual pair of tailors who inexplicably precede the party on their travels around the globe. Other party members gain in power by everything from engaging in battle against various wolves scattered in hard-to-reach locations around the world to learning new aromatherapy recipes or taking photographs of enemies.

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To say too much more about Shadow Hearts: Covenant would be to destroy some of the thrill of discovering its many deranged layers for yourself — the increasingly-surreal conversations with the “Ring Soul” over the course of the game are best left unspoiled, for example — so I shall simply leave it with this: Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of the best JRPGs you will ever spend time with. If you have not yet played it, do so. Don’t feel obliged to play Shadow Hearts first, though you’ll have a greater sense of context and appreciation for the characters if you do.

Just… make sure you play it. Because not long after starting to play it, you will start to understand why that one friend everyone seems to have who loves the Shadow Hearts series has been ranting and raving at you to play it for the last few years.


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!

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