The story of my getting Shadows Hearts is unusual to say the least. Usually I buy a game because I've heard good stuff about it on the net or because I played it at E3. The story of me and Shadow Hearts began with me going into the local video game store to do a little window shopping. I spotted Shadow Hearts because of the distinctive realistic anime-style CG used for the two main characters on the cover. It was obviously a Japanese game, but the publisher was Midway. I didn't know they translated Japanese games, let alone RPGs, which Shadow Hearts looked to be. Stranger still, I had never even heard of this game.
Being leery of buying any sort of game Midway would put out (they're not exactly known for their RPGs), I put the game back on the shelf and went home. But somehow, I remembered that strange RPG I had never heard of and wanted to know more about it. As luck would have it, my brother had a subscription to PSM running at the time and I picked up the issue where they reviewed Shadow Hearts. It looked promising, with above average marks, but otherwise gave little more information than I already had (which was just the stuff on the box).
Next I had gotten a 10% coupon from Best Buy and so went video game shopping. It was February 2002 and I found myself in the Playstation2 aisle pondering between two games. Final Fantasy X or Shadow Hearts. One was sure to be decent, the other was a gamble. I still didn't know crap about Shadow Hearts other than it might not be a total waste of money. I decided to gamble. I reasoned that Final Fantasy X would be around for a long time to come, but if I didn't get Shadow Hearts then I probably never would.
Man, am I glad I did.
In the old 16-bit days there was a time when I would beat a game and then, feeling pretty pleased with myself, I would immediately start the game all over again for a second time through. The last time I did that was before I graduated high school... until Shadow Hearts. I don't know a person who's played it who didn't like it, but it's gotten such little press it's a pity more people don't know about it. And actually, it's the playing over again that's the reason this piece of flame bait is going up now rather than March of last year when I finished it for the first time. I actually got within nine hours of finishing the game when I had to leave for a vacation I had already planned and I knew once I left I wouldn't be able to get back into the game right away.
Shadow Hearts uses something called the Judgment Ring system in all its combats. Basically, a spinner goes once around a ring and the player has to tap the controller at the appropriate time in order to execute the attack. Special critical areas on the ring are even tinier than the usual wedge needed to execute an attack, but reward the player with 10% more damage. Because my reflexes aren't that great to begin with, I had to train myself to get used to the rhythm of the attacks. If I don't keep in practice I forget, which made starting over again very difficult, especially as late in the game as I had gotten (because the size of the hit wedges is smaller).
But eventually I found I could not move on to another PS2 game without at least finishing Shadow Hearts, so finish I did.
Despite liking Shadow Hearts so much, there are some flaws to the game. I've never been a fan of non-intuitive gameplay and Shadow Hearts actually sports two endings, a good one and a bad one. I don't mind having that distinction as long as it's possible for a player like me to figure out how to get the good ending (since that generally requires a little extra work or intuition). The first time I played the game I got the bad ending. No surprise there. The second time I set out with a FAQ to get the good ending. And I can see why I didn't get the good ending. It's a lot of work. The first thing one needs for the good ending is to read the Oath Grail. No problem there. I got and read it my first time around. The second thing is to fight all the masks. And this I would not have had a clue how to do on my own.
Early in the game Yuri's malice meter goes up as he fights enemies and if he doesn't clean out the malice, Fox Face (representative of his greatest fear), will come and get him. So I made sure to always clean out the malice before Fox Face came like a good little player. After all, I didn't want to needlessly put Yuri in danger. In the second half of the game, Alice makes a bargain and so the malice meter switches over to her. But I kicked Alice out of my party partway through the second half of the game because I found Halley to be a better healer (since she didn't know Arc yet) and a better fighter. So my malice quit going up. And on top of that, even if it did go up, I would have cleaned it out before I ran into the red.
Of course, to get the good ending, you must get it into the red and keep it there long enough to run into each of the four masks (who are the new pursuers instead of Fox Face) so you can defeat them and weaken the mandatory fight with Atman later on (who will otherwise automatically win). The third step involves looking at Alice's grave in the graveyard before the Atman fight, which I might or might not have done anyway. It would have taken some luck to get it when I was supposed to have, but it's something I might have gotten on my own a second time through.
So I did all that and got the good ending the second time around. And I'd have to say that I really like Shadow Hearts's ending whether it's good or bad. It's very sweet seeing Yuri and Alice riding together on the train to see her mother in Zurich. I can't say I've ever seen a more lovely train ride. In the bad ending, after the credits are over, Yuri wakes to discover that Alice is dead beside him, because she sacrificed her own soul so that he could live. In the good ending his animation is the same until he looks at her, then she wakes up and smiles to him. It's as if for a moment as the viewer I wasn't sure she was going to come back, but she did.
Shadow Hearts also pulls a story trick in the end I like very much because it's almost the same trick I was going to do myself for an amateur RPG I was working on with some friends. Unlike most RPGs, Shadow Hearts takes place in the real world, specifically the year 1913 (though it would appear that by the end of the game it is now 1914). And there are lots of little historical details sprinkled throughout the story, such as the Japanese military presence in China, the earthquake in Shanghai, and even the "famous" spy Margarete Gertrude Zelle (though she is nothing like her historical counterpart).
The primary villain of the story is a man who has lived for centuries and seen the depths of human suffering. Albert Simon seeks to call down an otherworldly god (along the lines of Cthulu) to cleanse the world and bring a new age of peace. He can't understand why people would want to live through a terrible winter when they can enjoy an endless summer. But when Yuri and his friends defeat him he comes to realize that perhaps humanity can endure the winter, with spirits like theirs.
In the end, after the credits and music fade, a stark black and white image comes on screen. It tells of how in 1914 the archduke of the Hungarian-Austrian Empire is assassinated and in summer of that year the world is plunged into the Great War. It sent chills down my spine. I just love how the writers tied Simon's prophecy with World War I. It's very similar to what I planned to do with the Eight Eyes of Salvation game I had worked on, which would have forecast the coming of the atomic bomb and ended with an epilogue leading into World War II.
Plotwise, Shadow Hearts does have a few weaknesses. Early in the story it's established that Alice is something special. The Japanese army wants her. Dehuai wants her. Roger Bacon wants her. But later in the story she's abruptly no longer important, because the villain has found a good substitute for her. The mystic power she displays in one of the opening movies never comes back again and she becomes just another character. And interestingly enough, her substitute is neither light-aligned, like her, nor dark-aligned. She's fire element. I'm not sure how that's supposed to work.
Though at this point I have not played Koudelka, I knew that Shadow Hearts is a sequel to it. Koudelka did not fair well in the US, but I was supremely pleased to see what few references to the previous game I got. Learning that Koudelka herself was the voice guiding Yuri in the first half of the game was one of the best surprises I could have ever gotten.
Unfortunately, while the smaller text-based scenes were very good, the cut-scenes could have used a lot of work. The CG ones were very stiff (though they did some really good blood in the opening movie) and I actually liked the in game character models better than the ones used in the movies. Also the dubbing left something to be desired. Some of the cast was okay, but the rest ranged from middling to inappropriate. Part of the problem was that a lot of the Japanese voice clips (those that were only a quick word or two during combat moves) were left in the game. When Albert Simon speaks in combat, he uses his Japanese voice, which is very deep and forbidding. However his English VA sounds very elderly and proper, and possibly even an entire octave higher. Alice and Halley are matched very well, but Margarete goes up an octave when she throws her grenades. Keith, who probably speaks in one cut-scene and that's about it, has a horrible stereotypical vampire accent. Yuri and Zhuzhen are okay, but not outstanding. Yuri does okay in his narrations, but his combat voice and his cut scene voice don't quick match, however he's rarely in a position where they come into conflict. Thankfully Alice, who has the most narrations, is a good speaker. It's actually kinda scary that her VA is the same woman who voices Ash in Pokemon. If you didn't know, you honestly couldn't guess. (And if I remember right, Yuri is voiced by the guy who does Brock and James.)
There are basically three types of cut scenes in Shadow Hearts. There's the CG, the pseudo-live action (used twice in China and then never again), and the sepia-tinged monochrome stills. The fake live action ones were terrible because they essentially amounted to long-winded storytelling which the player absolutely can't skip. The actors probably did the best they could, but their narrations ultimately blew chunks. I would rather have read all that information in a dialogue box. The black on sepia monochrome stills were the best, since the simplistic 2D artwork could evoke imagery that CG would drown in its many colors and variations.
Another thing that bothered me about the game is its teeny tiny font. The dialogue font is nice and big and easy to read, but the font used for all the menus and the items is very thin, perhaps too thin than should be used for a game played on a TV screen (not known for its superior resolution). The typeface also seems to shake every so slightly sometimes, but that could just be my imagination. On occasions this had made it difficult to read number values in combat or made me squint while trying to read something on the menu.
But most of the faults I can live with, which is the important thing. If they had been fixed that would've been great, but they don't amount to something that would break that game. The only thing I could see someone really complaining out would be the Judgment Ring system. The reflex-challenged would have a harder time with the game, and I know some players don't like repetitive button-pushing in combat.
Still, I found out only earlier this week that a Shadow Hearts sequel is in the works. Supposedly it will be out in Japan by the end of the year. I can't say how much I'm hoping that will be picked up for US distribution. There's still a lot of potential the designers could dig into without undermining the original story, and that's more than I can say for most RPGs.