Shadow Hearts: Covenant

Year Released in US: 2004
System: Playstation2

This is probably the only game I've tracked so extensively ever since its announcement. The instant the Japanese web site went live I became a weekly visitor (they updated almost every Friday so that became Shadow Hearts day for me). I downloaded all the official Japanese promo trailers, rotated various Shadow Hearts II wallpapers on my computer at work, and read whatever bits of Japanese I could off the site. The first free moment I had at E3 2004 went to playing the Shadow Hearts: Covenant demo.

So yeah, to say I was eagerly anticipating Shadow Hearts II (aka Covenant) is a bit of an understatement, and being such an intimately-related sequel, to the point that it shares the same main character and references numerous events in the first game, it has a lot to live up to. Surprisingly, it does quite well, though I doubt there will ever be a Shadow Hearts III given the two endings. The first Shadow Hearts game was regarded as a sequel to Koudelka by some, though personally I thought of it as being more of a spin-off, but after finishing Shadow Hearts II I'd have to say that the two SH games are really their own series. They take place in the same world as Koudelka, but story-wise they have far too much in common with each other than Koudelka. Shadow Hearts II is a direct continuation and conclusion of the first Shadow Hearts game. It's like the difference between season one and season two of a TV series and having a spin-off of a TV series. Even if the same characters of the two Shadow Hearts games go on to do other things in a new RPG, I think there's a fair chance the developers will give that game a new title since Yuri's storyline is potentially complete.

As a sequel, there were certain things I was expecting and others I didn't. Being developed so closely afterwards and on the same platform, Shadow Hearts II has the benefit of being able to draw on much of the previous game's gameplay elements, even the occasional cinematic, without seeming dated and while taking advantage of improvements in technology and graphics to fine-tune what's already available. And by using the same creative team and especially the same set of composers, there's a lot of the original game in Shadow Hearts II; whether it's something as silly as the return of the lottery, pedometer prizes, and thought bubbles that display people's emotions, or the key few notes of the ICARO theme woven into a new melody that any fan of the first game would recognize in an instant.

One thing that really got me when I first started playing the sequel is that it wasn't as dark and scary as the first game. The first major event in the first game, aside from Yuri meeting Alice, is the two of them finding a creepy village full of what appears to be cannibals (actually vengeful cat spirits). All the enemies had creepy stories behind them, whether it's the spirit of a mother cat who fights for the vengeance of her drowned kittens or a monk being punished for sins it commited in life. The second game, especially in the first third to half, is less imaginative in its enemies. They still have stories behind them, but it's a little more trying when you're reading about young thugs who got fat for lack of exercise. Nearly all the monsters in the first game were horrific enough to account for the characters continually losing a point of sanity each round of combat while fighting them. Now the sanity loss seems out of place, especially when the human enemies don't experience the same loss of sanity when they see Yuri turn into a demon. Most of the earlier enemies aren't weird enough in Shadow Hearts II, and especially not when Yuri and party are fighting common thugs. The only time they fought human enemies in the first game involved humans who were dabbling in the dark arts and could be considered tainted by them. But these here in Shadow Hearts II were just common thugs! It didn't make sense or feel like Shadow Hearts at all, and for me it certainly was the low point of the game.

Fortunately, the game picks up steam after that, and I think that newcomers to the series probably wouldn't even notice the early segment of the story as being much of a problem. It's just for me I found three dungeons in a row going from where Yuri was cursed to Roger Bacon's place overly much. Typically overland travel in Shadow Hearts happens in an instant, so when it doesn't, it's a bit irritating. The reasons why it didn't happen in an instant is because of two particular events that the designers wanted the player to see; meeting Kato again for the first time since the last game and meeting Joachim so he could join the party, and of course you have to separate plot points with dungeons, but when the dungeons are only tangentially related to the plot at hand, it makes them much less interesting. I think it would have been very easy to have combined meeting Joachim and Kato into a single location so as to streamline the plot and cut out the otherwise uninteresting wine cellar dungeon with its thugs.

Also, the early dungeons are very corridor-driven and I found some of early dungeons (actually the the third, fourth, and fifth dungeons) very irritating because of that. They felt very claustrophic and maze-like for no good reason. I went from an abandoned train tunnel, to the narrow corriders of a wine cellar, to a mineshaft. It got better later on, particular once I found the Sapientes Gladio hideout near Florence. Now that was when the game started to feel like Shadow Hearts; a weird building housing a secret society, creepy clues, secret elevators, and monsters with such twisted descriptions as being that of a woman who had died horribly during childbirth.

It doesn't help that the musical score is a bit lacking in the early part of the game, where the best tunes are those that recall hints of the original's. Later on there are more memorable melodies, such as Nicolai's battle theme "Astaroth" (my favorite boss music in the entire game); "The Fate," played when Kato brings out the final dungeon; and the ending theme "Getsurenka," sung from Karin's point of view if I'm not mistaken, is by far one of the most poignant in a game. While part of me is glad that Midway decided not to translate it, I think that they could have pulled it off and still sounded good--or at least some subtitles would have been nice.

Granted, Shadow Hearts: Covenant has the worst subtitles I've ever seen. It seems like 80% of the time they don't even match. They have the same basic meaning and sometimes it's only a word or two off, but it's as though the actors were using one script and the person inputing the text in the game itself was using another. For someone who relies heavily on subtitles while playing a game this can be extremely irritating. The translators, who probably did not have the benefit of watching a cut scene to see how the lines of dialogue would appear on screen, could've used some help parsing out the sentences. There are a few times when a sentence in a line of dialogue is broken up by a lengthy pause while something else happens on screen and then the character starts talking again. Usually what happens is that the first two or three words of the sentence the character has yet to say appear on screen early, attached to the last thing he/she said, and then they disappear long before the sentence is actually spoken and the rest of the subtitles appear on screen.

For the most part though (niggling differences in subtitles' word choice aside), the translation was pretty good. There's always a risk when dealing with multiple languages in a game, because not only does the Japanese to English translator need to know Japanese and English, but they need to be able to properly romanize (or translate) the foreign names as well. For instance, there's an area in the game called the Black Forest. In the Japanese version of the game this area is called the "Schwartzwald," only it's written in katakana. I know it's Schwartzwald and that's it's spelled that way in roman letters because I studied German. Because I studied German I also know that Schwartzwald means "Black Forest" so I'm perfectly fine with the use of "Black Forest" in the US translation. And actually, as far as the American audience goes, they're probably more likely to have heard of the real world forest by the translated name Black Forest instead of the Schwartzwald a native German would use.

That is a case where the translators did a fine job with handling a name that is neither English nor Japanese. But whoever did Karin's special skill names did not know German. He or she knew enough to make the names look like a rough approximation of German, but not enough to actually spell them right. For instance, I'm sure Heuerwelk looks perfectly fine to the untrained eye, but it should be Feuer-something. I can understand the f/h confusion happening through the romanji, but it should be "Feuer-" because it's a fire skill and "feuer" means "fire" in German. I'm really not sure what "welk" was supposed to be other than I'm pretty sure it's wrong. "Welk" is an adjective and it means "wilted" or "shriveled." "Fire-wilted/Fire-shriveled" is not exactly a flattering skill name and that's not really what the spell looks like anyway. :P She has another attack, Geuschbenst, that I'm pretty sure is supposed to be Gespenst, which means "ghost," and the "fogel" in "Bullenfogel" is likely supposed to be "vogel" or "bird." (The German "v" is pronounced like an "f" in English.)

Gameplay-wise Shadow Hearts II is very polished, improving on the Judgement Ring system of the original to make it easier for novices to hit the strike areas while also offering alternatives for more adept players who wish to push their skill in exchange for the possibility of greater damage. The combo system took a bit of getting used to and I still feel like I haven't gotten all the kinks out of it yet, but it adds a bit of flavor to combat and though the characters typically run willy-nilly all over the map, the possibility of accidentally hitting enemies close enough that they can combo can sometimes give pause to an attack or cause the player to switch priorities so they can interrupt the enemy combo chain before it can take off. Also, the party size has been upped to four, which I find nice since three seems too small for me. It's also possible to change members almost on the fly now instead of having to reorganize everybody at the inn or some other home base location.

I just had one gameplay issue that was almost enough to make me go check a FAQ online, except that I was really stubborn and didn't want to. I don't mind puzzles. In fact, I love puzzles. The Doll House sidequest was great. But I dislike it when a puzzle is misleading. I wasted a good hour or so on the Battleship Mikasa trying to figure out how I was going to get a second key for the doors. I had found the sets of doors marked numbers 1-4. I had found the terminals that would open those sets of doors. I had found Key #1 and unlocked door set #1. I ran all over the place looking for Key #2 (or 3, or 4). What took me what felt like forever to realize, and only had done as an act of desperation, was that I could use Key #1 to unlock door set #2! The numbers don't need to match! The keys are one size fits all! No one tells the player this ahead of time. There is a sailor who says that there are four keys but only two are necessary to get through the entire ship, but it's not possible to talk to him until after figuring out that the keys are one size fits all.

The graphics are really where the game shines though. I'm just amazed that Nautilus managed to pull a game so cinematic out of their back pocket. I don't know where they got the resources for it. Granted the first game sold well enough in Japanese to be a part of The Best series, equivalent to the Greatest Hits in the US, but even after that it must have taken some serious cash to pony up for the voices and animations for all those cut scenes. Like in Final Fantasy X, they make use of three types of scenes. There is the the one using the regular game models set to unspoken text, real time rendered animations using higher detailed sprites with voiceovers, and then pre-rendered CG movies, which are used sparing and typically at the most dramatic moments. Oddly enough, my primary complaint is that the game sometimes chops its events in a fashion that a player will get a long cut scene, have the run of an area for a short bit, and then thirty seconds to ten minutes later (depending on how quickly the player does his/her business), another cut scene plays. It just seems that sometimes the second scene could have easily have been combined with the first to make for a longer scene, instead of having the player play for a short period of time and then get yanked into another cut scene so quickly. It's a little bothersome for the player to have to shift between mindsets for something like that; especially if the medium is partially spent running through a list of chores to do before getting ready for the next plot point only to find that the next plot point is a lot closer than anticipated.

I'm somewhat divided on whether or not I like the story of Shadow Hearts II. On the one hand, the story does a good job of pulling on the emotions so that it's easy to sympathize with Yuri and Karin, who are probably the only two party members well-developed enough to grow and possess joys and sorrows strong enough to reach the player. On the other, Shadow Hearts II seems to throw historical accuracy to the winds even more so than the previous game. In the first game, Margarete's cell phone was a bit annoying and some of the main characters are not in period-appropriate dress, but they were minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. They didn't directly affect the plot or the course of a major event in history.

In Shadow Hearts II, Rasputin is the major villain for most of the first story arc. And that's fine. When I was considering running a Shadow Hearts IRC RPG (before the second game came out), I was going to set it during World War I and make use of Rasputin as a side villain. He's a natural fit for the era, especially in a story involving occult magic. But what I didn't like in this game is that Rasputin's death is fairly well documented--it's not like he vanished and was never heard from again--so I was wondering how the game would handle defeating him since he wasn't supposed to have died until 1916, a year after Shadow Hearts II begins.

It turns out the game doesn't care and even has Rasputin raise a giant citadel out of the ground that the whole bloody capital of Russia can see! At that point I could no longer look at this game as something that could have slipped into the annals of history unnoticed because most people don't believe in or are unaware of the fantastic side of reality. It's outright alternate history, and if the designers ever did a sequel they would begin moving farther and farther away from history and into the realm of pure fantasy.

I also disliked intensely the way they chose to bring back Albert Simon in this game. It's not that he comes back to life, but they use him in a rather extensive flashback that completely clashes and whitewashes everything he did in the last game. According to the new flashback material, Albert Simon was only trying to remake the work to stop Rasputin, so Rasputin was the real bad guy all along. (Interestingly enough, Nicolai was originally supposed to kill Simon with the Mistletoe instead of Yuri, but I didn't have a problem with that part of the story.) What I had a problem with, aside from the fact it was the usual "Well, if you thought this guy was bad, here's someone even worse" comparison, was the Simon was portrayed as being an otherwise good guy who was at the end of his rope and felt he had no other choice. The flashback completely ignored everything bad he had done in the first game. Shanghai burned and orphan children were sacrificed to a madman through his indirect manipulations. Shadow Hearts II completely ignores that. And in any case it just doesn't fit because the time period that Albert Simon was supposedly a good guy was so recent and Simon is several centuries old. A person's opinions don't change overnight and the Simon of Shadow Hearts had been with a chip on his shoulder for quite a while.

Shadow Hearts II has an odd story format that's uncommon in RPGs. In a way that's something it picked up from its predecessor, having the story split up in two parts by a major event and ending a major story arc by way of it, but the second story arc is less defined, made up of smaller mini-arcs that serve to lead up to the final confrontation. In that way Shadow Hearts II behaves more like a serial TV show than a traditional RPG. Indeed, because of the vastly increased number of cinematics, sometimes it did feel more like a TV show than a game, but it would have been a show I would have been happy watching. Unlike some video game cinematics where I'm just waiting for it to be over with so I can start playing again, I think I could have been happy watching the majority of the Shadow Hearts II cinematics if they had been expanded into a TV series.

The fact the story gets less focused in the second half is very odd, with enemies seemingly all over the place and being taken out in the exact opposite order expected. Once I learned of Minister Ishimura's plans and Kato's experiments on Nicolai, and Nicolai's subsequent transformation into Astaroth, I figured that Astaroth would be the last boss. It was an easy assumption since Astaroth is portrayed as being equal to Albert Simon's (now Yuri's) Amon and Rasputin's Asmodeus, and Astaroth certainly makes a mess of things when he's let loose. And yet he's taken out quite quickly after he does so, leaving Kato and Ishimura as the remaining concerns, and quite earthly ones since they are human and have not made dangerous pacts with demons. Ishimura is dealt with without killing him or entirely removing him from power. (I suspect that he's a real life figure, because it shouldn't be too difficult to look up the name of Japan's foreign minister during that time period and departing from the history probably every Japanese schoolkid grew up with is likely harder than departing from Russian history.) That leaves Kato as the final remaining enemy, and what a trip from loyal henchman to powerful badass he had!

I had felt sorry for Kato in the first game because he loved his superior officer, but you got the impression that it was difficult for him to express it, so he didn't get the chance to tell her how he really felt before she was executed by her own military. In this game he manages to clone his beloved Yoshiko Kawashima (and like a true clone Ouka has no memory of the Kawashima she originated from), but she dies on him as well. Her death hits hard not because of any attachment the player may have for Ouka, but because we know what Kato has gone through before and that he has now lost Yoshiko all over again. (And as a side note: I can say how happy I am to know that magic was used to age the Kawashima clone to adulthood. I hate instant clones created by "science" that don't have to do any aging.) Kato's desire to create a better world is not all that different from Albert Simon's but it's made palatable because we know Kato. He is both friend and enemy and even in the end Yuri still respects him, which is a far cry from most games where the final enemy is either evil incarnate or had become twisted enough to become close to it. Kato's desire to go back in time and remake the world starting a hundred years in the past, before the war-minded leaders of the early 20th century have been born, could be viewed as a noble one except that the world isn't exactly being offered a choice about it.

One thing that really bothered me about the second half of the game was that Nicolai seemed woefully underused. Kato taking him to Japan served as the primary bridge between the two halves of the story, but once there Nicolai barely gets to do anything since he's held prisoner in an experiment to extract Astaroth from him. He basically gets to scream a lot until Astaroth emerges from his subconsciousness. (And I would have to say that Nicolai would have made a better rival for Yuri than Rasputin because Nicolai was in control of Astaroth, whereas Rasputin had been consumed by Asmodeus. If not for being tortured to the point he lost his sense of self, I'm not sure that Astaroth would have ever emerged unchecked.) When Astaroth is defeated Nicolai reverts back to himself and the first word out of his mouth is Karin's name, but then he sees Yuri and tries to kill him. Kato intervenes though and in retaliation Nicolai tries to kill him, but Ouka gets in the way and is killed instead, and of course that makes Kato mad. Nicolai has one of the more wince-worthy deaths in a cut scene, with Kato crushing his skull with his bare hand (off-camera, but the sound effect is sickening enough) as Nicolai screams out Karin's name with his last breath. Bad enough when a guy you don't like is calling your name in the first place, but to know you're the last thing he's thinking of when he's about to die?

I don't know if Nicolai was calling to her for help or in regret, or something else entirely, but his death was disappointing for me. Other than an apparently optional cut scene I found in Petrograd, his fascination with Karin wasn't played out to the extent I would have liked it. In fact, he seemed to run hot and cold. When he first parts ways with her he suggests that he would have liked her on his side, and at other points in the story his fellow villains comment that he has a thing for Karin, but at the same time when he actually captures everybody and takes the Émigré Manuscript from Yuri he doesn't bother to separate out Karin from the rest of the captives and leaves her for Veronica to do with as she will. It just seems that there was a lot more that could have been done with him and I'm missing that. His own heritage as the bastard son of Russia's Nicholas II, his raising by Rasputin, and his single-minded revenge on behalf of his mother are never fleshed out. It can only be inferred that Nicolai wanted to become czar of Russia because his mother was cast out by his father and he wants to claim what he believes is rightfully his.

Something else that bothered me was that there were now so many Harmonixers in the game. This game established that Albert Simon was not a natural Harmonixer like Yuri, who inherited the ability naturally from his father, but rather a man who forged a soul pact with a demon in order to gain its power. Rasputin and Nicolai both do the same thing, and now what was initially an intriguing concept feels like an obligatory deal in order to give the player more interesting bosses to fight than an ordinary human. But the straw almost was when the party member Kurando was revealed to be a Harmonixer as well. I wasn't about to stand for having two demon-morphing characters in the same party. That's getting to be overload. Thankfully Kurando is eventually revealed to be Yuri's cousin on his father's side so his Harmonixer abilities can be explained that way, but it's not something the player can see coming from the start. And as a side note, Kurando even also sports the same red eyes as Yuri. I'm not sure if that's just a family trait or something to do with being a Harmonixer. Yuri's Aunt Saki, who is Kurando's mother and sister to Yuri's father, also has the red eyes, and appears to be a Harmonixer as well.

One of the most common things I've seen asked about Shadow Hearts II (after the prospective player finds out which ending of the first game was used) is whether or not it is possible to bring Alice back to life. After fighting so hard to save her in the first game in order to get the good ending, it was natural that players would want Yuri and Alice to be happy together, but I'm not sure that the designers could have written quite as powerful a sequel had she lived. This is possibly the only game I know of where one of the core conflicts within the main protagonist is dealing with his grief, and it isn't solved by beating someone up and getting revenge.

I was so sure that Alice would not ever come back to life that when Roger Bacon told Yuri that he thought it could do it, I was probably just as incredulous as Yuri. After all, everyone else who'd tried had failed horribly. It's a sin against God to try something like that. It's just bad, bad news you don't want to touch with a ten foot pole. But Roger and Yuri try anyway, and they fail. Immediately afterwords it looks like something awful is going to happen, with slimy residue creeping up the sides of the cylinder holding the body they were preparing for Alice, and I was preparing myself for a boss fight (like happened in the first game and Koudelka when things went wrong), but instead Yuri hears his name, looks up, and sees Alice looking back at him. He says her name and she tells him that she loves him.

When Yuri replies that he loves her too, the developers do something that I haven't seen done before and certainly pushes the boundaries of what I've seen done in computer animation. Yuri's face contorts in grief, not just shedding a few tears, but full of unimaginable longing and sorrow. It's not meant to be pretty. Raw grief never is. I'm not entirely sure the animation works, but the pure emotion is there and the situation so unexpected that the player is caught off guard as badly as Yuri. If you want a good cry in an RPG, this scene is it.

Naturally this does mean that Shadow Hearts II will not mean as much to people who haven't played the first game and have not had a chance to know Alice. The game itself does a fair job of using flashback to acquaint the new player with Alice and Yuri's history with her, but it doesn't cover everything. For instance, I'm not sure it's ever mentioned that Yuri met Alice in China, so some of the impact of the final scene of the good ending might be lost on those players. Midway did a good job with the North American release in offering the first game free to those who pre-order. Aside from getting the word out about a good RPG that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle, it's a wonderful bonus to those who missed out on the first game.

As I played through the story, the curse that struck Yuri towards the beginning of the game, came up time and again. We know it's killing him and before the story is halfway through Yuri already knows that the curse will eventually devour his memories and leave him a monster. He's told repeatedly that there's no cure and yet because of more pressing concerns, his curse rarely rises to the forefront unless his enemies use it against him, which ends with Nicolai's death. In most games if the hero is told no, nothing can be done, he finds a way. That's what greater-than-life heroes do. But though Yuri's abilities are larger than life, his personality is quite human, which is what makes playing him such a pleasure.

This time when the player is told there is no cure, there really is no cure. Yuri himself realizes how close he is to dying when he visits the final door in the Graveyard of his soul and discovers Alice waiting for him in the memory of the train car she had died on. At first their conversation is awkward. He apologizes for trying to bring her back to life and says that if God would grant him one wish it would be to go back to the day they first met. Alice replies sweetly that they could then go on their adventure again, but that she's not going anywhere anymore. At that moment it dawns on Yuri that the reason he's seeing her now is because he's so close to the edge himself that he's the one who's leaving--not her.

There are two endings to this game and which one the player gets is determined by a single choice Yuri makes in the final dungeon. He can either say that his happiness is living his own way or living peacefully. Now, if the player knows anything about Yuri, the first option is a shoe-in to be selected. And that's the path to the good ending. It's that simple; which leads me to think that it's the ending that's meant to be selected, because it's the easiest for the player to wind up with, and why I think Shadow Hearts III, story-wise, appears to be an improbability.

In the end, the characters defeat Kato in a warp space where he was trying to alter the flow of time. The only way to escape it is for the characters to pray for the world they want. As they do one by one they float away to safety; everyone but Yuri. Yuri remains behind, knowing that his time is up, and there he dies, because in dying that is the only way he can remain himself and not lose his memories, defeating the Mistletoe curse by denying it its victory. Though seeing Yuri actually die on screen is something of a shock, the aftermath of the ending is beautiful. The sleeping version of himself embedded in the Mistletoe trunk in the Graveyard wakes up to meet the ghost of Alice and we know that they are at last together again. (I almost have to wonder if one of the story writers was a woman because I had no idea that the ending would be so tragically romantic. It's so atypical of an RPG!) Also, the very, very final scene of the ending, after the credits have rolled and we've seen the fates of all the other party members, Yuri wakes up in a field in Southern Manchuria, China, the year 1913, and dressed in his outfit from the first Shadow Hearts. He worries that he's going to be late and runs down to a train stop. A familiar music begins to play and we know that on that train will be Alice and the adventure is about to begin again. Somehow, Yuri got his wish, and I couldn't ask for a better ending given the story of this character.

Karin's story is a bit weirder though. She ostensibly joined Yuri's quest to avenge the death of her subordinate soldiers at the hands of Sapientes Gladio, but remained beyond that because of her growing attraction to Yuri. Admittedly I had a hard time getting myself to like her when the ads kept pairing her with Yuri. It just didn't seem right for a presumably still-mourning Yuri to be jumping into a relationship with another woman and I'm glad it didn't turn out that way. (Though I still hate Karin's body-hugging outfit.) Once I got past my initial negative impressions, I'm fine with Karin, and her love for Yuri is definitely one-sided. I think Yuri could have loved her if he wasn't already in love with Alice, but Karin instead winds up with an extremely bizarre fate in the end. While everyone else (except Yuri) seems to wind up back when they're supposed to belong, Karin appears in 1887, unconscious, where Yuri's father Jinpachiro (or Ben in the original game :P) finds her and the photo she had carried of him, his wife Anne, and their three-year-old son Yuri (dated 1893). The ending is the first time that the player finally gets a look at the photo and the reason that the player is not shown it directly before this very moment is because Karin is Anne and you see her in the photo.

There are clues along the way supporting how Karin could be Anne, perhaps the most obvious being Yuri telling Karin that I thinks his mother had named him after her first love (which was him!). Yuri conveniently can't remember his mother's face during that conversation either, but I think that may be part of the Mistletoe's curse on him. Yuri spares her alone out of all the soldiers at the beginning of the game, and looking back on it, he probably did so because she looked like his mother. Given that Karin is Anne and the time period she would wake up in, it would be reasonable that she might pass herself off as being Russian instead of German, and Anne's as good a name as any. (Oddly enough, this can also explain why earlier in the game Yuri couldn't read a lick of Russian. Karin probably didn't know any to teach him!) There's also that promise in the end and belief on Karin's part that they will meet again. With this crazy time loop thing Yuri is breaking the promise from his perspective, but Karin would see him again as her son. How twisted is that? But at least Karin going back in time to become Anne explains how Anne wound up meeting Jinpachiro in Japan. I had thought during the first game that he must have met her on the continent during one of Japan's many conflicts with Russia, but Shadow Hearts II places their meeting in Japan, which is an odd place for a foreign woman to show up and meet her future love.

While playing through the game I was surprised that Anne didn't show up in any flashbacks, even though Jinpachiro had one and pictures of the younger version of him are not entirely infrequent. He also shows up in the Library's Characters section. However Anne never appears. Obviously, she couldn't because otherwise the designers would be forced to give away the strong suggestion that Karin looks like Yuri's mother. Karin doesn't look much like what I remember of Anne in the first game though, but then, neither does Jinpachiro, so perhaps that is not of much consequence.

In the end, though Shadow Hearts II does things so much better than the original, I'm not sure that I really like it more. I'm not even sure I like it equally. It's still head and shoulders ahead of most other RPGs, but it just seems to be missing that certain spark that could have made it blow me away.