Looking Back on… Shadow Hearts (Sony Playstation 2)

SHADOW HEARTS
Console: PS2.
Genre: Role-playing.
Developer: Sacnoth.
Publisher: Midway. (Aah, Shadow Hearts, probably one of my favorite modern JRPG’s in existence. It’s weird, I generally dislike the series as a whole, but I love this specific game because it actually allows for a happy and relatively understandable ending that the franchise itself wasn’t willing to even try at. The second game still had a good ending, but it was such a convoluted mess, and the game hemorrhaged fans to the point that no one bought it, and the third game ended up being brought over by XSEED rather than Midway. The developer ended up being merged into Aruze, who dissolved the development team, and much of the team went to feelplus, which was a part of AQ Interactive, who themeselves then merged into Marvelous, which is arguably the only company in that list who ever developed a good game that wasn’t named Shadow Hearts. Well, Moon Diver was okay.)

For me, there’s a point in every game where it hooks me; where it takes an holy act of god to pry my sweaty little palms from the controller, because I feel as though I NEED to complete this game. Sometimes that comes from being enthralled with the game and it’s mechanics; other times, from the realization that I PAID MONEY for this pile of crap, and goddammit, I’m gonna see it through. (Sometimes, I just do it out of spite, like with Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust.) And sometimes, there’s a frustration point, too; a point where I get so pissed off with the game that I don’t want to play it anymore, ever. (Like in Watch Dogs.) Sometimes that point hits at a particular fight in a game; sometimes I don’t know where to go at a certain point; or sometimes, I just get so FUCKING BORED with what’s going on that I give up. (Also like in Watch Dogs.) Today, we’re going to look at a game that both hooked me and pissed me off to the point I almost didn’t finish it. Today, we look at Shadow Hearts.

Now, I played this game for about eight hours before it pissed me off completely the first (and only) time, but I think it deserves mention here. I had gone into what can essentially be described as a clusterfuck of a maze with my party, only to have them split up and struck down of their powers. (Yeah, that was a really weird sequence in general, come to think of it.) Team 1 was composed of my fighters, who were not allowed to use combat techniques inside battle; IE no spells. Team 2 was my support team, who weren’t allowed to use items inside battle. THEN Team 1 was sent into a NEW section, and was not allowed to use spells OR items in battle. This was essentially two-man teams, fighting against enemies more powerful than I, and the coolest part of the game, the Harmonixer abilities, were stripped from me. (We’ll get to those in a minute.) (That was kind of a thing with Sacnoth; experimental gameplay that sounded cool in theory but sucked dick in practice. Honestly the Shadow Hearts franchise was a fucking miracle, and even then only the first one was truly great.) In short, I was royally fucked. On TOP of that, I was thrust almost immediately after this into battle against a guy who could cast an INSTANT DEATH spell, with no prior warning, AND my healer had just been kidnapped. Needless to say, I died, and had to go have said deathbear slice up on my ass once again.

If that sounds fun to you at all, raise your hand. (I know Alex liked the game so maybe he liked this section? Iunno. Joel didn’t.)

Liar.

So, I put the game down for about a month. I had Final Fantasy X to play, (Which I ultimately loathed the shit out of; we have a reputation of hating FFVII over at DHGF but for my money that game just has a bad plot, FFX fucking sucks a giant floppy moose dick, and I will never not think that.) I had Silent Hill 2 to play, (I’ve come to mellow out a bit on Silent Hill 2 in recent years for its franchise impact, but honestly it’s not my favorite, partly because I enjoyed the more focused narrative of the first and third games, and partly because all of the teams that aren’t Team Silent that make these games now just keep remaking Silent Hill 2. Even the new one, Silent Hills, just looks like it’s going to be an SH2 remake.) I had Onimusha to play, (Which I did, and I enjoyed it.) and I had Metal Gear Solid 2 to play. (Oh man if that isn’t a massive argument against games-as-art I don’t know what is.) Yeah, yeah, I’m a loser, blow me. (I am, but not for that reason.) Anyway, after beating MGS2, SH2 and Onimusha, and after getting SO pissed off at FFX (there will probably never be a true review for said game here, as I will never finish it) (I honestly don’t know why I was pissed off at this point, but I eventually went back to it and did whatever with it, and now I hate it for its God-awful plot.) I returned to Shadow Hearts, China exploded, and I was hooked.

That won’t make sense until you play the game. Deal with it. (I’m pretty sure “China exploded” makes sense even out of context.)

Anyway, the general gist is you’re a guy named Yuri (though you can change his name) (Which I totally did; in Shadow Hearts, though, they’ll actually refer to him by his proper name in cutscenes, which is… amusing. I think the first game that featured renamable protagonists and voice work was probably FFX, which dealt with that issue because no one ever asked Tidus what his name was, which was kind of shitty in retrospect. Persona 3 and 4 handle that a bit better.) who is a Harmonixer that hears voices that tell him to protect people. Fair enough, I suppose… I so love my characters to be psychos. (Technically it was spirits.) Anyway, he is told by said voice to protect a girl named Alice, who he saves from Roger Bacon, a deranged asshole in a top hat who wants to kill him and kidnap her for her attunement to magic energies, and so begins the game. (For reference, Roger Bacon was a real dude, though his involvement in this game is… a lot more complicated than the above.) To answer the obvious questions: A Harmonixer is a person who can summon magical beasts through their body, and can fight as them during battle. Yes, this game is a sequel to Koudelka, another game by Sacnoth, and some characters overlap, IE Roger Bacon. No, Yuri’s not really a psycho. And yes, Yuri and Alice become love interests. (Well jeez asshole, why not just tell them that Roger Bacon really isn’t Roger Bacon while you’re at it? Wait, shit.)

Anyway, the most interesting thing here is the whole overall presentation, and this is what brought me back to this game, and also what hooked me to the game. First off, Yuri is the foil for the entire story, and he fulfills being the center of the game’s universe really well. (I like Yuri a lot now, actually; he was a well developed character who made some fairly clear mistakes but eventually fixed them up and made amends in his own ways, and he ended up being pretty decent, although in the official plotline that gets all whacked out a bit.) All the characters are very well written, and seem genuinely interesting, based solely on their relationships with the outside world and one another. Sacnoth made a good deal of effort to make the relationships real and believable, and it shows off well. The dialogue is well done, as is in-game exposition and storytelling. No parts of the story seem out of place, and the characters’ motivations seem real and believable. The storyline was made first thought, and it shows here. (Well except for the one part of the translation where they took a character who was supposed to be flamboyant in the Japanese version and made that “super gay,” in the US translation, but, details.)

The Harmonixer ability was made an integral part of the story here, and functionally, it’s well done. Yuri can summon the souls of certain beasts he defeats and transform into them in combat, augmenting his abilities greatly. He can summon elemental opposites to the enemies he faces, deal more general damage, and honestly, look seriously badass. (In most forms anyway. Some of them are far less impressive than others.) Unlike most RPG’s, where experience determines how high a spell you get, Yuri earns his summons by defeating random enemies in battle. When he earns enough elemental points, he “levels up” in an element, and can go fight the next elemental beast in the game’s waystation of sorts, The Graveyard. Once defeated, they are added to his arsenal of summons (though he can only have 3 equipped at one time). (Basically the Graveyard is this place in his brain, sort of, where you’d go kick in the heads of monsters when you had earned a new summon, among other things; it was pretty neat, actually, and while everyone else had more conventional leveling systems, Yuri’s was akin to a Persona Velvet Room sort of deal, only more fucked.)

The Graveyard serves other functions, however… see, when you beat enemies, you gain hatred from the spirit world, which manifests itself in a gem called the Malice gem. When you accumulate enough Malice, demonic images assault you in random combat, and generally whip your ass. To combat this, you go to the Graveyard and fight a manifestation of the gained Malice. (A few games have done similar things; Wizardry: Tale of Forsaken Land and Persona 3 did this with Death/The Reaper, but that was based on time spent in the level more than anything, for instance.) Once it is beaten, your Malice goes to zero, and you get an item. Early on, you need to do this rarely at best, but as the game progresses, the need to do so becomes more and more frequent. This is an interesting thing, mainly due to the psychological overtone it adds to the game, which is also enhanced by the Sanity meter.

See, your characters don’t normally DEAL with, y’know, the UNDEAD and shit. So, they have a certain amount of Sanity, which indicates how well they can deal with the situation. When it hits zero, they go Berserk, and generally do as they see fit. (In retrospect, while I liked the Sanity Meter, it only made so much sense, considering you were traveling, at various points, with a vampire and a nearly thousand year old monk.) The more jaded of your characters, like Yuri and Keith, have higher Sanity, as is fitting. (Alice, meanwhile, had shite Sanity as I recall. Keith, for reference, is the vampire.) Most battles end before your Sanity runs out, though enemies can reduce sanity via spells and such. Managing your Sanity is an interesting dynamic that makes sense, given what these people are being exposed to. Imagine seeing a 7 foot tall albino demon with a backwards head and three-foot penis-like thing coming from it’s (Sigh.) midsection, and you tell ME you’d deal with normally. (Yeah, the monsters in this game were… special.)

And finally, we come to the Wheel of Fate. Pat Sajak would be so proud. (Actually he’d probably be offended as fuck but it’s not like I knew he was a fucking whackadoo at this point.) Seriously, though, this is your essential “do shit” tool throughout most of them game. It takes on the “hit the mark form” in battle and most events, where you have to hit a spot correctly to perform an activity. This is usually pretty simple, and you adjust to it very quickly. The other type is the “keep it in the zone” type, where you have to keep the gauge in a certain zone to pass. This is slightly more difficult, but not overwhelming, and for the most part, works well enough. This concept actually made the game very innovative to me, and made the game feel like more than another also-ran game with nothing of note. (Basically, the major benefit of the system was that it made you actively keep your head in the fight in all battles, but in a way that was engaging; you’d have to time your attack button presses to make sure that they, at minimum, hit within the marked areas on the Wheel of Fate, and ideally hit the critical zones for maximum damage. It was an interesting system, though these days I’d honestly just rather play games where I can push a button to fast-forward everything, really.) It kept combat active, and allowed me to make my own damn critical hits, which is something that’s annoyed me about RPG’s for years now.

The graphics in game are decent, for the most part… they look like a higher resolution Vagrant Story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though the characters seem a tad pixelated at times, and generally rough around the edges. (The game is decidedly gothic in its visual design, as are the majority of the games in the franchise, though the third game kind of alternates away from that a bit.) The special effects, however, more than make up for it, as light sourcing is relatively well done, the backgrounds are well drawn, and the spell effects are very well done… especially the highest level ones, some of which actually made me glad I played for so long. So, overall, the graphics are good, but not the best the PS2 can do.

Musically, the game is reasonable for the most part; a lot of the music is very ambient, and reflects the game’s atmosphere well, but I’d most likely never even think of investing in a soundtrack for this game, save for one or two tracks I kinda liked. (Most of the music in the game is thematically correct, but it’s very… functional; that is, it works for its intended purpose but isn’t specifically enjoyable to listen to so much as it is fitting to the game. It’s not an SMT soundtrack, in other words.) It should be noted that the battle music cycles, however, so at least you’re not listening to the same goddamn thing over… and over… and over… until you want to take a bat to the game. The in-game sound effects are decent as well… combat sounds sound like real physical hits, and gunfire sounds semi-accurate, but the American voice acting is REALLY bad. The developers, possibly noticing this, chose to leave in the Japanese comments for actual battle, but comparing that to the translated special attack dialogue, it makes the game seem rather cheesy overall. (This was an especially weird stylistic choice, in retrospect; the battle comments were all in Japanese, and sounded fine, but actual conversational voice acting was handled with English dubbing rather than simple subtitles, and the end result is that Midway didn’t want to shell out for good voice work, so everything fucking sucks. Keith especially sounds fucking terrible, though I couldn’t find a video, sadly, so just take my word for it.)

The in game controls are simple enough, and work rather well. The control actually MATTERS here, for the Wheel of Fate portions, and the button presses respond accurately, so you won’t miss if you’re on the ball. Really, though, control on RPG’s is largely academic, so piss on that. NEXT! (For most JRPG’s that’s still generally true enough, though the more action-oriented ones obviously need it more than the turn-based ones.)

The game does a lot to keep you interested throughout, and it really does a good job for the most part. Hidden Lottery representatives, wheel spins to earn cool items, fight-club like battle games, hidden missions, and hidden items/summons all make a strong case for renewed interest, even late in the game. Excellent storyline development also does a good job of keeping you involved, though those that have never played Koudelka might lose some of the plot points… though some things will be more surprising later on had you not played it, so there’s that argument. (On one hand, if you have played Koudelka, some of the plot points will make a lot more sense, such as the fact that Koudelka herself shows up at one point, which the game treats like a fairly big deal, but would mean nothing to you without that perspective. On the other hand, Koudelka kind of wasn’t great, especially not compared to Shadow Hearts, and not playing it actually lets some of the game’s plot points actually be surprising to you. So really it can kind of go either way.) The introduction of new characters through most of the game will keep you on your toes, though at times it seems like the new characters are less useful than older ones. (I believe I specifically meant Halley here, who joins up later than most of the cast and, despite the assertion that he’s Koudelka’s kid and has all kinds of power, he never impressed me enough to bother keeping him in my active party, ever.) Unfortunately, the only real reason to replay the game is because you get to use all of Yuri’s old summons from game start… not the best overall feature, as chances are, his Sanity isn’t high enough to accept the cooler ones, but hey, it’s a novel feature. (The more modern Persona games do this as well with the Compendium, which lets you summon up Personas as needed for a cost, though it works in Persona because the Personas actively influence your stats, so even expensive Personas are useful early on. Also you tend to have enough SP to cast at least one spell, and in the early going, that’s often enough to kill a boss outright. Persona Q lets you carry over everything if you’re so inclined, though, so you can just beat the shit out of the game to see the alternate plot path if you’re so inclined.)

Overall, the game is a good purchase if you’re looking for something new on the RPG front… it’s a far superior playthrough than FFX, if only because I never fell asleep playing this. (I literally fell asleep playing FFX at one point, while looking at the bullshit Chinese Checkers level-up board.) As an RPG in general, it does many things right, and manages to never really bore you at any point. The storyline is strong enough to hold the game up by itself, and the rest of the game is strong enough that it manages to entertain you all the way through. There are some small things that could have used some spit and polish, but overall, it’s a strong recommendation for any PS2 owner looking for a good RPG, or just a good game in general. (Two sequels later the developer is dead and gone and the franchise is done with, though at least everything was more or less resolved when it went down, so you’re not in a position where there are a shitload of questions that will never be answered.)

THE GOOD:
1. The storyline progresses in a smooth fashion, and never really leaves you hanging without a good reason.
2. The Harmonixer ability is badass. (It really is. Think a less shitty Vincent Valentine and you’re on the right path.)
3. The whole concept of sanity and mental states on the whole works very well, and adds a new dimension to the gameplay. (In retrospect it’s kind of silly to a point, but I tend to like Sanity mechanics in most games in general enough to forgive this thing.)
4. The Wheel of Fate is a novel approach to RPG combat, and breathes life into an otherwise tired genre.
5. There’s enough extra stuff crammed in here to choke a horse.

THE BAD:
1. Some of the playable characters seemed a tad useless at times. (Yep, definitely Halley.)
2. A couple of really unnecessary missions that annoyed me (oh, come ON, not the test of ultimate worthiness AGAIN…)
3. Plot points that were hard to fathom… if I played Koudelka, I wasn’t surprised by certain plot twists, but if I DIDN’T play it, I totally missed certain parts of the game’s story entirely. (Yeah I never got that; either assume I didn’t play Koudelka and overexplain everything, or assume I did and don’t try to trick me by assuming I didn’t.)
4. Difficulty curve was weird… some battles seemed overly hard, others, overly easy. (Specifically the boss battle that caused me to drop the game for a month; it turns out you needed a shitload of accessories called “Leonardo’s Bear” to nullify the instant death status, but the game never really clues you into this thing so you’d end up having to replay like an hour plus of the game when you realized this the hard way. This almost never came up to any significant point again, either, so it was just weird.)
5. No real reason to play through after having beat it once.

THE UGLY:
1. The American voice acting was bad enough, but leaving the Japanese combat speech in with it? Oh, come ON! And who’s bright fucking idea was it to make Keith GAY? (Ah yes, American translations of Japanese games, where a character who’s overly flamboyant is made into a gay person because the developers mentally correlated flamboyant vampirism with “lol buttsex.” This would improve in the second game at least.)
2. Some of those dial spins made me want to put my fist through the TV screen… yeah, a TEN DIAL SPIN is a GREAT idea… right. (To be fair it was for an awesome top-tier weapon but even so, yeah… ew.)
3. Did we REALLY need the “main character dies/retires/goes insane/departs” angle AGAIN? He’s the best character, for fuck’s sake! (Ah, yes, Heroid BSOD. I fucking hate that plot point.)
4. Even with a massive amount of secret location and leveling up, it took me only 30 hours to beat the game, which is SHORT for an RPG. (These days there’s a weird gulf, time-wise, in RPG length considerations; either every game is in the 30 hour range or is over 100 hours, and there’s little variance. It’s quite odd.)
5. I would have preferred if the game had tried to keep to a “happening in this reality” sort of vein, as you don’t see that often anymore (Persona aside). When China blew up, I pretty much wrote it off.

GRAPHICS: 8
MUSIC: 7
SOUNDS: 6
CONTROL: 8
EXTRAS: 8
IMPRESSION: 8

OVERALL: 7.5 (I’d probably agree with this score within a one point margin of variance; the game was honestly quite good, and while it probably doesn’t hold up now for its time it was really interesting and fun.)

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