Shadow Hearts

Review by Jen
June 2002

When I first started Shadow Hearts, I was not impressed. Well, that's not entirely true. When I first started Shadow Hearts, I was floored by the beautiful, gruesome opening cutscene. After that I was not impressed. The first real gameplay screen looked like something for the original Playstation, with a big character superimposed on an out-of-proportion, grainy background. And all I was doing was fighting, fighting, fighting, on top of more fighting. Blech. But the fighting was easy and I continued playing, and within about half an hour I was completely hooked.

During the opening credits, the story begins to unfold. Rouen, France, 1913. A priest is killed and his daughter is missing. China, a month later. Aboard a train full of Japanese soldiers, a dapper little European gentleman, wielding some unholy powers, kidnaps young Alice, who is clutching her Bible tightly to her chest. Alice's Japanese army escort is no match for this man, and the soldiers all lay shattered, splattered on the train floor. Enter Yuri, our hero. Roger Bacon, the abductor, deals Yuri what should be a mortal blow, but Yuri picks himself up and continues unharmed, chasing Bacon and his female prize onto the roof of the train for a showdown. Yuri too has powerful magic at his disposal but he has not the strength or control to defeat Bacon. Nevertheless he is able to rescue Alice and make good their escape.

Now we find ourselves on the initial gameplay screen. Alice and Yuri are lost in the Chinese countryside, and monsters are everywhere. Alice is a nervous little thing, petulant and frightened. Her father was the priest who had been killed by Bacon only a scant month before, and now it seems all the dark forces in the world want to use her undiscovered abilities to unleash pure evil upon the earth, all to their own ends. Yuri is a rough young man, unschooled in the social graces, and he looks Alice over with a salacious glint in his eye. Suddenly he is felled from within himself and an eerie, almost unheard voice whispers, "must... protect... girl..." A frightened Alice runs off, and you as Yuri set out to locate her, figuring somehow she is the key to quieting that voice inside your head.

Almost immediately monsters start popping up and Yuri must do battle. There was a little bit of get-used-to-the-controls battling during the game opening, but now it's real. Yuri is weak but fortunately so are the monsters. Yuri has very limited options available to him, and he deals blows by selecting his attack and then striking three highlighted areas of the "Judgment Ring." Where your strikes land determines the strength of your attack. There are great big yellow areas that are fairly easy to hit, and there are thin red slices where landing a strike increases your attack power enough to make these worthwhile to aim for. If you miss the strike areas altogether, you miss your turn and must meekly take blows from your enemy. If you hit the enemy but don't finish it off, you still must stand still and take your medicine.

Amidst a slew of slaying, Yuri finds Alice and together they make their way to a series of sluice gates, take the handle from one and use it on another to dry up a stream so they may cross. This, I'm sorry to report, is pretty representative of the puzzles in Shadow Hearts. Puzzles are few and far between, and while they do get a wee bit more complex they will never tax the average brain.

After crossing the stream, Alice and Yuri happen upon a village. All is not right here, though, and a suspicion grows ... Are these people cannibals? Well, no, not exactly—while they do like to eat humans, they themselves prove to be inhuman. No rest for the weary here, good people—you must first locate and excise the evil from this place. Here you meet your first new party member, Zhuzhen Liu, an old Chinese sage with some useful magical powers. The demonic catpeople populating this village are no match for the three of you, and you level up with frequency and speed.

All this is but the very beginning of this rich and varied game. How did Alice become orphaned, and why do all of the world's bad guys want to harness her untapped powers? What of Yuri's dead father? Was he good or evil? What of Roger Bacon? How does he fit into the grand scheme of things? Ultimately you will be unable to prevent the capture of Alice, the demise of Shanghai, the death of Yuri ... or not?! The story is so compelling, so detailed, that I was forced to keep playing just to see what would happen next. I literally could not keep my hand off that controller.

At the beginning, I had said that the gameplay graphics were crappy, but that proved to be not at all true for the bulk of the game. For the most part screens are clear and smooth—there are only two or three locations out of hundreds where they look dated and pixelated, and that opening gameplay screen just happened to be one of them.

Battles all have a certain sameness to them. Yes, there is quite the variety of monsters and, sure, your attacks and abilities increase over time, but the increase of monsters' powers parallels yours so that the overall difficulty of the battles remains about the same throughout. There are frequent "boss" monsters, and you have to learn how to use the various items and equipment at your disposal in order to give yourself the best advantage. Occasionally I had to die to find out how best to defend myself; you cannot change your equipment midbattle but instead must outfit your party ahead of time based on what you expect might happen. You can, however, use items freely during fights, and these include things that will give you stronger or special attacks or heal you or what have you.

I got through the first half of the game simply by using the "Choose Strongest" option in equipping my characters with armor and weapons. Each character has one conventional weapon, one piece of armor, and three slots where you can choose items that will enhance their attacks, enhance their defense, or protect them from certain types of enemy blows such as confusion or poison. In addition to increasing your experience points, enemies killed also bestow cash and items, and you can use this cash or sell these items to buy stronger armor and weapons, as well as healing items, from the peddlars and merchants in the various towns. As well, you will occasionally encounter the gay acupuncturist, and you can pay him to increase the power of your physical attacks or widen the hit areas on your judgment ring. However, this treatment is expensive (and uncomfortable, for the hetero male members of the party).

I wonder what a psychiatrist would make of the monster designs. The closing credits of Shadow Hearts showed three people were responsible for conceiving these beasts, and it's plain to me that these are some twisted individuals. Most of the monsters are made of people and/or animal parts, including thinly disguised genitalia, rearranged and combined, enlarged or shrunken, in some perverse ways, as well as grossly exaggerated here and there.

In addition to each character's physical (hand-to-hand) attacks, each has one or more mana powers, and as the game progresses each character learns new mana skills. Using these depletes your MP, or mana points, but refills are readily available in the form of various talismans or herbs that are either found or taken from fallen foes or purchased.

In addition to mana points, you have HP (hit points) and SP (sanity points). Hit points are purely physical, and you lose some every time an enemy lands a blow. These too can be restored via inventory items. Sanity points generally deplete steadily throughout the course of a battle, and losing them all causes a party member to go berserk and attack the nearest target, be it friend or foe. Sanity points are refillable as well.

Talk of sanity points brings me to my next topic: the graveyard. In that early scene just after the train crash, Yuri learns about the "malice." After Yuri has killed several monsters, he encounters a mysterious being called Foxface. Yuri fights Foxface and loses. He finds himself in an otherworldly graveyard with six headstones, one each for fire, earth, water, wind, darkness, and light. Also there are four talking, mocking masks that will ask whether you wish to quiet the malice.

Malice builds up as enemies are dispatched and their souls collect en evil masse in the afterlife. Yuri has a malice meter that changes color as the malice level increases, and he must enter the graveyard and battle the malice before the level gets too high. Battling the malice in the graveyard is easy, but if Yuri neglects his malice level, he is subject to having some unexpected extra evil show up in the midst of an ordinary monster battle, adding an undesirable and much more difficult element to the mix. Later in the game, although to my regret I did not do this, it might be advantageous to let the malice build up to the danger level and finish off these elements once and for all.

Meanwhile, as enemies are defeated, in addition to experience points, Yuri gains points in one of the six "headstone" areas, depending on the nature of the enemy defeated. When he fills up one of these headstone bars, he can return to the graveyard and choose not only to battle the malice but also the "fusion soul." When he defeats the fusion soul, he returns to the mortal plane with the ability to change his being into this type of fusion creature. There are six available fusion souls, each with three different levels, and Yuri can equip any three at a time. Fusing with one of these souls during battle depletes Yuri's sanity points but increases his attacks considerably, especially if he chooses a fusion soul that is in opposition to the enemy's soul type. I found it didn't really matter what type of fusion soul Yuri chose, except that if he used one that matched the enemy's type his attacks were much weaker.

There is no indicator of enemy soul type—you can tell after the fact by what types of "headstones" get leveled up, and you generally encounter each type of ordinary monster numerous times. A particular one of your party members will learn a mana power that will reveal the enemy's defining characteristic, but she must waste one of her attack turns to use this. It didn't matter much to me since I rarely used the fusion attacks on ordinary enemies, reserving this power instead for the boss fights, at least early in the game. Later on, bored with the neverending battling, I just wanted to open up the proverbial can of whoop ass and had plenty of MP and SP to use these fusion souls to send the baddies into kingdom come with one blow.

After some experience, you can also determine the enemy's characteristic from the types of attacks it uses and equip your fusion soul appropriately. You cannot exchange your three fusion souls midbattle; you must again guess ahead of time and choose the ones you think you might need. You can, though, change from one to another of the three equipped fusion souls in the middle of a conflict as long as you don't mind wasting a turn and you have enough sanity points to spend on this costly maneuver.

Certain of the boss enemies deal mortal attacks that are impossible to defend against until you are defeated once and learn what type of item to equip. For instance, one megabad guy, Wugui, packs an "instant death" wallop. There is no way to know this until your party gets wiped out in one fell swoop and you curse a blue streak, and then you must restore from a previous save and equip the items beforehand to protect yourself against this particular attack.

Throughout the game, if you learn how to equip yourself properly and you have plenty of restorative items, boss battles are simply a matter of patience. They can last a very long time, from half an hour for the biggest bosses up to well over an hour for the final battle, but as long as you keep yourself healthy and at the same time get your chops in, you can last forever and ultimately prevail. I only died four or five times over the course of the entire game, and all of those deaths were as a result of not defending myself against a particularly deadly enemy attack because I didn't know what it would be until I experienced it for myself.

Save points are plentiful; only twice can I recall having to fight two bosses one on top of another with no saving in between. One of these times, though, was the endgame battle, and I thought I was done for. Luckily for me, I was pretty well prepared because that was the battle that took over an hour and I would've hated to start that one over again.

"Why all this talk of battling and the battle system," I hear you ask. "Is that all there is?" Well, the short answer is "yes," at least as far as gameplay is concerned. There are several very simple puzzles scattered about in the various landscapes, but these are few and far between. The enthralling story and captivating music are what propelled me ever forward.

The music is absolutely worthy of mention. It serves very well to set the mood of each of the various areas. Sometimes it is light and airy, other times ponderous and somber, and in turn it gets your heart racing when attack is imminent or lets you know it's time to relax in the not-so-dangerous areas. This music was played by real musicians on real instruments, running the gamut from wind instruments to violins, cellos to guitars, classical chamber music to postmodern rock. The battle music is an exception, though; while high-quality, I'd swear the ending "tada" flourish was the same exact one used for battle scenes in Anachronox. Plus this music is the same for nearly every battle.

There is very little voice acting; most of the dialogue occurs in the form of onscreen text. The voice actors employed did a fine job, mostly narrating tales of bygone days in cutscenes.

The story weaves together the history of two continents across half a millennium, incorporating elements of Christianity in general, Catholicism in specific, actual historical events, ancient Chinese legends and superstitions, and tons of magic and evil straight from the mind of the designers—and all this with nary a mention of Egypt or Atlantis. The main characters are fleshed out with complete personalities, and part of what kept me so engrossed in Shadow Hearts was that I cared about how they would fare. There are plenty of plot twists and surprises around every corner and yet the story doesn't ever get lost within itself; it just keeps building and branching and finally comes together at the very end.

I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to describing this game adequately. I could easily go on for another six pages, but I'll leave the rest for the player to discover.

I loved almost everything about Shadow Hearts: the characters, the story, the music, even the battles (except there were too many of them!) once I got into the groove. And I am a diehard point-and-click adventure gamer. Shadow Hearts offers the kind of satisfying gaming experience that is simply not present in very many recent adventure releases. I'm sure it doesn't break any new ground in terms of console-style RPGs, but these types of games are unfamiliar territory to me ... and I like them! Shadow Hearts is in turn tragic and comic, deeply philosophical and completely fluffy, and overall a great gaming experience that I was sorry to see come to an end. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Sacnoth/Aruze Corp.
Publisher: Midway Games
Release Date: December 2001

Available for: PlayStation 2

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