Review by Jen
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
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 exactlywhile they do like
to eat humans, they themselves prove to be inhuman. No rest for
the weary here, good peopleyou 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 smooththere
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
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 typeyou 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
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 designersand 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.
Developer: Sacnoth/Aruze Corp.
Release Date: December 2001
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