In a world filled with second class Final Fantasy clones and sterile, vacuous action RPGs, it is a rare and wondrous treat to find a game that combines rich storyline, impressive art direction, macabre humor, and fluid game play. This fall we are gifted with just such a treat in the form of Nautilus’ Shadow Hearts: Covenant; a game that not only supersedes it’s predecessor in the series, but manages to excel above all other RPGs this year.
Unlike many other RPGs, Shadow Hearts continues its storyline a few months after the first installment, and even uses the same main character. However, this direct progression of story doesn’t kill the experience of first time players. You don’t need to have played the inferior original to immediately get sucked into the plot. The tale begins in the opening skirmishes of World War I (yes, I did say WWI) in an alternate Earth where Germans speak with British accents, Deutschland officers wear skimpy S&M outfits, and hot young men from the Vatican are always willing to step up to destroy demons in quaint French villages.
At first the early 20th Century setting may prove disconcerting to RPG fans more used to swords and sorcery, but the refreshing change of atmosphere is exploited beautifully to give a fresh spin on traditional elements. Magic, evil overlords, and swords mix with grenades and real world settings seamlessly. The story, as well, pares down epic fantasy into more tangible modern era elements. Your protagonist, Yuri, begins the game as the demon-soul-swapping badass you most likely left him as at the end of Shadow Hearts, defending a sleepy village in the hinterlands of Alsace. However, all good things must come to an end, as a pesky band of Germans decides to invade, and this time they bring an exorcist along. I won’t go too mush further into the storyline, as it is a gem that should be savored, but suffice it to say Yuri has an unpleasant run with enough holy mojo to send him traipsing about the world in search of all his lost powers. Not since the Metroid series has it been so much fun (and plausible) just restoring one character to former glory.
The story line of Shadow Hearts: Covenant, bizarre and whimsical as it is, is supported by a simply beautiful and elegant art direction that permeates the entire game. Everything from the menus to the world map to the battles, even the font used for dialogue; forms a cohesive artistic statement. The map settings, while somewhat small, are richly detailed and full of treasure-laden nooks and crannies. Almost all of the settings are based off of actual historical towns, and great care was taken to make each section of the world feel real. Although Shadow Hearts does suffer from some of the PS2s trademark graphical limitations, the slight jaggies and blurriness are exploited within the game. Indeed the grainy quality of some of the backgrounds adds an almost cinematic experience.
While the backgrounds tend to be straight-laced and awash in sepia tones, the character designs of Covenant bring color and life to the game. Each character gives the impression of having just stepped out of a storybook, and all of them stand apart from the NPC crowds without somehow being jarring or ridiculous. Even the vampire pro wrestler with a penchant for whacking people with huge household objects somehow fits in.
Indeed it is the characters that bring this story to life on all levels. Your protagonist, Yuri, is a far cry from the whiny lost puppy adolescents you are forced to deal with in most RPGs. Instead you are treated with a full grown, sarcastic heart-throb who manages to be acerbic, witty and lovable all at the same time. In addition the women of Shadow Hearts are neither pathetic nor caricatures of femininity. Finally, even the truly bizarre characters like the aforementioned wrestler and a puppeteer that collects gay trading cards to get new dresses for his prized puppet (don’t ask, just play and find out – trust me), are given rich backgrounds and delightful dialogue to integrate themselves into the story.
Furthermore, the characters are not only designed to look interesting, they sound interesting as well. The cast of voice actors all do adequate to simply sublime jobs of embodying their characters. Not only is the dialogue well acted, but there is tons of it. Cut scenes pepper the entire game without dragging on for hours on end. And I must say that, as strange and thoroughly out-there the conversations can be in Covenant, this game has to sport some of the funniest, cleanest, and best written dialogue in any video game. I haven’t laughed so hard playing a video game since a group of us played Samba de Amigo at 3 AM.
To complement the dialogue, the audio team in Shadow Hearts have put together a breezy and refreshing score. The music is a pleasant techno mixed with lots of eerie female vocals and industrial guitar riffs for the battles; while the world maps beast more subdued fare. I found the battle music a rare commodity in video games: a theme that was consistent without being annoyingly repetitive. For the first time in a long time, I played an RPG without muting the sound for long fights. The rest of the music seemed slightly less inspired. It was pleasant, but ultimately forgettable and a wee bit more variety would have been nice.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant looks great, sounds great, and has a story line that is engaging, fresh, and delightful; but all of these factors matter little if the game itself is virtually unplayable. (The makers of the Legacy of Kain should take note of this) Mercifully, the battle systems and play control of this game actually surpass all other elements. Yes, this game simply put, plays like a dream.
In this dream, traditional menu based combat is turned on its end without becoming a button mashing nightmare. While you still select options from menus initially, once you have decided upon a course of action a disc called the Judgment Ring appears on screen. To use the Ring you have to tap the X button at the correct time to make the spinner stop in a specially colored area. It’s like a slot machine with more control. The more precise your tapping, the more effective the attack. As your character gains more complicated abilities and Rings, this mechanic becomes akin to Rhythm games like Donkey Konga or Beatmania.
While the attacks can be tricky for the rhythmically challenged (like me) the game allows you to customize your Ring with items and abilities. You can even select different Rings to achieve different effects; including an Auto-Ring that bails you out if you simply can’t nail the timing at all. The vast array of options and customization in combat gives Covenant surprising depth; and the need for some coordination speeds up the action and interest in the fights without overwhelming menu maniacs.
Last but not least, Shadow Hearts: Covenant delivers in the most critical area for RPGs: length. [i[Covenant offers up a solid 30-40 hours of game play that can be extended even further by rabid leveling and side quest completion. It’s not a hundred plus hour monstrosity, but he overall quality of those 30+ hours makes this title far more satisfying in the long run.
I wasn’t expecting much from Shadow Hearts: Covenant to be honest. I, like many RPG gamers have been trapped into salivating only for titles with Square-Enix stamped somewhere on the cover; however, Nautilus has not only surprised me with its latest offering, it has left me wanting more for a Shadow Hearts sequel rather than Final Fantasy. I can’t say much more about this game other than not only is it the best RPG I’ve played this year; it is a serious contender for Game of the Year in my opinion.