The idea of a follow-up to Koudelka wasn’t exactly something I looked forward to. Although that PSone RPG featured a decent storyline and a deliciously dark atmosphere, it was plagued with some of the worst gameplay around. Developers Sacnoth decided to take another stab at the genre with Shadow Hearts. While it certainly won’t be remembered as a classic, it’s still a decent game exceeds its predecessor in every possible way.
Although Shadow Hearts isn’t a direct sequel to Koudelka, it does share a few connections. Previous knowledge of the events in Koudelka can add a lot to the plot, but I would still advise against playing through the game. It’s just not worth it.
The main thing that sets Shadow Hearts apart from other RPGs is the fact that it’s set in the real world. Taking place during 1913, this game deals with real events such as the disputes between China and Japan and allusions to the upcoming “Great War”. Of course, many things are also fictionalized. Magic is prevalent throughout the land, and so are hellish demons and other monsters. Even so, visiting places like London and Shangai is an excellent change of pace from visiting those damn desert and ice towns present in nearly every other RPG ever made.
Anyways, Shadow Hearts starts off with an explosive opening cutscene. A mysterious girl has been captured by the Japanese army and is being transported by train. A gentlemanly warlock wearing a top hat and slick suit is murdering the troops trying to obtain Alice for unknown reasons. Yuri, a young hothead with mystical powers, is in hot pursuit of the warlock. The exciting opening scene is edited brilliantly and gave me high hopes for the rest of the game.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game is nowhere near as intense as the opening scene, but it’s still a decent narrative. Yuri rescues the young Alice from the train and the two are aided by a mysterious voice that tells them where to go next. Traveling through Asia and Europe, the two characters and the inevitable host of party members look to stop the obviously evil gentleman and find the origins of the mysterious voice. It won’t be a simple walk in the park since the Japanese army and some powerful demons are after the girl.
The plot is refreshingly dark, with bits of gore and other twisted things. There are cannibals, murderous dolls, and even some allusions to rape. Indeed, fun for the whole family. The hero, Yuri, is rife with inner conflict and his unreserved personality is a delight after playing as so many silent brooders. Although an emotional bond is never really formed with any of the characters, the chemistry between the party members and an intriguing villain more than make up for it.
However, much like Koudelka, the gameplay is less than stellar. At least Shadow Hearts has been greatly improved compared to that vile game. Aside from one feature, the random battles are just about as traditional as they get. There also isn’t any character customization, so don’t expect anything too deep. However that one feature, the Judgment Ring, manages to make things unique even though it quickly becomes tedious.
Essentially, nearly every action in battle requires timed button presses with the Judgment Ring. A ring appears with a few areas shaded in, and it’s up to you to time the hits just right. Using an item requires barely any effort, but executing a powerful special attack requires a few difficult taps. If you miss at all, then your character won’t attack, use the item, etc. Also, the Judgment Ring isn’t featured only in the battles. Timed button taps can get you a discount in shops, and the Judgment Ring also appears during some story events. Early in the game this gimmick is fresh and exciting, but having to pay attention for every single move in battle isn’t that fun after performing the same attack for the hundredth time.
Another unique gimmick is the accumulation of “Malice.” When monsters are killed, their souls torment poor Yuri. A color coded orb shows how high the Malice level is, and when it gets to a certain point Yuri’s worst nightmares will come true in the form of a tough battle. The only way to bring the Malice down to safe levels is to travel to the graveyard in Yuri’s subconscious (accessible at any savepoint) and engage in battle. While this feature isn’t too important gameplay-wise, it does add some layers of depth to a relatively simplistic game.
The many dungeons in Shadow Hearts are also handled well. They’re usually straightforward and short, but because of this they never become boring. Backtracking isn’t a problem since the dungeons are so small, and there’s occasionally an interesting puzzle or two. Shadow Hearts itself is also fairly short. Whether you choose to complete the many rewarding sidequests or not, the game will only last 25-30 hours. While not as ridiculously lengthy as other games, the short length makes for a more cohesive and well paced adventure.
One part where Shadow Hearts really fails to deliver is with the graphics. Quite honestly, the game looks like a polished PSone game. The prerendered backgrounds look bland with hardly any details standing out. The characters look a bit simplistic, but it’s the weak animations that make the models look especially poor. The dull graphics are especially evident after watching some of the well-made cutscenes. If only the rest of the game looked so good. Although there are a few inspired bosses and backgrounds, for the most part things come across as woefully outdated.
At least the unique music does not disappoint. Asian-themed tunes mesh nicely with traditional RPG tunes. The ambient sounds even do the trick of creating a creepy atmosphere in some areas. Unfortunately, the sparse voice acting is undoubtedly lackluster. A few scenes come across as laughable, and during battle some of the characters speak in both Japanese in English. Why not pick one language or the other instead of simply dubbing half of the battle cries?
Shadow Hearts has its share of flaws, no doubt. The graphics are weak and the battle system grows monotonous quickly. Fortunately, the unique setting and above-average storyline makes this one worth checking out. The improvement that developers Sacnoth made from Koudelka to Shadow Hearts shows that they have great potential. Perhaps one day we’ll be playing a classic RPG from those guys.