Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Forget what you learned in history class: Princess Anastasia was a feisty princess that traveled the world defeating monsters, and Rasputin sold his soul to a demon in exchange for magical powers and a sweet fortress. Also, the catastrophic casualties of World War I can be blamed on a secret society that unleashed ďmaliceĒ upon the world from a building at the Vatican.
At least thatís how the untraditional history lessons go in the traditional RPG, Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Although the veracity of these events are questionable, real-life settings such as Paris, Petrograd and Yokohama are certainly more interesting than the boring Desert City, Forest City, and Obligatory Enormous City that dominate the genre. Pummeling someone like Rasputin also makes for a more engaging time than destroying the usual Evil Wizard Dressed In Black.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant does a great job of incorporating real locales pimped out with fantastical elements, and this is one of the few things that the prequel did right. However, playing the first game isnít required to enjoy the sequel. Of course, it helps, but I forgot almost every character in the first game since I havenít played it in years. Despite this, I was rarely confused, though I was able to realize that some of the minor characters become big players in the sequel, and some of the once-important party members have been downgraded to cameo status.
The only playable character from the last game that stays in the spotlight is the star, Yuri. A few months after the events of the first game, the tough-as-nails hero is all alone after the final battle, but beneath his rough exterior is something softer. In a once-quiet French hamlet, Yuri winds up cursed by a shady secret society after an epic battle in a church cathedral. Teaming up with a sexy German officer, an odd puppeteer, and a wolf, the international hunt begins to find a cure for the curse. Along the way, the gang will also try to put a stop to the society with evil political plans for the ongoing World War I.
This situation may sound serious and weighty, but Shadow Hearts: Covenant is bursting with many inconsistent attempts at comedy. For example, one of the playable characters is a vampire/self-proclaimed superhero/professional wrestler. Joachim is truly a unique and interesting personality that draws out some smiles. Itís just too bad much of the humor relies on immature and over-the-top homosexual stereotypes. Less reliance on these tired jokes and more of a focus on the humorous banter between the eight playable characters would have worked much better. Although the sense of humor is definitely silly, that doesnít mean the plot canít also be serious. There are several engaging villains, and itís never quite certain who the boss actually is. Also, thereís a unique, albeit underplayed, love triangle that stands out late in the game.
The depth of the storyline has been beefed up from the original Shadow Hearts, and thatís just one of the improvements. The Judgment Ring makes an improved return in the turn-based random battles. This determines which moves fail and which moves succeed by relying on the playerís reflexes. Whenever an action is taken, a ring appears with a spinning line. Pressing the X button when the line is on a colored area means the attack succeeds. This isnít always easy since some moves have a miniscule hit area. Itís a great way the battles becoming boring. Although the Judgment Ring, as distinctive as it is, become tiresome in the first game, that isnít the case in Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Here, the ring can be customized for each character, so physical attacks can be as simple (and therefore, weak) or as complex (and powerful) as needed.
Different personal skills for each character also add to the variety. Yuri can transform into different demons, like in the first game, and so can another ally. Princess Anastasia can take photos of enemies, which then grants her their special moves. The most interesting of all is the wrestler Joachim, who learns new moves from his scantily-dressed (and male) wrestling instructor. The effects of each special move are as varied as the charactersí personalities, which is certainly a good thing.
Another quality twist to the battles is the combo system. By selecting this option in the midst of combat, the character move right next to an ally. When itís that allyís turn, two consecutive attacks can be dished out with increased damage. If four characters are put into a combo, the damage is wonderfully devastating. Although the combo system works well, thereís one serious problem with it: Shadow Hearts: Covenant is so easy that it hardly every has to be used. I got by the entire game without even bothering exploiting the elemental weaknesses of the bosses, and even though combos can dish out so much damage, I was impatient and simply attacked every turn with successful results.
The lack of difficulty is a big downer, but that doesnít mean the battle system isnít entertaining. The Judgment Ring works so well, and the incentives for skillful fighting had me seeking out more fights. By finishing a fight in a limited amount of turns or without taking any damage, youíre given a bonus of more cash, experience, and so on. Itís nothing revolutionary, but this little touch made a big difference between wanting to fight and escaping yet another random encounter.
Thereís yet another improvement from the previous game, though this one is purely aesthetic. Itís easy to tell that developers received much more of a budget to work with. While Shadow Hearts looked almost like a PSone game due to lackluster pre-rendered backgrounds and simplistic character designs, the sequel gets kicked up a notch. The environments are beautifully rendered, from the dreary subterranean dungeons to some of the lush areas of Japan. The characters are also much more detailed, especially during the in-game cutscenes. Finally, you can actually see Yuriís angst-filled expressions and confident body language instead of simply imagining it.
As far as sequels go, Shadow Hearts: Covenant gets everything right by improving upon nearly everything. As far as RPGs go, the quality of the game is obvious. Although the historical facts are intentionally just a little bit sketchy, the unique storyline and pseudo-realistic settings are refreshing after all the hackneyed RPGs Iíve played throughout the years. Just brace yourself for extremely peculiar sense of humor present throughout Shadow Hearts: Covenant.
Eight out of ten