Review by: Mike Laidlaw
Published: February 16, 2002
Since Capcom cleared the way for survival horror, the console world has seen countless third-person shooters where your main character must tackle countless undead or otherworldly creatures. For the most part, though, RPGs that follow in this same path have been fairly rare. Perhaps the extended length of an RPG seems to reduce the scare factor, or designers have been leery of mixing leveling up and character development while at the same time tackling adult themes. One notable exception to this rule was crafted at the hands of Sacnoth and appeared late in 1999 for the original PlayStation under the title Koudelka. While not an ideal release, this first offering introduced some novel concepts, and luckily for gamers the studio has taken another run at the genre with their PlayStation 2 release, Shadow Hearts.
Sacnoth’s two projects are similar in that they take place in the Victorian era, right around the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike our history, however, this version of Earth has a higher awareness of spirits, magic and the occult than we do, and it wouldn’t be going overboard to say that mysterious phenomena are common enough to be a concern, but not a news event, especially if you happen to live in a magically significant area.
Our story begins with a quick mention of a priest, his brutal murder, and the disappearance of his daughter. Moments later we are whisked forward to find said daughter in protective custody of the Japanese army and on board a train bound for points unknown. As we watch, a gentleman dressed to the nines makes his way forward on the train pausing at the height of manners to allow a lady to pass, but also to violently dismember the guards surrounding the girl. Introduced as Roger Bacon, the man’s kidnapping attempt is foiled by a young man cut straight out of the Japanese RPG hero mold. After a titanic battle, Bacon is disabled enough so that our hero, Yuri, and the girl, Alice, can escape the train and flee into the night.
As might be apparent from the above description, Shadow Hearts holds no punches when it comes to receiving a mature rating. Where shock value can make your heart race in action oriented titles like Onimusha: Warlords or Resident Evil: Code Veronica X, here it’s the tension and sense of the grotesque that will keep you on your toes. As Yuri escapes from Bacon, he literally slams his fist through the man’s face, leaving a gaping wound which we get to see heal over. Similarly, the first moments of the game are littered with tongue and cheek, but overt nonetheless, sexual advances on Alice by Yuri, and he continues this trend with every female he meets. Needless to say, this is all done without descending into the juvenile, but those unwilling to deal with adult situations or gore would best find their entertainment elsewhere.
Following the opening, Shadow Hearts will have you hopping madly across various areas of the orient, searching for countless mysterious connections between Bacon, Alice, Yuri and many of the other characters in the story. Over time you’ll find yourself joining forces with a few additional characters who typically join your party for a brief stint and then leave to make way for yet another character’s entrance. Obviously, each ally eventually reappears multiple times so that they don’t fall too far behind the experience curve, and with each addition new powers are brought to bear against the demons, ghosts and black wizards that abound in this haunting land.
Where Alice is your typical white mage complete with curing spells and attacks that specifically damage creatures allied with the dark, Yuri fits the shoe of the “heavy.” Analogous to Auron in Final Fantasy X, Yuri can dish out some serious damage using his feet and fists. Also joining the cast are Margarette, a provocative spy and master marksman who joins the party when circumstance puts all three under suspicion of terrorism against the Japanese government. Even more exotic is Keith Valentine, whose Eastern European background, extensive age and noble bearing suggests that he might be more than the bored nobleman he appears to be. Before either of these two make an appearance, though, the venerable Zhuzhen Liu will meet up with Alice and Yuri and put his considerable knowledge of the mystic arts and herbology at their disposal. As might be expected, he also spends much of his time dropping hints about the main characters’ ultimate goal and connections to the past.