Graphics: With Final Fantasy X having raised the bar for PS2 RPGs permanently, Shadow Hearts looks a bit dated by comparison. Generally speaking, it takes an old recipe for successful gaming and spices it up quite liberally. The characters still move across prerendered two-dimensional backgrounds, but this time out there’s a lot more animation such as the swaying of pony tails and the flapping of jackets or skirts. Once we’re into combat, the game switches into full 3D, with plenty of detail on both the characters and monsters. The usual perks, such as visibly upgraded weapons are here, but temporary effects, such as the glittering magical trails that follow a weapon enhanced with elemental attacks, are still relatively new and exciting. While the character attacks are canned and somewhat repetitive, they are lively and exciting notwithstanding. In some cases the enemy attacks are stunning and will leave you wondering how anyone could withstand such an onslaught, while others are less effective and instead leave you wondering why it took that long to animate four points of damage. As might be expected from the crew that brought us the movie-heavy Koudelka, the CG cinemas are excellently done in Shadow Hearts. Perhaps responding to criticism of their first effort, though, the quantity seems to have gone too far the other way, leaving one wanting a few more cinematics to highlight the key moments in the plot.
Interface: You’ll still find yourself confined to save points in Shadow Hearts, but they’re widely available so there’s few moments where you’ll be caught having to repeat extensive chunks of the story due to a poor decision in combat. Collectively, the interface works well to provide you with every conceivable bit of information about your party short of printing graphs and spreadsheets. Since you can view up close shots of every character along with their “character sheet,” you’d think that would be enough, but instead you’ll also find yourself cross referencing with a list of their individual equipment and even a list of total equipment for the party. While this may seem confusing at first, it’s just multiple ways of reorganizing the statistics that RPG junkies so dearly crave. For the rest of us, there’s also simplifying options like “equip strongest,” which handily does just that on a per-character basis. While there’s no way to really modify the controls or adjust the visuals, this interface delivers the goods pure RPG enthusiasts truly enjoy.
Gameplay: If gothic horror, HP Lovecraft, or the Victorian Era have any appeal to you as a role-player, than Shadow Hearts is the game you’ve been waiting for. Even for those without this historical period as a point of fascination, the gameplay, story and classic RPG sensibilities of this title should be more than enough to convince you of its purchase. While the linear design may turn some players off, those who found the same thing made for a better story in Final Fantasy X will see the same mechanics at work here, albeit with more restrictions. The introduction of a skill-based “rolling of the dice” in combat and many other situations may also leave some leery, but the simple truth is that it works surprisingly well. By installing a judgment ring as a central mechanic, the designers give players more control over their characters capabilities: Will you play it safe and go for three attacks, or will you go nuts and try to eke a few more critical points of damage at the risk of losing it all? The decision is yours to make, and it will keep you increasingly making these hard calls while the list of possible abilities increases as you level up. On top of its great story and solid design, Shadow Hearts also has length on its side. Perhaps not quite as meaty as Square’s latest opus, the play time is still quite worthwhile at thirty to forty hours.
Multiplayer: As Shadow Hearts has no multiplayer mode, this criterion has not been rated.
Sound FX: Drawing from a fairly static library of sounds, the effects soon become repetitive in both combat and when searching the countryside. One notable exception can be found in most of the special moves performed by the characters. For the most part they’re kept in the original dialogue, but where necessary a quick bit of translation has been done to keep the original effect. Margarete, for example, can throw a grenade to affect all the enemies in the room; rather than just pulling it out of her coat, she grabs her cell, calls her spy HQ and orders one, which promptly drops into her hand. Had this been kept to the original Japanese, the joke would have flown past most people’s heads, instead it’s a neat diversion from the everyday combat audio. Similarly, the dialogue in the cutscenes has been artfully performed. While the text itself might be a bit questionable (who really says things like, “Ah! Another actor in our play,” anyway?), the performances do a good job of conveying fear, malice, and the whole range of appropriate emotions.
Musical Score: Aside from a bit of repetition, the music in Shadow Hearts stands as one of the game’s biggest assets. While the curse of a single track for all battles has yet to be lifted, this time out the music is less annoying and intrusive than you’ll find in similar products. It should be noted that as soon as one of your characters goes berserk due to a loss of sanity, a nifty fade takes place, replacing the normal track with a discordant piece that captures the atmosphere perfectly. Also worthy of mention are the exceptionally atmospheric tracks, which cycle depending on where you’re currently exploring. A happy town in the sunshine provides you with significantly happier music than the equivalent town being overrun at night by hordes of slavering demons.
Intelligence & Difficulty: Like all offerings in this genre, the difficulty ramps up as steadily as your characters’ experience levels, meaning you’ll find the challenge consistent throughout. There’s no way to actively adjust the challenge level, but for most RPG fans they’ll find the usual mix of easy random encounters and challenging boss fights. Managing resources like healing spells, potions and the near-ubiquitous tent for full healing can be a bit of a task at first, but merchants start to appear more readily later in the game. The monster AIs are a standard collection of random actions with a bit of scripting built in to some of the bosses for extra challenge. For the most part, the AI will attack, heal itself or reinforce itself with little regard to an overall strategy, such as taking down your healer specifically.
Overall: While it may not share the blockbuster production values of other RPG’s released for the PS2 this recent Christmas season, Shadow Hearts manages to shine on its own merits. Most importantly, it shows that the gothic horror theme developers Sacnoth tried to pull off in their PSOne release Koudelka could be successfully integrated into a more solid game. Blending a well woven story that lasts with combat mechanics that force you to participate in the action with both reflexes and decision making, this RPG has a lot of unique elements that are lacking in the traditional format. Add a spooky atmosphere set at the start of the twentieth century and little reluctance to tackle adult subject matter like sex and violence, and we finally have an RPG that appeals strictly for adult gamers without pushing into the realm of the ludicrous or indecent. Those who were intrigued, but disappointed, by Koudelka, or anyone ready for a quality RPG with mature themes and plenty of excellent gameplay elements, take heed — Shadow Hearts delivers an exceptional package for the PS2.