RETRO REVIEW: Shadow Hearts

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Shadow Hearts | oprainfall
Title Shadow Hearts
Developer Sacnoth
Publisher Aruze (Japan) Midway Games (NA/PAL)
Release Date June 28, 2001 (JP)
December 12, 2001 (NA)
March 29, 2002 (PAL)
Genre RPG
Platform PlayStation 2
Age Rating ESRB: Mature
VET/SFB: 15 (Square)
USK: 12
OFLC : MA15+
ELSPA: 15+

When people talk about the RPGs of the Sony PlayStation 2, I notice that one of the most unique games that I’ve ever played doesn’t often get brought up, primarily due to its quiet release and little in the way of marketing. I feel this is a disappointing omission, and with that in mind, here’s my Retro Review of the hidden gem known as Shadow Hearts.

Shadow Hearts was developed by now-defunct company Sacnoth, which was founded by a composer who used to work for Squaresoft named Hiroki Kikkuta, whom people might know as the composer of such games as Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3. The game was published in the United States and Europe by equally-defunct Midway Games in 2001. It is the sequel to Sacnoth’s first video game offering, an obscure PlayStation RPG named Koudelka which has a comparable oppressive atmosphere to Shadow Hearts. It combined elements from Resident Evil and the tactical RPG flavoring of a grid-based combat system.

Shadow Hearts | Koudelka

Koudelka even shared Resident Evil‘s fascination with hostile flora.

Shadow Hearts takes place in an alternate reality before the events of World War I in the year 1913, with many of the locations visited included places in both China and Russia. We are not given much in the way of plot in the very beginning outside of a newspaper blurb and an introduction to a couple of key characters, but, over time, the gaps in the plot are filled into a rather interesting story concerning the love between an enigmatic young man and a beautiful young woman and an elderly gentleman’s desire to destroy the world.

The main character of the game is one Yuri Hyuga, a reluctant anti-hero that loves to speak his mind and is often vulgar and bold in his speech and mannerisms. In fact, before we get to know his name, he is simply called “Rude Hero” by the game.

Shadow Hearts | Rude Hero

See? I wasn’t lying.

His main function in combat is the power to harness the abilities of elemental and non-elemental creatures in the form of Fusion, changing his appearance into them and using their distinctive skills in battle. Not only does this give the game a more lasting impression, but it also gives Yuri a trait that endears him to the player, as he is, more often than not, the most powerful character in your party.

You control a 3D character on a 2D pre-rendered landscape, with items showing up as luminescent dots or as chests. The world map consists of a literal “world map” showing off Europe and China with a menu of choices allowing you to pick your destination via a series of dots. The music changes depending on where you are, and the backdrops are very well thought out. The dungeons aren’t that great, and I was constantly anticipating a change of scenery, but they don’t detract too much from the overall experience of the game, as you are sometimes tasked with moving through a monster-filled section of town rather than a cave or a temple.

Shadow Hearts | Demon Village

Demons have infested this village in an early part of the game.

The character design is very creative. Not only does each character have their own unique look, complete with a hand-drawn portrait used in dialogue sequences, but the monsters themselves are very disturbing with a lot of creatures from folklore and myth being used to great effect. There are also several original monsters that use a lot of creepy imagery, including a monster that is in a perpetual handstand using a spear with its feet, a “police dog” that is propped up by the arm that belonged to its previous owner, and a legless humanoid with a bird’s head.

The soundtrack itself was co-composed by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger and Xenogears fame, along with Yoshitaka Hirota. There are many intense and haunting melodies within the settings of Shadow Hearts, from the haunting strings and chimes of “Alice” to the dark tones of the world map theme, “Blow Up.” The  sound design is nothing short of unforgettable, with monsters giving yelps of pain upon being struck and emitting crazed moans as they strike you.

The voice acting itself, though, is quite possibly the lowest point of the game, but, fortunately, is only used during certain cutscenes and FMVs. In fact, some of the battle cries for spells and items remain in Japanese. Whether it was an oversight or a way to cut costs, I am not certain, but they are much more preferable to the English voice acting. One surprising thing is that the lead character’s voice actor is Eric Stuart, who voiced Brock for the first eight seasons of Pokémon. Try to not associate the two characters while playing, or you might have your childhood ruined.

The game offers several valuable resources, including a very useful “Help” section in the in-game menu, and a bestiary where you can view all of the creatures you have fought. The “Equip” menu even includes a section where you select the three demons you wish to bring with you into combat to perform Fusion with. Each demon you may Fuse with has three levels, all of which unlock during the course of the game, with a few requiring special conditions needing to be met which are very much worth the effort.

Shadow Hearts | Yuri Death Emperor

Here is Yuri, having transformed into his Death Emperor fusion, which he starts out the game with.

One of the game’s main features is the implementation of the “Judgement Ring” system. Not only is it used in combat, but its also used in mini-games and shopping. There are different segments of the Ring, depending on the situation: A normal ‘hit area’ which lets you succeed at any task you’re doing; a ‘critical area,’ which is a smaller segment of the hit area that increases the effect of what you’re doing; a ‘modulation area’ that is used in certain situations that simply gives you more the closer to the end of it you are; and a ‘step area,’ which are segments you need to hit before activating certain special abilities.

The Judgement Ring is perhaps the game’s key feature, and one that is always brought up whenever one discusses the game. As long as you are confident in your timing, you will be able to make the most of your turn in combat, your haggling in shopping (you get more in selling and buying if you hit the critical area), and you will never face a difficult situation in the occasional mini-games you come across.

Shadow Hearts | Judgment Ring

As you can see, the game also features a lottery mini-game where you can score some great prizes.

Another key feature in the game is called “Malice,” a physical manifestation of the vengeance of the enemies that you have killed along the way in the game. Malice accumulates after every battle, and the amount you receive depends on the enemy/enemies you defeated. This is displayed on a talisman that Yuri carries that changes from Dark Blue (the lowest) all the way to Red (the maximum). If you do not defeat the manifestation of the Malice in Yuri’s mental realm, which changes depending on the amount of Malice you have, you will end up facing the Grim Reaper alone with only Yuri.

Overall, I consider Shadow Hearts a great 30 to 40-hour game (even more if you take advantage of the New Game Plus feature), and one that deserves to be played simply for its bizarre nature and unique concepts. It won’t appeal to everyone, and its disturbing, oppressive nature will turn off several people that are used to more lighthearted fare with their turn-based RPGs, but anyone who wants to try something different should play this game, if not just for the features such as the Judgement Ring and the Fusion ability.

Review Score

About Adam Reese

I have played video games since I was two years old, ever since I could hold an NES Zapper against my TV screen and shoot those darn ducks. Most of my young life, I was without a source of income. Now, I make up for it with buying and playing a lot of games.