Rouen, France - 1913. One month after her father has been murdered, a girl sits inside a Japanese Army luxury train car heading from Changchun to Dairen. An English gentleman approaches and one of the Japanese bodyguards is torn in half like a piece of paper. She asks who he is and his reply is "I am Roger Bacon and I have come to take you away." Just then a mysterious rude hero appears!
Shadow Hearts is an interesting mix of a turn-based RPG with elements of action-adventure thrown in. As you play, you'll meet new friends and foes, gain new magical powers and weapons, and watch the story line unfold. While in many respects it's "just another RPG", there are some interesting new twists that make it stand out from the crowd.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Oddly enough, the first thing I noticed after I found out the game takes place in 1913 is that the characters and their costumes seem quite anachronistic. For instance, there's no way an English girl of that era would wear such a short skirt in public unless she was a prostitute. Likewise, the main hero is often rude, lewd, suggestive, always has a bad attitude, and speaks and acts more like someone from the present than the past. So who cares? I doubt that most people would unless they're looking for some sort of historical accuracy or something. I just found it a little odd although it doesn't detract from the game play at all.
When the game starts, the story is quite cryptic. As with many games these days, the story unfolds as you work your way through the game. These days, so many games seem to try to put more into the story than the game play, so if the story doesn't sound intriguing, why bother with the game? Well I'm happy to say that this isn't the case even if the story doesn't appeal to you. Shadow Hearts has a decent story line, but it also introduces some interesting new game play mechanics that make the game more fun to play than your average turn-based RPG and might just turn the heads of people that don't care for turn-based games all that much.
In addition to all the standard RPG elements such as attributes, different characters with different abilities, various items, weapons, and magical spells, you have a few elements that you won't find in other games. The first you may notice is an attribute called "Sanity Points". The main hero is a "Harmonixer" which means he can morph into certain creatures that he's defeated. Doing this takes its toll on the hero's sanity and if you stay morphed in battle too long, you'll go berserk and lose control of yourself. Next is "Malice". While not really an attribute, the upset soul of every creature you destroy will add to your Malice. If you allow the Malice to build too much, the Grim Reaper will soon visit you (and hopefully you'll be strong enough to cheat death). Malice can be defeated and drained at the local graveyard in your dreams - yes that's right, the hero has a lot on his mind. The more Malice you accrue, the harder it is to defeat. You can also fight some special creatures in the graveyard and once you've beaten them you'll have the ability to morph into them during battle. But more than anything else, the one feature that makes Shadow Hearts unique is a feature called the "Judgment Ring". This is explained below in the "Cool Features" section, but it adds an interesting element that changes the way you'd expect to play a turn-based RPG game.
Moving around the different areas is in real-time. You can walk around, talk with people, and interact with other items in real-time. When you enter into a battle, the game will switch to turn-based mode. You can select to attack, use a special attack, defend, and change your position to either the front or back of the party. Your position will determine if you'll inflict and receive more damage or inflict and receive less damage. You can also elect to flee if you don't think you can handle your foes. All actions while in battle require using the Judgment Ring to perform them (again, see the Cool Features section below for more on the Judgment Ring). I also found that picking up or removing some items from something else requires using the Judgment Ring also. If you fail to use the Judgment Ring properly, you will fail to do whatever action you intended.
As you walk along, you'll eventually meet other people that will join your party as well as NPC townsfolk, peddlers, and yes, even an acupuncturist who will "point" out how to use your weapons better. There are dozens of characters you'll interact with during the course of the game and they all seem to have very strange descriptive names until you actually find out their real name. For instance, the main hero is called "Rude Hero" at the beginning of the game. The name some characters end up actually using depends on you. As you meet people that join your party during the game, you'll have the opportunity to name them whatever you want. Each character has Hit Points (HP), Magic Points (MP), Sanity Points (SP), and a class associated with them. Their class determines how powerful they are against an enemy. For instance, if someone with Fire Class attacks a Water Class monster, they'll be more powerful. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell what class the enemy is until after you've already beaten him/her/it, but it didn't seem to matter too much anyway.
There are lots of different items, weapons, spells, etc. in the game. After acquiring anything, you can always enter the game's menu system to equip yourself or find out more about any of these items. Some items can only be equipped during battle sequences and there are even some items that make operating the Judgment Ring easier. The menu system is a busy place and there are a lot of things to choose. Anyone that's played RPG's in the past shouldn't have too hard of a time navigating it but should you get confused or have a question, check out the game's extensive online help (more on this in the Documentation section below).
The graphics are pretty impressive all around. While the detail in the video cut scenes is better than the art during gameplay, neither seems to be lacking anything worth mentioning. The effects are wonderful and again, they seem to be pretty detail oriented as well. For instance, when walking down the aisle in the train, you can see yourself reflecting off the windows. Being that there are ominous situations galore, you'll see some great looking fog roaming about too. All of the magic is littered with great colorful effects such as bright lights, swirling mists of energy, and wind. Because this is a turn-based game for the most part, you actually can take the time to savor all that eye candy after making your turn decisions.
The sounds seem to be what I'd expect for a game like this. They aren't incredible ear-popping sounds, but they certainly aren't bad either. The music is great, however; and it's varied and appropriate for your current situation. The in-game voiceovers are virtually nonexistent as all of the dialogue is text-based, although there is some talking in the cut scenes.
A combination of character attributes and luck generally govern all turn-based RPG actions your character can perform. The one thing that makes this game stand out and disassociate the "luck" factor more than any other turn-based RPG I've ever played is the Judgment Ring. When you try to select an attack, spell, or even try to muscle an item away from something, you need to watch a line similar to a watch hand move clockwise around the Judgment Ring. You need to press the button when the line is at the appropriate marked positions and if done pproperly, you'll achieve your objective. Some marked positions are solid colors so hitting them anywhere is ok, but there are also gradient marks as well. The closer to the end of the gradient mark you get, the better you'll perform with your action. The marks will change depending on your character, the action performed, and any items or weapons that are used to perform the action. I really liked that how well you perform actions, spells, attacks, or virtually everything else depends on how well you handle the Judgment Ring as opposed to basing it purely on character attributes and luck as so many turn-based RPG's do. This feature also adds a bit of an action element to a portion of the game that otherwise would just be selecting and watching. While not too hard to get the hang of, it's difficult to master use effectively. This addition to the game really makes the game's scenarios feel less like "select an action, watch, and hope it works" than a "select an action, use your real-life skill to hit the ring at the right time, and get results that match your true abilities."
Sure, a manual is included and it tells you some basics about game play, the story, and some of the characters, but the real meat of the documentation is within the game itself. Shadow Hearts has a very in-depth online help system. Although there is a lot of information to glance through here, it is set up in such a way that you won't be too overwhelmed. Initially the help system shows you just the basics of the game and each new item you haven't read is marked with a 'new'? icon. As the game progresses, new items will appear that are relevant to things that have just happened or things that are about to happen. There's even an FAQ included within the game. As you play through the game, you'll find that the various help items will come in very handy, as this game is fairly in-depth.
I generally don't care for dark themes or turn-based games all that much. I'm happy to say Shadow Hearts is definitely an exception and can get addictive. Sure you get to go around and kill monsters and you may even get to morph into some of them afterwards, but there's a psychological aspect in that you also need to cleanse your conscience and keep your sanity about you otherwise bad things will happen. There's more than just selecting an attack and watching the action happen with little other interaction. The most unique element in the game is the usage of the Judgment Ring to accomplish most tasks. As with other RPG's, the standard elements of having lots of items, spells, weapons, characters, and such are all present here. I also feel the game is accurately rated Mature as there are lots of sexually suggestive and racy comments throughout the game. If you're a turn-based or real-time RPG or action-adventure fan and don't mind dark themes, or if you're looking for an RPG with a twist to the average gameplay mechanics, I'd highly recommend this game which is why I give it a score of 87.