When I first heard that Sacnoth was releasing a second role-playing game (RPG) in the same vein as their debut title, Koudelka, my reaction was a lot like Brads, with maybe just a little more interest on my part. Koudelka was an ambitious but deeply flawed game that was even more aggravating because of its lineage (Sacnoth is a company comprised of former employees from Square and SNK). Buried under all the rotten gameplay mechanics, there was a good game in Koudelka—unfortunately, Sacnoth never managed to draw it out.
Shadow Hearts is the game Koudelka should have been—an earnest and intriguing RPG that mixes a historical setting with an occult influence in much the same way the Persona/Megami Tensei games have been doing for years. The end result is one of the darkest and most interesting console RPGs to come along in recent memory (the only other games that really compare are Atlus Persona titles). Sacnoth clearly learned from their errors with Koudelka, and its because of this that Shadow Hearts is so good.
One of the greatest flaws of Koudelka was its tedious gameplay—particularly the painfully flawed battle system. Shadow Hearts opts for a more traditional combat system, but with a twist. The inclusion of the Judgment Ring is a welcome addition to the standard RPG formula. No longer is combat a simple matter of making menu selections—some hand-eye coordination is also required as the player must stop a spinning pointer on several shaded areas of the wheel in order to execute actions. The addition of the Judgment Ring more actively involves the player in battles. However, unlike similar systems in games like The Legend Of Dragoon, the Judgment Ring is easy to use.
Like Brad, I couldnt help but be intrigued by the story that Shadow Hearts tells. The mixing of historical perspective with an occult influence running amok behind the scenes is an interesting one. Instead of traveling to oddly named kingdoms, gamers will be exploring places like Shanghai, London, and other foreign locales. Those looking for knights and dragons will be disappointed—the monsters in Koudelka are all human or demon. Its a great change of pace, though. RPGs are a genre that has become mired in conventional storytelling—and while the driving influence of Shadow Hearts is still a quest to save the world, the execution makes it all play out in a way that is quite different from the traditional games in the RPG field.
Brad does a nice job pointing out a few of the games shortcomings, but there was one I thought he missed. The graphics, while nice when traversing the world (where 3-D polygon characters move around on pre-rendered 2-D backgrounds), are pretty ugly when on the battle screen. In battle, character models and monsters look decent, but the arenas that the battles take place in are lacking overall. Buildings and surroundings are often comprised of a minimal number of polygons with some really low-resolution textures. In some ways, it looks a lot like a really nice Playstation title—which is a bit disappointing for a PlayStation 2 game.
At any rate, the flaws in Shadow Hearts are minor ones at best—worth noting in the interest of being fair and completely analytical, but hardly anything that should keep an RPG fan from experiencing this game. Shadow Hearts is an impressive RPG—one that certainly takes all of the flaws of Koudelka and improves on them completely. The end result is one of the PlayStation 2's most underrated RPGs—a game that was overshadowed by the release of Final Fantasy X. Thats a shame, because Shadow Hearts is a really good game, and proof that Sacnoth may indeed live up to their potential as developers.