As a gamer, do you ever notice that some development studios tend to turn out the same substandard kind of product without ever stepping back to evaluate their handiwork before churning out a sequel? Im not talking about the debugging process or other technical things like that, but rather, game design and philosophy in general. When you play a game that seems to have the right elements and good ideas, its too bad when the gameplay fails to come together—but whats puzzling is when a sequel comes out that repeats the exact same missteps of the first title. There have been numerous games that fall into this trap, and it boggles me each time.
The creators of Shadow Hearts, development team Sacnoth, are comprised of a group of escapees from industry legends Square and SNK. One of their first efforts, the PlayStation role-playing game (RPG) Koudelka was nothing short of a major flop in terms of sales as well as reviews. It had an interesting set of characters and a good plot, but the actual gameplay was terrible. I have no idea what convinced them that it was a good game, and to be perfectly honest, I didnt expect them to be around for much longer.
When I had heard talk about a follow-up game, I was seriously hesitant to try it. In spite of my misgivings and the memories of Koudelka that still haunt me, I decided to give Sacnoth another chance. Im extremely glad that I did. Shadow Hearts is such a complete turnaround that I would have never guessed it was from the same team. After seeing that they had both re-evaluated their approach and reworked their formula from top to bottom, its clear that they are the sort of developers this industry needs more of. Every studio turns out a dud once in a while, but learning from your mistakes counts for a hell of a lot in my book. While I dont have an official GameCritics.com award to hand out, I would like to give Sacnoth both my personal respect and a hugely deserved nod for "Most Improved Developer."
Shadow Hearts is set in the early 1900s and tells the story of Yuri Hyuga. Yuri is a tough scrapper who has the unique ability to "fuse" with demons he defeats, assuming their form. He is guided by a mysterious voice in his head to board a train in China and rescue a strange girl he has never seen before. After locating her, he discovers that she is in the process of being kidnapped by Roger Bacon, a centuries-old warlock. Upon making their escape, they have several adventures together and gather a band of people along the way who all have special or supernatural abilities. Ultimately, your quest is to pool their strengths and thwart Bacons nefarious scheme.
On the surface, its an RPG that shares many things in common with other games in the genre. Systems like leveling up, item usage, and random battles are all implemented as they are in nearly every other role-player. Its a solid and proven foundation for RPGs, employing most of the usual conventions made standard back in the 8-bit days. The graphics in the traveling areas consist of pre-rendered backdrops with 3D polygonal characters superimposed on top of them, very similar to Resident Evil. During battle, the game switches to a fully 3D presentation most comparable to the more recent Final Fantasy incarnations.
Where Shadow Hearts diverges greatly from the norm is the combat engine. Instead of simply having the usual drop-down menus and letting players sit passively while watching the results of their selection, Shadow Hearts puts a new spin on things (pun intended) with the so-called "Judgement Ring". When choosing actions during battles or other scripted events, a ring with highlighted target zones will appear. If you can imagine a large clock colored like a pie chart, youll get the basic idea. When the rings arm sweeps around, the player must carefully click on each of the rings colored "hot" zones in order to successfully perform the move. To make things even more interesting, there are extremely small areas of the Ring that award bonuses to your actions if you can land on them. If you miss either the hot zones or bonus zones, the action fails. While some RPG enthusiasts may raise concerns about needing hand-eye coordination, Im sure that most gamers will have little problems with this innovative system.
The other main difference was the inclusion of Sanity Points besides the standard Health and Magic during encounters. Since much of the game involves arcane energies and demons, each character has a Sanity meter that slowly drains during the course of a battle. Characters who have significant dark sides or who are more familiar with the occult are able to maintain their sanity longer in the face of strange situations. Characters who are more "normal," and not used to getting rapidly thwacked by a demons huge phallus will crack sooner. After losing all Sanity Points, they will enter a panicked and out-of-control state similar to being "confused" in most RPGs.
In general, I think what had the most impact were Shadow Hearts tone and settings. With most of the games events taking place in China prior to a World War, Sacnoth managed to intertwine certain real-life political elements in addition to the usual total-conquest fantasy-type motivations one would usually expect. I find the way the game sets up the real world as a frame of reference, and then adds a twist of the occult, to be highly appealing. Its almost as though theyre telling the player that strange things are hidden all around us everyday—that our world is rich with magic, monsters and powers we dont understand if only we would open our eyes and see them. Sadly, its not a motif that is used very often in RPGs, with Persona 2 and the Fear Effect series (both excellent) being the only other games to try this approach in recent memory.
Besides the involving story structure, I found the characters and dialogue to be above average. Shadow Hearts manages to cover some deep and emotional areas while not getting bogged down in depressing pathos or standing on a soapbox to preach at the player. The characters are scripted to react and grow in a realistic and believable manner. By the games conclusion, youll feel as though theyve changed and matured more than youd first expect. At the same time, Shadow Hearts isnt what Id exactly call a completely serious story, either. Some of the games sections are approached with something of an Indiana-Jones-meets-X-Files type of laissez-faire adventuring, and it easily entertains with some witty banter and snappy one-liners. There are genuine laughs to be had here, so you get a story thats not only smart enough to poke fun at itself, but has a fair amount of depth to it as well.
While the things I just mentioned would usually be enough to win me over, Sacnoth didnt stop there. The pace and flow of the game are excellent, with almost no dead space to be found anywhere. Its extremely easy to play with almost no need for leveling up at all, and the town and dungeon designs are very tight and focused. Youll never be lost, or wonder where to go next. Important events happen one right after another, and you constantly have a goal to work towards. Some people may feel that the game is too rigid and doesnt allow for enough free roaming, but I find that a well-structured tale is a well-told tale, and thats what I prefer in a console-style RPG. Incidentally, there are actually a wealth of sidequests to do later in the game, but you have to dig a little to find them since the developers tend to keep nudging you towards the narrative.
As for the areas of the game that need improvement, there arent many. The biggest and most obvious thing I can see would be to beef up the visual presentation. Basically, it comes off as though it was originally developed for the PlayStation and then quickly upgraded to the PlayStation 2. As it is, many of the characters look a bit boxy compared to some of the other recent titles on shelves, and its not as visually arresting as it could be. The pre-rendered backgrounds are nice enough and definitely create the right mood, but the days of this approach are severely numbered, if not already over. It was fine for a while during the 32-bit era, but moving polygon characters over static backgrounds just doesnt cut it anymore. (Capcom, please take note.)
As far as the gameplay goes, there were two tweaks I would like to see implemented in any future sequels. First off, the "bonus" system of the Judgement Ring wasnt very well balanced. The choice between a possible bonus and losing your turn was generally not worth the risk, since you only increase your attack or healing powers by a negligible amount. As a result, I found myself never even trying for the bonus unless I was goofing off or leveling up. I certainly dont mind the fact that the bonus was so hard to hit reliably unless youve got incredible hand-eye skills, but Sacnoth needs to make it worth your while if you do manage to hit it. A failed attempt on the wheel can mean the difference between winning and losing a crucial battle, and with such little payoff Im sure most gamers are going to be playing it safe.
Secondly, I found that there was no good way of determining an enemys elemental alignment during a battle. This is a concern because elements dont quite work the way they do in most traditional RPGs. The booklet states that the priorities follow Feng Shui, Yin/Yang and Ayurveda principles. While being vaguely familiar with some of these philosophies and systems, I wouldnt say that it was entirely clear how they were applied during a battle. What it boils down to is that I tended to completely ignore the elemental aspect and simply dish out standard attacks unless I already knew the enemys info, and knew what aspect was strong against it. That wasnt often. A little elaboration in this area would help open up some elegance the combat doesnt make fully accessible.
Finally, there were a few hiccups in the translation that led to slight misunderstandings during some of the conversations. There were no major goofs, and none of it was game-ruining, but there were a few times where I let out a "huh?" during some cutscenes due to unclear context or some awkward phrasing. Dont let these small quibbles deter you, though—theyre pretty minor nitpicks in the face of everything else the game gets right.
Shadow Hearts is a streamlined, engaging RPG that was sadly burdened with some pretty pathetic cover art. Once past this, I predict that most RPG fans will eat the game up. Its hard to put into words, but theres just this feeling I get from Shadow Hearts it strikes me as being very earnest and possessing more heart and soul than other titles Ive played recently. Its almost as if I can feel the positive intent and hard work of the developers radiating from the disc. Everything just clicks. Im also surprised to say that this is the first-ever RPG that Ive enjoyed enough to willingly track down all of the optional items and subquests, and thats something coming from me. This is a great game, a great comeback for Sacnoth, and proof that there are still some developers out there who arent willing to make the same mistake twice.