Technically sound but dramatically inert, Shadow Hearts: From the New World is another disappointing entry in a series that started off phenomenally and has proceeded to travel on a steadily downward slope ever since.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the Shadow Hearts titles are turn-based Role-Playing Games (RPGs) that deviate from the standard offerings by setting themselves in real-world locations and employing a turn-based combat/interaction system that requires active participation on the part of the player.
This system, called the "Judgment Ring," is a cornerstone of Aruze's work that continues to permeate every aspect of the experience. Looking a little like a floating pie chart, the Ring has a fast-moving hand that sweeps around clockwise. Instead of simply pushing a button to confirm an attack or win an item, players must stop the hand as it passes over "hotspots" on the Ring. With good timing and skill, goals are achieved. Time it poorly and enemies go unscathed, bonuses lost.
Further enhancing the technical depth, the developers spared no expense in detailing the choices available to players who want to spend time customizing their characters' combat abilities. Not only is the Judgment Ring highly flexible (changing the size and number of the hit zones, status effects, and so on), there's also a customizable magic system based on the Zodiac that can be completely modified, not to mention that each character has his or her own individual set of abilities that can be either customized or enhanced.
For players who really sink their teeth into the nuts and bolts of how an RPG works, there are few games on the market that can top a Shadow Hearts title. For players who care about characters and the kind of epic, touching story that great RPGs can present, From the New World is a total disappointment.
While the first entry in this series was a perfect blend of Gothic horror, strong characterization, and humorous adventure, the developers have lost this thread and instead have spun off into the land of total absurdity. For example, having an eclectic cast is one thing, but having a band of free-association oddballs like a 15-year-old private detective who uses magic for no apparent reason, or a senior citizen "ninja" trained in South America under a giant, filmmaking cat goes too far when the adventure takes place in early American locales like gangster-era Chicago, New York, the Grand Canyon and other scenes that have a set style and sense. It's as though the developers have utterly abandoned all attempts to make the stars of the game even remotely appropriate to their settings, and the entire game suffers for it.
The twin barriers of anachronism and incongruity make it impossible to get into the game on any level except that of bad farce. The plot is thin and makes little sense, there's no motivation to drive forward, and the term "emotional investment" simply does not apply here. Although I have no problem with humor in games, From the New World strikes all the wrong notes and never gets the story off the ground with its awkward jumble of elements. If I'm going to be spending twenty or thirty hours with a game, I want to care about what I'm doing—that's too much time to waste on something that's as impactful as a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.
I'm very sad to see that the developers have lost the magic that the first Shadow Hearts had. It's clear that they've nailed the technical half of the formula (and have had it down for a while now), but half a game is still half a game—I would have preferred that they spend less time tweaking something that wasn't broken and instead focus on the intellectual side. If it's supposed to be funny, make it funny and skip all of the halfhearted attempts at drama. If the story is the key element, then play it up and reduce the too-frequent forays into the realm of ridiculousness—or better yet, keep trying for the brass ring and reclaim the masterful chiaroscuro of laughter and horror that had me so captivated the first time around.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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