Star Review: Shadow Hearts (PS2)
Critics of Japanese RPGs often refer to the fact that most examples of the genre have a 'certain familiarity' about them. Fantasy worlds, random battles, spiky-haired youths, unrequited love and an all-powerful nemesis ready to pop the planet out of existence do, it has to be said, feature with alarming regularity. If you're the kind of person who scoffs at that kind of stuff, then Shadow Hearts will do little to change your mind. That said, if you're the kind of person who laps that stuff up then Shadow Hearts is a great example. Not only that, it adds a few new and unusual ideas into the mix which set it apart from the mainstream JRPG market.
At first all is familiar. You take control of Yuri, a spiky-haired youth who is charged by voices in his head to protect Alice (the token 'weedy magical type') from the attentions of one Roger Bacon, an evil necromancer with a 'let's destroy the world' complex. You build a party, travel around, hack stuff to bits, level up, and so on. But then you notice a few 'odd' things.
For one, the setting isn't your typical Dungeons and Dragons cliché. The game is set in late-nineteenth century Europe and Asia, and the varied bestiary of creatures are more Silent Hill than Final Fantasy - a collection of twisted demons and grotesque half-human abominations. Then there's the combat system which uses the 'judgement ring'. When you go to hit something you're presented with a circle containing three triangles. A pointer swings around the circle once and the more triangles you hit, the more punches you throw. It's fast, not as difficult as it sounds, and adds a bit more skill to the standard fighting mix.
Possibly the most interesting idea is Yuri's 'harmonixer' ability. Yuri absorbs the souls of any beasts he kills, and can temporarily assume the form of some of the bigger ones once he's beaten them up - becoming more powerful and receiving a set of new attacks in the process. However, absorbing evil also has a downside in the form of the 'Malice'. This builds up with every creature you defeat and must be quieted every now and then by visiting 'The Graveyard' - a place which only exists within Yuri's mind - and defeating his inner turmoil by punching its lights out. Yes, it sounds weird... but it's very original.
So... all great, yes? Well, not quite. If you're used to the level of graphics in Final Fantasy X then you're in for quite a shock. Shadow Hearts features some quite remarkably nice CGI, but unlike FFX these clips are few and far between. The actual engine graphics are varied to say the least - most models are okay, but some of the pre-drawn backdrops are shockingly low-res even by PSone standards. The translation also leaves quite a lot to be desired - to say that it's 'corny' is possibly the understatement of the century.
These two negative points are possibly the reason why the game met with lacklustre reviews when it first appeared back in 2001, but if you can ignore the technical shortcomings then there's a fine 30-hour adventure waiting here for you, including seven playable characters, a variety of side-quests and multiple endings. Couple this with the fact that it's now available for about twelve quid from some shops and you can't go far wrong. This is one of the more enjoyable RPGs of this generation, and it's a shame that it has been overlooked even by many fans of the genre.
8 / 10