Yay Midway! After the original Shadow Hearts failed to capture the hearts of supposedly RPG-loving Judases and Landos up and down the land (come on! It was great!), we had very little hope of ever seeing the sequel here in Blighty, or even in the States for that matter. However, perhaps spurred on by the game's success in Japan, perhaps because of some unspoken love of Japanese developer Aruze, or perhaps because the people at the top are just plain friendly (though we doubt the last one), Shadow Hearts 2 is coming out in Europe - under the banner of Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Expect to see it in the shops in late autumn.
Shadow Hearts, for those who missed it, deviated from the traditional turn-based RPG mainly thanks to its Judgement Ring battle system and grounding in the real world (however deviously re-imagined). The Judgement Ring, first of all, was a sort of circle with a pointer (think Wheel of Fortune), which popped up and governed things like how hard you struck an opponent. Pressing the action button when the pointer hovered over a broad hit area would land a normal blow; but the joy of it was that after a while you could speed up encounters and take advantage of your nippy reactions and nimble fingers by trying to land the pointer in a narrower band - thus achieving a heavier blow in the process. It was a good system, and obviously it's back. And this time it will also govern things like team-based combo attacks and defensive formations. Altogether now: Oooh!
There's even an automatic mode to take the challenge out of the Judgement Ring - useful if you exist on some sort of fluctuating delay, or if you play your games through a wormhole, or if you're just plain rubbish.
Whether the game will be worth playing if you can't get a handle on the Judgement Ring is something we'll leave for the review, but there will certainly be an interesting story and curious characters to compensate. The setting hasn't changed much - we're still operating in the early 20th century, about a year after the conclusion of the last game, and the player still controls Yuri, who sets out on a new adventure with Gepetto (grandfather of Alice from the first game) and Kallen (a female German soldier).
Unfortunately, Yuri's not quite as veritable a foe as he became in the last game - his talent is transforming into powerful creatures, rather than basic magic and sword antics as you might expect, but although he retains his various abilities from the first game they have supposedly been weakened by the curse of a nasty chap called Nicholas, a cult member trying to use World War I as a smokescreen to take over the world. Yuri and co. will have to find a way to break the curse and defeat the cult, relying on Yuri's resurgent morphing skills and his compatriots' magical abilities (based on finding and equipping magic symbols).
Reports from Japan indicate a much nicer looking game is on the cards, but despite splitting the game over two DVDs, the actual runtime is said to be less than 30 hours, which could well have Final Fantasy die-hards balking a little (those crazy Chocobo-loving sons of guns). Nevertheless, for us the first game fell under the heading of "good game, shame nobody bought it," so we'll be very keen to see how Shadow Hearts: Covenant plays when we get our hands on it later in the year.