Monsters. Gambling. Aliens. Magic. Gangsters. Pirates. Hot vampires. Guns hidden in guitars. Giant kung fu cats. On paper, this third instalment in the oft-overlooked Shadow Hearts series has everything. Unfortunately, though, that 'everything' includes a predecessor that was always going to take some beating. But while this interesting new RPG may not surpass the last game, it certainly gives it a run for its money in all the right areas.
With such strong foundations to build on (previous game Covenant may well go down as one of the forgotten gems of this generation), the fundamentals were never a worry. And sure enough, the Judgment Ring system still serves its purpose perfectly and carves the series its own little niche. Every action taken in battle is handled by stopping the Judgment Ring at the right time but it's not always as simple as it sounds - multi-hit attacks might need several presses of the X button at the right times while powerful special attacks require lightning reflexes as you attempt to hit five small areas followed by a final section that governs attack strength. If you can hold off until the last moment to hit a section of the ring (hitting the red critical area), your risk is rewarded with additional damage. Handy, especially when combined with accessories that reduce the speed at which the ring rotates to make hitting those tiny areas a little less troublesome. It's a welcome change from the usual menu-heavy combat that so many games fall back on (but hey, if it ain't broke...) and while combat is a key selling point for this or any other RPG, it's far from the only area in which developer Aruze is willing to defy convention.
Picture, if you will, one of those fairground sideshows where you use a hammer to try and ring a bell at the top of a pole. Now imagine the bell has the word 'BONKERS' above it in massive neon lettering. With Covenant, an almighty swing from Aruze fell just shy of the deafening ring of insanity - not many games can boast vampire superheroes, puppeteers that improve their skills by collecting softcore gay porn or street fighting wolves, after all. It was never going to be an easy job to give the Silly-O-Meter a harder thwack but From The New World pretty much knocks the bell clear off. From the moment you learn of Mao, the massive female feline master of drunken boxing, you know what you're getting into and from Grand Canyon resident Natan's self-styled Gun-Fu attacks to Frank the ninja's unerring righteousness and ability to use just about anything he finds as a weapon, things don't get any more standard as the game goes on. Oh no.
If anything, though, the increased insanity this time around actually detracts a little from the game's charm. Covenant managed to tread that fine line between stupid and clever almost to perfection and while From The New World isn't that far off, it does stumble on to the wrong side on more than a few occasions. Matters aren't helped by the fact that almighty production values of 'rival' titles such as Dragon Quest VIII and this gen's Final Fantasy games have set visual standards sky high and while there's a definite style to Aruze's effort, at times it can just look downright ugly. In its defence, there are also a few moments of sheer beauty, but when the PS2 has been throwing around polygons at the hands of the cream of the development crop like nobody imagined it ever could, From The New World's simplicity is at times a little upsetting.
But with a core battle system that keeps you involved every step of the way and a suitably compelling narrative, there can be little doubt that Shadow Hearts: From The New World is a unique and compelling RPG.
With Dragon Quest's stunning UK debut helping to make traditional RPGs 'cool' again, the time might very well be right for Aruze's franchise to finally step into the limelight and garner the success that its quality suggests it should always have had. But the world isn't fair. Just ask Nippon Ichi, whose stunning strategy double act of Disgaea and Makai Kingdom didn't even come close to the commercial success that such genre-defining titles should enjoy. But if fame and fortune should come a-knocking for Shadow Hearts, it seems slightly unfair that it be From The New World that gets people into the series rather than its noticeably superior and more inventive predecessor to which this game owes so much.
Shadow Hearts: From the New World is certainly an entertaining RPG in its own right but not quite the revelation that Covenant proved to be.