Here's the deal. There's this guy - fairly normal chap, goes by the name of Johnny Garland, deeply androgynous in that way which Japanese designers seem to think is hot (as distinct from merely confusing). He's on an adventure of some description; the adventure doesn't matter right now. What does matter is the people he's with.
His sidekick, the female lead of this piece, is a Native American who keeps transforming into powerful native spirits - but she's the least of his worries. The motley band he has assembled also includes Frank, an American ninja who speaks in an appalling mock-Japanese accent and studied in a dojo in the Amazon. There's a chap called Natan who specialises in the long-lost art of "gun-fu", a combination of firearms and chop socky which we suspect has been long lost for a good reason.
Then there's Hilda, a schizophrenic vampire and insatiable gourmand whose personality and combat abilities shift radically according to how many calories she has consumed that day. And then there's Mao, a lazy talking cat who turns out to be Frank's sensei - and has a hand (a paw?) in movie production, not to mention some involvement with the mob...
The third instalment in Aruze's completely bonkers Shadow Hearts RPG series will get a PAL release on PlayStation 2 this May, courtesy of Ghostlight (go on, curtsy).
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.