Shadow Hearts: Covenant


In the world of Shadow Hearts: Covenant, history and mythology meet and make one really crazy baby. Mary explores the latest title in the best series you’ve never played.

In the shadows
No matter the genre, sequels are usually considered cursed. When the original is a solid piece of work, it’s tough to improve; staying close to home eventually becomes tiring and contrived, but at the same time it’s dangerous and risky to experiment with something new.

Apparently someone forgot to tell Nautilus (formerly Sacnoth) about that, because every new game in the Shadow Hearts series just gets better and better. The previous Shadow Hearts improved upon its predecessor (Koudelka) in practically every aspect possible, and incredibly, Shadow Hearts: Covenant does likewise.

If the series does have any curse, it’s definitely the fact that it’s chronically overlooked. Sales in both Japan and North America were not particularly spectacular; enough that I was really surprised and grateful that 1) a sequel was even made in the first place and 2) that it was actually licensed to be distributed in North America. I blame poor marketing decisions for not giving this series the fanfare it deserves. The previous Shadow Hearts had the misfortune of being released in NA at the same time as Final Fantasy X. Yet again, in Japan, Shadow Hearts: Covenant coincided with the release of Final Fantasy X-2, and in NA the long-hyped Fable preceded it by mere days. (Don’t these people learn?!)

The series didn’t stand a chance against souped-up, mainstream brand names, but that’s no fault of its own; enough of these politics and just know that this is seriously an RPG experience not to be missed. Here’s why.

Gameplay and presentation
The battle system may seem out-of-date at first with its random encounter, turn-based setup. Shadow Hearts: Covenant, however, shows that the traditional (re: old) can still be engaging and addictive with the right tools.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant gameplay revolves around the Judgement Ring. For the uninitiated, the Judgement Ring in its most basic form is a ring with coloured segments and a rotating indicator. Success means hitting the ring as the indicator sweeps into the appropriate sections.

It definitely requires a degree of timing and hand-eye coordination, but don’t let that intimidate you. The system has been overhauled from the previous game and there’s a great deal of accommodation available. Each character’s Ring can be customized to change the number and size of the hit and strike (effect amplifying) areas, and various Ring items will allow you to add status effects to his or her attacks. There are also different Ring types you can choose from (ie. Practice or Gamble), which will change factors such as indicator speed, hit area size etc. to suit your own abilities. If you just can’t seem to get the hang of it, there’s always Auto-Ring, which will save you all the trouble (but lower your damage potential).

Apart from the standard HP and MP, there are also SP – Sanity Points – to watch out for. Every turn in battle taxes willpower, and if left unattended a character will eventually Berserk from the strain.

Up to four characters are active in battle, and their actions will take them all over the field. Basic attacks have five types: Standard, Hard Hit, High Angle and Knock Down. Each will result in a slightly different string of attacks, and this plays a key role in the Combo system.

By positioning characters properly on the field, you can link up to four characters’ attacks and create a successive chain of assault, allowing faster and greater damage. Additionally, if you have a four-character Combo and the first three pull through, the last character can access Combo Magic – a list of powerful spells that are a mystery until they’re used. Unfortunately, the Combo will break and the rest of the characters won’t be able to complete their attacks if you miss on your Judgement Ring, get characters knocked aside from enemy attacks, or miss the enemy on any part in your sequence. In the case of the latter, it’s why attack types are an important consideration – if the enemy is knocked down and low into the ground, for instance, the next attack may miss depending on what you choose.

Aside from basic attacks, each character also possesses a unique special ability. As a Harmonixer, for example, Yuri is capable of fusing with demon spirits to use their powers, while Karin learns new Sword Arts as she studies the stage directions for operatic fight scenes. Aside from these unique skills, a huge array of offensive and defensive spells are also available through the use of equippable Crests. At the end of battle, experience is conveniently distributed among ALL characters, including ones who didn’t participate in battle.

There’s a lot involved in customizing, equipping and just plain pumping your characters’ individual abilities up. Fortunately, the game takes you step-by-step in quick tutorials and allows you to get accustomed to things before presenting anything new. Plus, if you tend towards scatterbrainedness (like me), you’ll be delighted with Shadow Hearts: Covenant’s massive in-game Help menu. This handy, well-organized feature is accessible at any time, and provides summarized info and explanations on everything you need to know about the gameplay.

Visually, the game is a delight. The colour palette is mellow, full of earthy tones and sunsets – perfectly conveying the setting of a world drenched in history. Since many of the places you visit actually exist, there’s a significant degree of realism in the architecture and appearance of various locations.

Rather than following the hyperrealism road that most RPG graphics are taking these days, Shadow Hearts: Covenant chooses a somewhat more stylized path, making the in-game models closer to the original drawn character designs. I found this much more appealing, and it also gave the game a more distinct look. Faces are subtle and expressive, while motion – especially the battle animation – is fluid and well-done.

Monster models are as diverse as before; the development team has dreamed up a new army of strange and disturbing critters. The one major fault is that monster varieties in individual regions are rather limited, so it may get tiring to see the same old same old over and over as you’re making your way through an area. On the flip side, it makes things more convenient when you’re collecting monster data (part of another character’s special ability) for completionist purposes.

Yuri’s fusion souls also receive stylish makeovers. While the Grade 1 fusions look fairly plain (merely modified from Yuri’s basic character model), Grade 2 fusions are quite stunning. Grade 3 is simply colour-swapped Grade 2 models, but as you progress through the game, you likely won’t ever use the lower-level fusions again.

Yet another cosmetic – but appreciated – returning feature is the Library. Here you can view rotatable models of every single monster and major character you encounter, along with a brief profile.

There are many sidequests/optional areas and minigames, enough to whet and satisfy any gamer’s appetite. Most of these are very character-oriented and, more often than not, hilarious in their impertinence. A fun Score feature also tracks your gameplay stats (ie. Ring Success Rate, the distance you’ve walked, how many times each character has participated in battle, and your overall ranking). As in Shadow Hearts, once you’ve beaten the final boss, you can create a clear game save and start a new game with carried-over data. What’s more, a Theatre function will open up, enabling you to watch major cutscenes whenever you wish.

Story and characters
The nature of Shadow Hearts: Covenant is difficult to summarize, but let me try to do it in one sentence.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a historical, sci-fi ghost story adventure on crack.

Really.

Okay, I guess that warrants further explanation.

The end of Shadow Hearts was a premonition of change (as a point of interest, every sequel in the Shadow Hearts series has taken the bad ending of the previous game as the “true” ending). It contained a historical footnote: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary, an event that would become the primary catalyst for World War I. From this point, we jump six months after the previous game.

It is 1915, the dawn of the 20th century, and the world is on the brink of the Great War. As Germany moves to dominate Europe, the small and seemingly inconsequential French village of Domremy refuses to fall to its power. Rumours circulate of a demon that lives in the church, protecting the people. Lieutenant Karin Koenig is assigned to lead her unit into Domremy to investigate the rumours, and what she finds there is only the beginning of an unimaginable journey.

The world of Shadow Hearts: Covenant feels extremely rich and nostalgic – no surprise since it’s our own (in spite of what the legal disclaimer at the beginning of the game might say!), albeit an alternate universe where the occult is commonplace. Shadow Hearts: Covenant has the soul of one of those old, globe-trotting adventurer/explorer stories. There is serious world-traveling here, including many real-life locations in France, Italy, Russia and Japan, to name just a few of the countries that make an appearance.

The inclusion of numerous cultural/historical artifacts, events and people – both in the background and at the forefront of the story – is simply astounding. Naturally, the game takes many creative liberties, but, all things considered, it’s quite accurate in representing the atmosphere and relationships of the time period. History buffs will get a huge kick out of it!

But while it has the soul of an epic, its heart is irreverence. Aside from saving the world, Shadow Hearts: Covenant still has plenty of time and capability to spoof things like comic books and science fiction, and even – or perhaps especially – its own history (as a matter of fact, it seems to have way too much fun taking shots at itself!).

Every character has a vivid personality, and all of them are whacky, oddly appealing and more than enough to carry a story on their own. A famous puppeteer, an S&M queen and an aspiring wrestler-superhero vampire are just a few of the colourful characters you’ll meet. Yet even with the tough competition, the show-stealer is, without a doubt, returning anti-hero Yuri Hyuga, as lovably snarky and disrespectful as ever. (And he isn’t the only reappearing character – Shadow Hearts fans will thrill to see the number of familiar faces and the high profile many of them have!)

How can something be so insanely ridiculous and yet still work as a serious, compelling epic? I have no freaking clue, but it does and I love it. Shadow Hearts: Covenant picks up directly where Shadow Hearts left off, fleshing out the motives and stories of the previous game and expanding the worldview and background even more. Gamers unfamiliar with the Shadow Hearts series need not fear getting lost, because the majority of main characters are new themselves. Enough of the previous game’s story is explained to resolve most background confusion regarding the current conflict.

The sensitive are cautioned – it does spoil the story and (bad) ending of the original Shadow Hearts. However, the connections between the games are explained and reverse-engineered so well that overlaps don’t feel repetitive at all. You could very well play Shadow Hearts: Covenant first and then enjoy Shadow Hearts as an expanding prequel.

Sound and music
Richard Epcar, well-known in RPG circles as the voice of Ziggy in Xenosaga, directed the voices for Shadow Hearts: Covenant. All I can say is, Mr. Epcar, I think I love you. The voice acting in this game is nothing short of superb. In fact, I would venture so far as to say, if they were to be turned off, you’d be missing out on a lot.

One of the few detractions from the game is that the subtitles and the spoken dialogue often don’t match. The main words and essence are there, so you’ll have no trouble understanding if you just read. But there are many subtle changes, side comments and hilarious interjections that really flesh out the characters and make every scene even more entertaining.

As for the soundtrack, it’s as quirky and ambient as everything else. You may have heard games where the music sounds like a big mess – nothing but noise. Well, Shadow Hearts: Covenant makes noise into music. Classical and more conventional instruments like piano, violin and guitar play comfortably alongside heavy static, eerie scratching, rhythmic rattling and undecipherable voices on Yoshitaka Hirota’s captivating soundtrack. The end result is something truly exotic and unique.

Many of the themes from the previous Shadow Hearts make a reprisal here, particularly the distinctive melody of the main theme ICARO (such as its slightly reworked appearance in the gorgeous opening ICARO Again). And I just have to note that two of the songs you will hear most often – the first world map and battle themes – are awesome. Old Smudged Map is rich and dreamy, infused with a misty Old World mood, while Vicious 1915 is a heart-pounding, static-charged piece with spectral human voices.

An extra track, remixed by Midway, has been added in the North American release for certain boss battles. It makes an intriguing addition to an intense, eclectic soundtrack, one that’s equally compelling with the game or on its own.

Dark horse rising
Some people might be wondering, since Shadow Hearts: Covenant is rated Teen while its predecessors were both Mature, has its dark adult humour been toned down – or worse, child-proofed? Actually, no. To be honest, I’m a little surprised it managed a Teen rating at all, since a lot of the situations and dialogue are … quite … suggestive. Let that be your warning.

These days, a lot of RPGs seem to forget their own name. They’re called role-playing games for a reason – please note that there are two parts to the experience. I find a lot of recent titles place tons of emphasis on gameplay and little on story, or try to take themselves way too seriously and forget that they’re games in the first place (they should be called role-playing lectures).

Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the game that other RPGs want to be. It made me remember why I love the genre in the first place. It strikes the perfect balance between game and story, and pushes itself to excellence everywhere else. It leaves a taste in your mouth that’s decidedly different and refreshingly offbeat. It’s a truly compelling RPG with very, very little – if any – misses.

So please give this baby the good home it deserves. I’ll cry with joy.

Game Data
Title: Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Developer: Nautilus
Publisher: Midway
Release: 2004

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