Release Date: September 27, 2004
Buy 'SHADOW HEARTS: Covenant': PlayStation 2
One of the problems with this job is that every so often, you find a game that it’s difficult to write about, because writing about it means you’re thinking about it, and thinking about it makes you want to play it for another six hours. This does not create a work-friendly environment.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of those games. By turns self-parodying and surprisingly dramatic, it’s one of the best console RPGs I’ve ever played. It’s not a wholly new thing, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The first Shadow Hearts entered North American markets three years ago with three strikes against it. One was that it shipped six days before Final Fantasy X; another was that it was an indirect sequel to the obscure and unpopular PSOne strategy-RPG Koudelka, and had itself originally been intended for the PSOne.
The last strike is that it was published by Midway in 2001. You can say a lot of good things about Midway, but theirs is not a name that traditionally stands for deep, involving role-playing games. Further, in 2001, they were mostly rehashing arcade titles and porting Gauntlet Legends to every electronic device on the face of the planet, including some models of toaster oven. By comparison, Shadow Hearts got next to no media exposure, but over time, it managed to get a small but dedicated fanbase.
Playing it and its sequel, I can see why. Both games are decent, traditional turn-based RPGs with decent translations, though Covenant improves on the original in every way: graphics, character design, minigames, sound, and music. What makes both games unique is their system and their setting.
Both Shadow Hearts’s central dynamic is the Judgement Ring, a timing-based wheel that determines your success or failure for everything from combat to shopping. In Covenant, you can set the Ring to work automatically, but doing so also limits a character to one hit per attack. Since combat depends on positioning and timing as much as brute force, you can’t just hammer on X and expect to win; you’ll need a certain degree of strategy.
The combat engine is naturally a big part of Covenant, mixing typical RPG fights with the Ring, an element of positioning, and a combo system. Where someone’s standing matters here, as characters who’re too close together can be targeted by area-effect spells, but at the same time, they can go for a combination attack. This works a bit like a timing- and turn-based version of the pop-up hitstrings in Valkyrie Profile; you have to keep each attack’s characteristics in mind when launching them, or you’ll prematurely break the combo. High-level play in Covenant is all about setting up your enemies for the most damaging strings you can manage, using multihit spells, the Judgement Ring, special moves, and each attack’s side effects to your advantage.
The only quirk that Covenant’s combat has, and one that it shares with a number of games, is that you have only the most indirect control over where your characters and enemies are standing. In an engine that makes a big deal over areas of effect and positioning, it’d be nice if more games followed the lead of Grandia II or Lunar, and allowed the player to manually move characters around on the combat map. Covenant’s only nod to that is the ability to set characters up for a combo, which means the only say you have in where everyone’s standing is that if you want, you can choose to make them as vulnerable as possible.
I’m also not a big fan of the Sanity Point system. Each character comes with a set number of SP, which goes up slowly as they gain levels. You use up SP in combat by taking an action, and can gain it back with the use of items or certain rare abilities. If you run out of SP, the character goes berserk, and can no longer be controlled. I’m not sure what it’s doing here, what it accomplishes, or who thought it was a good idea. You get used to it very quickly, and it prevents you from tanking through boss fights by using Yuri’s more powerful monster forms, but it’s probably the weakest part of the system.
Covenant’s setting, however, is arguably a more important distinction than its combat. The fights aren’t terribly new, but the Shadow Hearts games take place in a wholly unique world: early 20th-century Earth. Rather than Generic Scifi/Fantasy World #749, Covenant is set in a sort of pulp-horror Europe and Asia, as seen through the filter of a Japanese RPG. World War I is raging somewhere offscreen, real-world events and figures play crucial roles in the plot, and most of the places you’ll visit are real towns and cities. (That sense of place also lends some characters a sort of mournful air; for example, if you’ve studied Russian history at all, you know damned well that Anastasia Romanov is not headed for a happy ending.)
At the same time, everything’s off-kilter in that familiar RPG way: magic’s real, the Japanese army has a brigade of steampunk mecha, women’s suffrage has apparently gotten a bit further than you’d think, monsters infest the dark corners of the world, swords beat guns every time, demons lay siege to Russia, and everyone’s really very casual about all of this, like it’s not a big deal. Covenant’s Earth would make an interesting setting for a tabletop RPG, and that’s saying something.
Covenant takes place a year after the end of the first game. Ninety years before women were allowed to join the German army (see, there’s that alternate history thing again), Lieutenant Karin Koenig leads her platoon to the French village of Domremy, one of the few towns that’s holding out against the invading Germans. As Karin promptly discovers, this is because Domremy is protected by Yuri Hyuga, the hero of Shadow Hearts and a “harmonixer,” who’s capable of transforming into monsters.
After being forced to retreat, Karin returns to Domremy with an exorcist in tow, only to find out that she’s become part of a secret society’s plot to assassinate Yuri with a power-draining curse. She promptly jumps ship and joins Yuri on a quest to remove that curse and foil the society’s plot to take over Europe.
Covenant will be instantly familiar to fans of the first game. While the graphics are worlds better and they’ve added some voice acting (with varying degrees of success), a lot of the systems are the same. Most of its characteristic features are back and improved, such as monster fusions, the Judgement Ring, the setting, and a certain degree of nonchalant weirdness. In Yuri, it also has one of the most likeable heroes in RPG history.
He’s not an emotionless jackass or painfully earnest teenager; instead, he’s stubborn, sarcastic, occasionally brutal, fairly ignorant, apparently very attractive to gay men, and has a knack for saying exactly what the player’s thinking. By comparison, Karin is usually there to keep Yuri from doing anything too stupid, but at the same time, is an excellent character in her own right: smart, useful, and decidedly free of most of the usual RPG cliches. Your crew also includes characters as disparate as a ditzy Italian fortune-teller, an old French puppeteer, a vampire wrestler, and a white wolf.
The villains, on the other hand, are a weird lot. Since Yuri has a bad habit of actually killing the people he fights, you tend to use up antagonists at a rapid clip. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that you have an entirely different villain on Disc One than you do on Disc Two, and none of them are Oedipal half-angel world-destroying fiends. Instead, they’re just people, and usually have understandable motives for their actions. I thought Suikoden was the only RPG series that paid that much attention to realistic character development, but here they are.
I could go on for several more pages about Covenant, but this is probably a disjointed enough review already. It just works; it combines a challenging combat system with likeable characters and a unique setting to create a truly excellent game. Covenant is easily a contender for the title of best RPG on the PS2.
Score : 9.3/10
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