Publisher: XSeed Games
Release Date: March 7, 2006
Whenever I hear someone complaining that RPGs, particularly Japanese RPGs, need a kick in the ass, I usually direct them to the Shadow Hearts series. This is because the Shadow Hearts series has been delivering said kick for the last five years or so, but has never gotten the sales figures it deserves.
The first game launched three days before the vastly inferior Final Fantasy X, and the second was a casualty of the killing fields of late 2004, when everyone and their mom released a triple-A title in the same three months. Both games eventually picked up a manic fanbase -- which is presumably why I can't find a #@$%ing copy of Shadow Hearts: Covenant anywhere -- but not in time to make them anywhere near sales successes.
The third game in the series, Shadow Hearts: From the New World, has a new cast, a new publisher, a new setting, and is generally another thing we don't see often enough: an idiosyncratic and absorbing game that's capable of intensely dramatic cutscenes and nearly hallucinogenic acts of sheer insanity, sometimes within the same fifteen minutes. One moment, a young woman is murdered, forcing her lover on a rampage of revenge against an entire family of Chicago mobsters; the next, I am forced to watch the antics of a bipedal cat who practices drunken-master kung fu.
The cat's Satan, by the way. I'm sure of it.
From the New World takes place about ten years after the second game, in 1920s New York City. Johnny Garland has just opened a private detective agency, three years after the deaths of his father and sister in an unspecified accident. His first real case, a simple issue of chasing down a bail jumper, becomes markedly less simple when said bail jumper is eaten by a monster.
As it turns out, the world is still dealing with the problems caused in Shadow Hearts: Covenant, when Nikolai unleashed the power of Malice onto the world. Johnny winds up teaming up with Shania, an American Indian with the power to fuse her body with a spirit and transform into a new creature (fans of the franchise will recognize this as the same power Yuri had), and her partner Natan, an Indian gunslinger.
Unsurprisingly, unsnarling the problems from Johnny's case, and dealing with Shania's quest to protect humanity from the Malice, will wind up being oddly related. So will Johnny's sudden manifestation of unusual powers… and a mysterious and silent woman who's wandering North America with a strange plan of her own.
Along the way, you'll visit a series of cities throughout North and South America; get wrapped up with Al Capone's mob; become acquainted with the most ridiculous ninjas in video game history; break into both Alcatraz and Roswell; battle a series of monsters that are literally from the darkly fertile mind of H.P. Lovecraft; run into a few old friends from past games; and see a weird slice of American history through the weirdly distorted lens of your average Japanese RPG. For example, I'm almost positive you didn't know before now that Paramount Pictures was founded by cats, or that Arkham University's maintenance tunnels are inhabited by a bizarre species of monster.
That is because both facts are patently untrue. It'd be funny, though.
You'll acquire the usual idiosyncratic group of allies, such as a vampire who must drain calories from her opponents to gain access to her true powers; a mariachi with an enormous arsenal of firearms hidden within his guitar (all similarities to Desperado and Once Upon A Time in Mexico would appear to be wholly intentional); the stupidest ninja ever; and the aforementioned drunken-master cat.
You'll also benefit from the traditional Shadow Hearts protagonist's ability to magnetically attract every single homosexual within a thousand miles to his location (I do not mean "gay" in the sense of a school kid calling you "stupid," I mean they are men who like other men; please remember that this is the sequel to a game that actually made you run out and look for gay porn), some of whom will actually be beneficial. One of the Magineau brothers from Covenant returns to provide oddly convenient shop access, showing up everywhere you go--up to and including highly secret locations it took you three hours to access--to sell you much-needed items and weapons.
The combat engine in From the New World retains the use of the customizable Judgement Ring, which requires the player to carefully time his button presses, hitting X as a needle spins around a disc, in order to gain the full benefit from a given turn. You can still modify it by using a variety of items to slow down the Ring's spin, add more attacks to it, widen the needle's hit zones, or even turn the Ring off entirely and turn the game into a conventional, if much harder, RPG.
At the same time, the combo system from Covenant has been revised, lending it more flexibility and less abusability. In Covenant, you could combo all day if you felt like it; in From the New World, using combos or even certain combo-starting attacks will require you to spend special-attack meter, which is recharged gradually over the course of combat. You can string together multiple-hit combos with more than one character (although Covenant's godlike four-person 100+ hit combos appear to be a thing of the past), or use the meter to let a single character act twice in one turn. One efficient tactic is to spend the meter to attack, then immediately Defend, which is excellent in one-on-one duels.
That combo system is part of the kick in the ass I mentioned, as it makes average combats a great deal more tactical than you'd otherwise expect them to be. The meter recovers quickly enough that you can go ahead and use combos to level a tenacious ordinary enemy, but not so quickly that you can combo your way through the game.
That kick's matched by another one from the game's story and setting. Shadow Hearts is set in a sort of bizarre pulp-fiction Earth, where everything is off-kilter but still oddly recognizable. You're not lost in Fantasy World #2350 following yet another angsty teenager around through yet another steampunk dystopia. Instead, your "dungeons" are hotels and military bases, peopled by historical and fictional people, like Al Capone, Elliot Ness, and HP Lovecraft.
The main cast's at least as interesting as the setting. Johnny's a firm believer in the Earnest Young Protagonist school of thought, but he has enough of a sarcastic edge to make him interesting… and frankly, the rest of the cast could all be stick figures and Ricardo would make them awesome by sheer proximity. He's the mariachi I mentioned, and he apparently has the entire 101st Airborne crammed into his acoustic guitar. The moment he brandished it at an enemy and a flamethrower popped out of the end, I knew that he was possibly the greatest thing in the entire series.
I kind of despise both Frank, the ninja, and Meow, the drunken-fist cat, but you don't have to use them. They're fighter-types with their own assortment of moves; Frank can learn a series of ninjitsu powers, and Meow gets stronger the drunker he gets.
Shania and her fusions are among the strongest weapons in your arsenal, and you'll pick up a few alternate forms for her as the story progresses. She begins with Thunderbird, a winged angel with bizarre powers, and as you pick up more forms for her, she'll gradually acquire more tattoos and abilities.
There's also Hildegard Valentine, whose weight and form fluctuates as you drain calories from enemies with a special ability. When she's fat, she's a fair spellcaster, and she's a strong fighter in bat form, but when she's skinny, she turns into a self-conscious anime cliché dominatrix bitch from hell. She's Etna in a Victorian miniskirt.
March isn't traditionally a big season for RPGs, so hopefully, Shadow Hearts: From the New World will get the audience the entire series deserves. The graphics haven't made an enormous leap from Covenant and the voice acting's taken a bit of a turn for the worse (Hilde and Anne's voice actresses are somewhat painful to listen to), but the gameplay and the laughs are still here. Any RPG fan needs these games in his library, whether it's for the Judgement Ring combo system or the sheer lunatic humor of the setting.