Publisher: XSeed Games
Release Date: March 7, 2006
Shadow Hearts: From the New World does a lot of things well, but perhaps one of the most interesting things it does is show you the value of originality. Case in point: the early goings of the game will have you finding two Native American monster hunters in the heart of Manhattan. You'll meet a gay couple traveling the country on the world's gaudiest motorcycle (complete with sidecar) and who want to elope, but are totally willing to sell you things while they figure out just how to do that. You'll enlist the help of a giant cat to spring real-life mobster Al Capone out of real-life prison Alcatraz, which will really upset real-life police detective Eliot Ness. Oh, and you'll kill the undead fictional relation of an honest-to-goodness historical figure, and you'll do so with a guitar. A mariachi guitar. This entire time, you'll be using plenty of magic and other strange powers, and against the backdrop of prohibition America, this game stands out, for a while.
I say this because the primary way it shows you the value of originality is by taking it away -- the first half of the game is a rollicking ride of RPG tropes in the ye-olde USA, but after that the game moves its focus to South America, and the ruins of the continent that RPGs have been cribbing from since forever. What's more, this occurs at about the same time the lighthearted, fresh story takes a sudden left turn into your typical somber, world-saving fare. It's a precipitous drop into the valley of the generic, and it looks particularly bad in light of the fact that the game came out of the gate blasting on all cylinders.
It's disappointing, and it keeps Shadow Hearts: From the New World from being a genre classic. It's still a great game, though -- it builds up too much charm in the early goings to ever descend completely into the yawn-inducing world of the off-the-shelf RPG (here I am thinking of its XSeed stable mate, Wild Arms 4), and it does pretty much everything else at least above average, but mostly very well. The judgment ring that is this series' unique gimmick returns again, and it is once again put to good use in battle and mini-games alike. It's a simple idea – a ring with a spinning line, going clockwise, that you have to stop in the highlighted area with a single button press - but a great one, and it proves its lifespan and versatility again in this Shadow Hearts -- it works well in every context. The battle system has also been polished around the judgment ring, with a strategic combo system that allows you skip enemy turns while increasing the damage you do. Because you can combine the strategy of the combo system with the skill-based nature of the judgment ring to do your most effective attacks, you're not reliant on out-leveling your enemies -- you just have to think and practice with the ring. If you want, you can avoid hours of grinding this way, and it makes battles much more intense and valuable.
It's this system that makes the side quests particularly irrelevant, but the game still does a good job of making them interesting and worth attempting, and the gains from doing them are all tangible and worthwhile. They also maintain the game's love of the bizarre, particularly the one where you have to bait and trap America's greatest mythical beast (chupacabra, I'm gunning for you) and the one where you have to do basic arithmetic, like 22 times 5, for some reason (I am sure this mini-game has led to what is probably the world's lamest FAQ). You also can make a kung-fu movie with those strange and unexplained giant cats. They seem to run Hollywood. But I digress.
From the New World does a good job of painting its world graphically. Texture detail gets muddy and lost a little bit too often for my taste, but most of the important, eye-catching stuff is done well and architecture is detailed enough to capture the spirit of the places in question (most of them are actual places you can visit by going outdoors). It's shame, then, that because these places exist, their game representations feel so small and confined. And sometimes, the dungeons are just tiny, which adds to the lighthearted feel of the early game but gets more and more out of place as the game darkens -- fortunately, the dungeons start opening up at the end as well.
Character modeling is, across the board, excellent. The designs are interesting, animations are believable or intentionally amusing, and every character is drawn with plenty and detail and emotes very well. And this doesn't just apply to the central party, either -- no effort was spared on the monsters, whether they're bosses or just the randomly spawning little guys. They all feel suitably organic and look suitably hostile, and some of them are rendered which such horrifying efficacy that you can't wait to kill them just to get them off screen. We have some success in the audio department as well. The music is largely decent though the battle them starts to grate pretty quickly, to the point where you'll start looking for hidden meaning in the chanting you hear over and over again in combat. The voice acting is good, except sometimes the one liners make you want to curl into a ball and wretch; a good example of this is, "destroyed by the magic of <b>luv</b>." It actually sounds like it's said that way, somehow.
The game has a minor control issue in that because of the precision necessary for the judgment ring, it somehow can totally mess with your accuracy if you change either your television or your controller during the course of the game. It's strange, but it's not a big issue. It's just something to think about if you're bouncing around between different houses while playing the game.
Shadow Hearts: From the New World is a good game that represents a break from business as usual for the genre, but not one so great that it's a can't miss title. It flounders with its winning premise for most of the late goings, but the fact that it took the chances it did in the early going is a huge advantage for the game. Backed up with strong visuals and an deep and intricate battle system that rewards practice and thought as much as long hours of level grinding, the game is well above mediocrity, and if you're a genre fan and don't mind getting a little bit of revisionist lunatic history into your RPG, you'll probably like this quite a bit. Even if you're not, it's worth a try. Just don't use it to say, study for a history class.