Up until playing it, I’ve only ever had two associations when thinking about Shadow Hearts. One related to the game’s Judgment Ring, an appealing mechanic that added an element of action to otherwise typical turn-based battles. The other, more prominent association was the proximity of its release to Final Fantasy X, one of the most anticipated games at the time. At first blush, this seems like unfortunate timing, but in actuality it was opportunistic: a hope that those awaiting Final Fantasy X would purchase Shadow Hearts to bide their time with a similar role-playing game, albeit one with a much smaller development budget. With this in mind, I long ago established modest expectations. Now that I’ve completed it, I’ve found that these expectations were spot-on, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy playing Shadow Hearts, but it was somewhat unimpressive.
Although the two games that follow Shadow Hearts bear its name, the series actually has its origins in Koudelka, an RPG for the PlayStation released just prior to the launch of the PlayStation 2. Sacnoth, the now defunct Tokyo-based developer instilled both Koudelka and Shadow Hearts with alternate historical storylines, rife with macabre scenarios and elements of cosmic horror. When Shadow Hearts released in North America (it was published by Midway Games on December 12, 2001) these themes were still rather rare within the RPG genre, and provided an entertaining narrative.
The game opened with a gruesome train car scene involving Yuri, the game’s cocky demon-fusing protagonist, Alice, a pure-hearted priest’s daughter and the key to every villain’s warped plan, and Roger Bacon, the prim and proper British gent hell-bent on destroying the world as it was. Inevitably, Yuri rescued Alice and together with a cadre of mixed nuts, they sought to save humanity from imminent destruction. While the overarching narrative maintained a serious tone throughout the game’s thirty hour runtime, immature dialogue frequently diminished the maturity level displayed by the characters. Perhaps this was a result of the game’s translation, but more likely it was by design: elements of humor were occasionally put to use, seemingly targeting teenage boys of the early aughts.
One character in particular caught my eye, and it wasn’t because of her amplified sexualization. Margarete, a Parisian spy, utilized all manner of contemporary gadgets that were out of place considering the game took place in 1913. Her special attacks, where she called in help on her mobile phone, were just goofy. In one of them, she donned ridiculously oversized sunglasses to assess an enemy’s health and weaknesses. Moments like this intertwined with battles against creatures of the occult and the concept of losing one’s sanity, making for quite a unique blend.
The party’s journey took them across China and Europe to a variety of towns and villages based on real world equivalents. The alternate historical angle is one that’s so appealing to me; in fact the notion of experiencing Sacnoth’s version of the world circa 1913, and seeing how they merged fact and fiction was a major part of why I decided to play Shadow Hearts. Unfortunately, the scope of the environments was underwhelming, and their visual representations left a lot to be desired. Most of the locales the group visited, excluding the monster-infested dungeons, only consisted of a screen or two of pre-rendered backgrounds. They didn’t look particularly impressive, either. It wouldn’t surprise me if this game could run on a PlayStation, save for the battles.
Whereas the setting was an aspect that I had high hopes for but ultimately encountered disappointment, I had no expectations for how much I’d get a kick out of the monster designs. I’m normally not one to fawn over creatures, unless they’re enormous in scale like something from Xenoblade Chronicles X, or a fantastic Pokémon like Shuckle, but the enemies in this game were absolutely wicked! The twisted foes varied from decaying canines balancing on the arms protruding from their mouths to amalgamations of people and insects to massive god-like entities. The bestiary entries were fittingly entertaining as well. So too, were the descriptions of just about every item, which were also oddly referential.
Whether I was using items in battles, attacking enemies, or trying to kick down a door in France, most every task was completed through the Judgment Ring. Similar to a clock visually, the Judgment Ring consisted of a swinging cursor that had to be stopped in certain segments to complete an action. In terms of normal attacks, each character had three segments located in unique positions. Additionally, stopping the cursor in a specific sliver at the end of each segment could increase the effects of their attacks. If I missed however, that character failed to attack. This created a satisfying risk / reward scenario with almost every action. Especially when fighting bosses, I’d think over whether I should play it safe with a healing item, or try for the additional twenty percent and run the risk of failing and not healing at all.
Aside from the Judgment Ring, the turn-based combat system was unremarkable. Each participant was granted an action in an unflinching order, akin to the RPGs that predated Final Fantasy IV’s Active Time Battle system. Yuri had the ability to collect and transform into about twenty demons, divided up into six elemental classes, but these really just served to give him special attacks. In addition to the depletion of health and magic, I also had to worry about everyone’s sanity. Represented by SP, alongside their HP and MP, the loss of one’s sanity resulted in berserk status: an uncontrollable state not unlike confusion. The encounter rate for random battles was pretty lax, allowing me to explore dungeons without constant interruptions. Similarly, the game’s difficulty ramped up smoothly, and at least in my experience, didn’t require hours of grinding before the final battles.
Now that I’ve completed Shadow Hearts, there’s more I can associate with it. For instance, positive qualities, like an entertainingly macabre storyline set in an alternate historical version of our world. Or, the engaging Judgment Ring, which brought life to a rote turn-based battle system. Perhaps even the dank, dimly lit environments, which, while not remarkable worked in the game’s favor, amplifying its horror aesthetic. But, I can now associate more negative qualities with the game, too. Like the visuals, which in spite of the aesthetic qualities they added, were still mighty unimpressive; as was the immature dialogue. Despite some misgivings, I still enjoyed my time with Shadow Hearts. And at the very least, I now have more to associate with it besides its relationship with Final Fantasy X.