Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review #397: Shadow Hearts

 In which I get to judge the judge.
 Shadow Hearts is bloody fantastic, review over, carry on. Picking up 15 years after the story of Koudelka, Shadow Hearts is more or less a direct sequel to the events that transpired, featuring an entirely new cast of characters, enemies and locales... with the appearance of a few familiar faces every now and then. The gameplay has been redone from the ground up, becoming a turn-based RPG, but with its own twist on the formula.

 You play as Yuri Hyuga, a Harmonixer(Don't get too attached, as it will get retconned to 'Harmonizer in future games), a being that can transform/fuse into different monsters. Being haunted by a talking voice, he is told to protect a mysterious girl, Alicia, with even more mysterious powers. The bad guys want her, so Yuri must protect her, and eventually the plot has you saving the world from otherwordly entities. You know, the usual. But as generic and cliched as the plot is, the characters are very interesting, so they manage to carry the story through. You want to learn more about them, Zhuzhen the mysterious monk with ties to Yuri's father, Keith, the bored vampire and his merry reactions to everything that happens, etc. It's a very endearing cast of characters. Bonus points for the art direction, it takes after Koudelka, so there're a lot of horror-inspired elements, with brilliant enemy design and haunting, creepy locales. Even the most mundane of towns manage to look grim yet inviting. It also has a... retro charm of sorts, having pre-rendered backgrounds and simple, yet serviceable character models, it ends up feeling like a beefed up playstation 1 game!
 The game is structured in two halves: Asia and Europe. Asia is very linear, you have little control of your next destination or how your party is made up of, with very little backtracking allowed, if any. Once you reach Europe you can't go back to any Asian part of the map, but you are free to backtrack at will or indulge in sidequests, although these open up at the very last stretch of the game. One of the game's biggest drawbacks is the huge amount of missable stuff. Some events, NPCs or items have a very small window of availability, so I would suggest investigating a bit before starting the game, lest you miss anything you might want. There's no world map, sadly, so you'll select towns or dungeons from a map, not a dealbreaker, but slightly disappointing. It's also a bit on the short side, you could probably finish it in under 20 hours, it took me about 25 since I went the completionist route and had to do every single thing the game had to offer.

 When not exploring, you'll be taking part of random encounters and their turn-based battles The game's main mechanic is the Judgement Ring. Want to attack? Judgement Ring. Want to cast a spell or use an item? Judgement Ring. Bargaining with a seller? Judgement Ring. Want to pick up a key item inside a dungeon? Judgement Ring, heck, even some story-related events require the Judgement Ring. This ring has sections highlighted in different colors, and you must press the X button when the marker passes through these. Depending on when you hit these highlighted sections, you'll score extra damage, extra hits or enhance the results of your spell or item... and failing to hit these sections will result in diminishing returns or even skipping your turn! It sounds tedious, but it really isn't. I had at least two different grinding sessions(Money is hard to come by! And the other time, I realized that enemies were giving egregious amounts of experience points... so why not?) and not once did I grow tired of it.
 The last two mechanics worth mentioning are Sanity Points and Malice. Malice is built up as you defeat enemies, and once it reaches a certain threshold you'll start being haunted by special bosses. These bosses are too tough when they first start haunting you, so you'll have to appease the Malice by entering the Graveyard, which is done from any save point, and defeating a simple, rewardless 1 on 1 battle with Yuri. This sounds more boring on paper, trust me. Unnecessary padding? Maybe, but it didn't bother me too much. As for Sanity Points, this is a third gauge, next to HP and MP, that decreases by 1 every turn. Each character has a different SP amount, which increases sometimes when leveling up, and can be restored by using items or by finishing a fight. If your SP falls to 0 the character enters a Berserk state, which means that you can no longer control it and that he or she won't receive experience points if you finish the fight. Frankly, it's yet another thing that sounds more annoying than it really is.

 I loved Shadow Hearts. I loved the gameplay, I loved setting, I loved the themes it touches, I loved the quirky sense of humor, I loved the entire cast of characters and I even loved its mundane and trite plot. It's not your average JRPG, it does its own thing and it loves it. I love it.
9.0 out of 10

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