In which I get to judge the judge.
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!
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.
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