Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review #398: Shadow Hearts - Covenant

 Another spin of the Judgement Ring.
 Shadow Hearts came out of left field and turned out to be a surprise cult hit on the PS2, so naturally, a sequel was bound to happen. It's... it's somewhat of an interesting beast, as it has a very different tone from the previous two games, while retaining some Shadow Hearts' most defining features: A quirky sense of humor alongside the Judgement Ring. Hilariously enough, it somewhat parallels Evil Dead's evolution. Evil Dead and Koudelka were both pure horror(Albeit Koudelka had a tiny smidgen of humor sparkled in), Evil Dead 2 and Shadow Hearts were horror with added humor... and both Evil Dead 3 and Shadow Hearts Covenant put a major focus on humor with a few horror elements sparkled throughout.

 The story picks up six months after the first game's bad ending. Yuri is still grieving the death of his beloved, but as World War I picks up, he makes it his job to defend Domremy from a german invasion. It quickly turns sour as his defeat marks the towns' destruction, and he gets infected with a curse that steals away his fusion powers and will kill him in time. An entirely new cast of characters will join Yuri on his quest, spanning Paris, Russia and Japan, trying to stop evil organizations, evil demons and maybe even Japan itself. The story is alright, but it's the cast that really makes it work, let's just say that one of the party members is a wrestling, vampire, gay super hero that turns into a golden bat every now and then. The cast is so interesting that I wish the game would've done more with them. Lucia, the assassin-turned-diviner gets barely any development, and Gepetto, the drunkard old puppeteer quickly falls to the wayside after the first disc. There was so much potential, and quite a bit of it was squandered. The story went full anime as well, which I didn't particularly enjoy mostly because they tried to ret-con the previous game's last boss into a 'He was a good guy all along but simply opted for evil means'. Seriously? It totally undermined him as a villain.
 The one thing that really disappointed me was the total tonal shift the game underwent. The first game had a very quirky sense of humor, and boy did they bank on that, and it worked wonders for the game... but they did away with almost every single horror element the game had going for it. As a result, a lot of the charm that Shadow Hearts 1 held for me... is gone. It somewhat feels like yet another fantasy JRPG, with only the fact that it's set in real life locations as well as a few real life people to set it apart from the rest. Another small gripe deals with dungeons, most of them are rather labyrinthine, particularly a few of the first ones, which can make them a bit dull to explore, but they get better as you go along.

 Covenant kept most elements from the previous games but enhanced them. The overall structure is the same: Explore Towns and Dungeons, fight turn-based battles and defeat bosses. Fights come out of random encounters, and beside your usual HP and MP gauge you also get the SP gauge, or sanity points. It will go down by one each turn, and if it drops to 0, your character will go berserk, luckily, the gauge refills after each battle and there are items to restore it during fights, and by the end of the game your characters' SP threshold will be so high that it will be of no consequence. The judgement ring makes its return as well, whenever you want to attack, be it magic or physical, or use items, you'll have to engage in a timing mini-game of sorts, having to press X on certain highlighted zones as a marker goes through the judgement ring in order to successfully carry out your action. It's not as tedious as it sounds, I promise.
 That'd be all fine and dandy, but the developers went the extra mile and polished everything to a sheen. This time around you can customize the Judgement Ring for every individual character. You can enlarge the highlighted areas as well as the hotspots, you can choose from different types of rings(Like Practice, which will keep spinning even if you mess up, but it will deal reduced damage), so if you are particularly good with a certain character, you might go for a high risk-high reward set-up. The combat is also much better, you can now see the turn order and set-up combos between two or more characters for bonus damage. Magic is now tied to equippable crests, so almost any character can use basically any spell. Yuri can beef up his fusions much easily since souls are no longer tied to elements, there're no more missable items, you can swap out party members on the fly, benched characters will still earn experience points... In case you don't get the picture, the game's combat is better in every single way possible, Shadow Heart 1 was already fun to play, Covenant is a dream.

 And while Shadow Hearts clocked at around 20 hours, this game is twice as long and features dozens upon dozens of sidequests. Every party member earns their unique special moves in different ways as well, Blanca must find and defeat all 16 Wolves, Joachim must fight his master and eventually get to the Man Festival, Lucia must find oils and Tarot Cards, etc. There's a lot to do if you are so inclined. While Towns are lacking the harrowing atmosphere from the previous game, NPCs are a lot more varied, so it's kinda fun to track them down, if just to read their silly names.
 As a game, Covenant is better in almost every single way than the first game. But, and it's a big but, losing the horror elements really took away some of its charm. And it's hard to explain, but while there's no doubt in my mind that this is a better game, my heart still gravitates slightly more towards the original game, that said, both games are fantastic, some of the best JRPGs on the system.
 9.0 out of 10

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