The original Shadow Hearts was released for the Playstation 2 without much fanfare and with much competition surrounding it and it was subsequently overlooked by many casual RPG players for the more ballyhooed Square competition (Final Fantasy X) that narrowly preceded it. Unfortunately, many missed a very good game with excellent music and great character development. Enter Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which builds on its predecessor and has the luxury of being placed in a marketplace devoid of the larger, more visible competition. Hopefully, it won’t be as overlooked as the first so undeservedly was.
Knowledge of the first game isn’t required to play its sequel. It will, however, assist with being familiar with the main character of the game, Yuri, and the powerful personality that goes along with his being. Without delving through the depths of an older title to explain a new one, suffice it to say that Shadow Hearts: Covenant picks right up from where it left off on a completely new and thoroughly enjoyable new adventure. The smartly developed character interaction and witty script rank among the best yet seen in a venerable genre that has housed myriads of ineffective dialogue or generic scripts that seem regurgitated for the nth time. This title will make you smile in intervals and effectively draws you closer to the multiple heroes of your quest and actually makes you want to play it more the further you get into it, rather than getting that creeping feeling that you have to finish the title because you have so much time invested in it.
Let’s begin with the few minor issues that Shadow Hearts: Covenant presents with the player. First, you have the late 80’s/early 90’s format that requires for random battles in intervals that are less than desirable. Second, you have the genre’s staple "Save Point" system that should have been relegated to the recycle bin long ago. Finally, you have a puzzling environment with which to wander wherein it can be very, very difficult to actually see some of the things in your environment. Among these three issues, the last one is the most daunting in that you will actually find yourself wandering around rooms madly clicking the "X" button in hopes that you didn’t miss something in the room. The first two issues are somewhat bothersome, but if you’re a fan of the genre it should be something your used to and if you aren’t, then the story will make it interesting enough for you to overlook these minor points. It is the goal of this writer to get these points out of the way early in the review in order to make sure that the reader leaves with a great taste in their mouth, because Shadow Hearts: Covenant is all that and more.
Beginning with the combat (turn-based) sequence would be the best way to wash away the minor grievances above. The Judgment Ring would be best described as the marriage of Tiger Woods PGA Golf to an RPG, in that your success is based on your ability to push a button, perhaps multiple times, on a ring based meter that acts as your timing point. You can tweak this meter to suit your needs – you can make it less difficult (and thereby less effective) or more difficult (more effective). You can add attacks to the meter (as many as 5 per round) and take your chances, or you can narrow that to two or three and lessen the amount of hits per round but increase your likelihood of timing it right. Furthermore, the Ring itself can be adjusted to particular difficulty settings to meet you risk/reward ratio that you seek. All actions, be that spells, attacks, combos, items, lottery chances, and much more are part of this Ring and your success with it will determine how successful you are in your engagements.
The environments that you traverse are very limited in their scope (apart from the dungeon crawls, which can be quite lengthy and challenging) but are an undoubted work of art in both their rendering and faithfulness to the time represented. The title takes place in World War I and encompasses a plethora of historic cities and settings - Wales, Paris, Doremy, Southampton, Cannes, Mt. Fuji, and many more recognizable places around the globe. You’ll be forced to find the means to travel to many of these, such as finding a ship or navigating a forgotten underground mine to get to where you need to be. The dungeon crawls can be lengthy and require determination to get through. You’ll be asked to solve puzzles, from the laughably easy to the impossible (usually reserved for items, don’t get nervous).
Perhaps the strongest card in this title is the very smart dialogue, even if the voice acting could have used some work, and the intriguing plot that guides you to dark and mystic places to battle bosses that are larger than life. This is among the best RPG’s that I have ever played in that regard and that’s saying something. The characters are endearing and the mission grows in scope and difficulty as the title moves on. An oddity is that while all the characters are "there", you can only use four of them in any given battle. Curious, to be sure, but it’s only a minor bump in an otherwise very smooth road.
Graphically, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is on par with any of its competition and Aruze/Midway have certainly given their competition a notice that they are for real. The title also boasts a strong musical presence that fits right in with the environments that fall before you. Perhaps they could’ve buried the music that accompanies the "berserk" condition that can befall your characters, but I digress. All in all, the marriage between the artistic representations, both musically and graphically, are in very high form here.
You can expect to invest no less than forty hours or so to get through this and a good deal more if you spend any time with the multitude of side quests that you can perform. Midway has a masterpiece on their hands, let’s hope everyone notices this time.