Shadow Hearts

   Full disclosure: One GIA news staff member has business ties with Midway. To keep our coverage of the game unbiased, this staff member has had no involvement in any coverage of the game.


   Throughout the ages, history has given us a bevy of questions to ask in the form of "what if." What if Abe Lincoln had chosen not to go to Ford's Theater? What if the Allies lost World War II? And more relevantly, what if Sacnoth had taken its time and done more with Shadow Hearts? It would have rocked.

Wake up, honey, we're almost home.
Apparently, combs had not been invented by 1913

   Taking place in early twentieth century Asia, Shadow Hearts puts the player in control of Yuri, a scrappy youth charged with the task of protecting a woman called Alice. The two are stalked all over Asia by the warlock Roger Bacon as he attempts to use Alice and her powers as a catalyst in an apocalyptic ceremony.

   The storyline effectively combines this element of fantasy with political intrigue as Japanese troops prepare to occupy China. Characters from both sides of the fence will prove vital to Yuri's cause, just as those from both countries will attempt to stop him. Over the course of the game, a wide variety of characters will join Yuri and Alice, including a female spy, an angsty orphan, and a vampiric swordsman. All of Shadow Hearts' characters are refreshingly unique, adding flavor to the party on and off the battlefield.

   Every protagonist needs a dark secret, and Yuri certainly has more than his share. Yuri's power as Harmonixer allows him to fuse with the souls of different monsters in order to gain control of their ablities in battle. By defeating monsters of a certain element, Yuri accumulates points that go toward summoning fusion monsters for that element. Once enough points have been collected, Yuri is able to retreat to the graveyard in the back of his mind in order to claim a monster's soul by defeating it. Yuri is able to fuse with that monster's soul in battle freely from then on.

You can't eat pork products when THE PORK PRODUCTS ARE EATING YOU
Yes. His name is Bacon.

   Visiting the graveyard in Yuri's subconscious also serves another purpose. Throughout the game, the souls of the monsters that Yuri and his friends have killed will steadily raise his "Inner Malice." When the malice hits the red zone, the anger manifests itself as a man called Fox Face and attacks Yuri. However, Yuri can nip the problem in the bud by defeating the angry spirits residing in the graveyard before the level gets too high. Unfortunately, this soon becomes a boring chore for the player, effectively disrupting the flow of the game at key points.

   The Ring of Judgment, Shadow Hearts' prerequisite for accomplishing anything, is the game's double-edged sword. Once battle has been initiated or any in-game test of skill is required, a gray ellipse appears onscreen with an orange bar rotating clockwise from the center. If the player can hit the button while the bar is in the three colored zones, his or her hits will connect in battle, your party will acquire the rusty pipe you were trying to rip free, or you will receive a 10% discount on your new suit of armor. The problem with this system is that while it works fine for such actions as casting complex spells or kicking down the occasional door, forcing the use of the ring onto players in every single battle is sheer sadism on Sacnoth's part. The timing of the ring is not difficult to master, but its repeated use for everyday activity in a genre where quick finger reactions are rarely called upon may irritate some players. While innovative, the Ring of Judgment's omipresence is not suited for a game of Shadow Hearts' length.
  But teacher escaped! Ah! Ben Chi! They know your styles are deadly!
Bored of the Rings

   The dialogue in Shadow Hearts is, for the most part, extremely well written. Exchanges among characters are never stiff or uninspired, making the plot both easy to follow and a pleasure to watch unfold. Minor typos are present, though rarely in dialogue. Where Shadow Hearts stumbles is in its spoken dialogue. The voice acting is absolutely horrid, reducing tense cut scenes to bits of comic relief for the player. Following the Sea Mother's story, for example, it's doubtful that anyone in real life, after stifling violent fits of laughter, would have the strength to take down a monster terrorizing a coastal village.

   Save for a few flashy spell effects and vaguely smoother textures, this game is almost visually indestinguishable from any recent PSone title. Character models are a bit on the low side as far as polygon count goes, and the prerendered backdrops are about equal in quality to those of the latter single-digit Final Fantasies. With so many potentially cool locations and monsters, a keener graphical element would have made Sacnoth more popular among those who expected something prettier out of their PS2.

   The music of Shadow Hearts ranges from good to excellent, thanks in part to contributions by Yasunori Mitsuda. In light of its Asian setting, the game makes great use of several stringed oriental instruments, as well as flutes and vocals. Elsewhere, tracks tend to set the mood of the game as sombre or intense, even relying on ambience at times. It's also worth mentioning that Shadow Hearts OST has without question the greatest track listing of any videogame ever.

   While enjoyable in many ways, Shadow Hearts is hampered by a few acute design flaws, partially crippling what could have been an incredible PS2 RPG. If Sacnoth had done more to regulate the use of the Ring of Judgement, updated the graphics, and perhaps hired voice actors with more on their résumé than "Digimon cameo," this game could have been much more enjoyable. Should Ben and Jerry ever make Shadow Hearts into an ice cream flavor, the result would be a swirly blend of rich chocolate, sweet strawberry, and succulent cockroach heads.

Review by Alex Fraioli, GIA.
Shadow Hearts
Developer Sacnoth
Publisher Aruze
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium DVD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation 2
Release Date  06.28.01
Shadow Hearts receives a Japanese release date, price
12 new screenshots
2 new character portraits / 6 Fusion Monster renders / 6 normal monster renders
Japanese box art