Review by Psycho Penguin
"Consider my mind blown."
I didn't know what to think of this game. A lot of people are conflicted on whether it's truly an upgrade over the original Shadow Hearts. As someone who was blown away by the quality of that game, I was curious to see if the sequel could live up to it. And boy, did it. Not only does it surpass Shadow Hearts in my eyes, it has become one of, if not the best, video games I have ever played in my entire life. From amazing graphics to a varied and rich soundtrack, I was completely blown away by every aspect of this game.
The story of Shadow Hearts left off on a bit of a down note, but Covenant picks off where it left off. You control Yuri, who is doing a bit of soul searching after the events of the first game, and you'll also gather a unique blend of seven other characters that will help you on your journey. Each character has a back story that is truly riveting, from Anastasia, a spoiled princess who does not want to see her beloved Russia destroyed in an upcoming war, to Blanca, a wolf who has been protecting Yuri for years. There's also a ton of returning characters from Shadow Hearts, although none are playable besides Yuri.
The best part of the storyline is how it manages to combine many dramatic scenes (There is a heartbreaking scene in disc 2 that truly took me by surprise, and has become my new favorite scene of any video game) with a lot of humorous scenes (Pretty much anything a character named Joachim is involved in made me laugh, as his character is a complete goofball). It's hard for a game to nail either humor or dramatic feelings, and the fact this game managed to combine both of these flawlessly was something I was quite astounded by.
I also really appreciated how the two games connected to each other to the extent they did. I was completely taken by surprise when I discovered how the main antagonist's quest in the first game was revealed in this one, and how it will make you wonder if you truly did the right thing by defeating him or not. His backstory was fleshed out and he even makes a SPECIAL GUEST APPEARANCE! There's also a lot of cameo appearances from some of the other characters I loved.
Reusing many of the elements from Shadow Hearts unique battle system was a great idea, as the judgment ring has returned. Each action that you perform during battle will bring up a ring that spins around. Pushing X at the right time on the ring will allow you to perform the attack. The ring has two zones - One is a "hit zone" which allows you to actually perform the attack, and the other is a "strike zone" which makes the action stronger. For instance, if you wanted to attack an enemy with a magic spell, you would select the spell, and then the judgment ring would appear with a few zones. Hitting those zones would allow the magic spell to be cast, but at the end of the ring, there would be a "strike zone" in red. Hitting that little zone would allow the spell to be much stronger and cause more damage than normal.
An addition to this judgment ring system that I appreciated was the ability to customize the judgment rings of each character by adjusting their strike zones, hit zones, and even the amount of attacks they could perform on the ring. This was very useful, as it made it easier to perform attacks with characters that I could not get the hang of consistently. Of course, the ability to customize these rings require items that you will find outside of battle, but the game is more than generous in giving these to you, without making the judgment rings completely easy to abuse. You can even make the game go on "auto ring" for you if you wanted, although you'd never get a "perfect strike" during battle, making damage not as strong as it could be.
There is a TON of customization in this game, including the ability to equip magic crests on most characters. Each character will usually come with their own set ability (one has a magic puppet that can perform spells, one can do wrestling moves, and one can turn into a demon, for instance), but six of the characters can equip magic crests that allow them to perform spells during battle. Each crest has a certain amount of points attached to it, as the stronger the spells are, the more points it takes to equip it. Each character can equip a certain amount of crest points. This, again, allows for customization without completely "breaking" the game.
That is appreciated, because this is not the most challenging game in the world. One reason for that is the addition of a combo system. During battle, you will notice a bar on the top of the screen that shows the order of character turns. You can manipulate this turn order by grouping characters together by selecting the "combo" option during battle. When characters are grouped together, they will get to act in order. For instance, let's say it is Yuri's turn, and Gepetto gets to go next. You can have Yuri select "combo" and then Gepetto. He will run behind Gepetto, and they will go into combo mode.
Now, it is Gepetto's turn. Select his action, and if he performs it successfully, you will be able to push a button (the button is random and pops up), and he will perform the action. Now, it is Yuri's turn, and whatever action he does will be added on to what Gepetto did. If Gepetto did a 5-hit, 200 damage spell, then Yuri's damage will be added onto it. This will make Yuri's attack even stronger. You can manipulate these combos to do more damage than you would be doing by simply having everyone attack. There's also a way to do a 4-person character combo with the fourth character doing a powerful combo magic spell to finish off the combo.
A nice "bonus" to the battle system is a literal bonus. The game provides you with bonuses after battles, like if you do not get damaged, or if you hit the strike zone every time during battle without missing at all. Most of the bonuses are simply added money, experience, or a weak item you don't really need, but it's nice to know that the game will actually reward you for your skill, and it's something that made every battle a little more fun and interesting. It's especially rewarding to get bonuses against a boss, since you will get bigger bonuses than if it was just a normal random battle.
Yuri can still fuse into demons, and he still has a graveyard that allows him to power up the fusion skills that he will can transform into, but there's a nice addition to this system that I appreciated. Instead of needing to kill certain enemies to get their specific soul that corresponds with an element, you can now simply kill enemies and use their soul to power up ANY soul. In the first game, you needed to kill a fire enemy to get a fire soul. Now, you just have to kill an enemy to get a soul, and use that soul for fire, light, dark, any element that you wish. It made leveling up souls a little easier to do. What I enjoyed even more was the fact you could power them up at any time in the menu, and you didn't have to go all the way to the graveyard to do it any more.
Another thing that made the game a little more streamlined was the fact that you can switch party members at any time, without having to go to someone in a town to do so. Not only that, but you could set up three different groups, and then switch between the groups with a simple button push. Characters not in your active party will gain half as much experience as those in your party, so it's not impossible to keep everyone fairly even leveled, and everyone will pretty much be useful at all times. You can also see how much experience everyone gained, and everyone's level, right in the battle results screen. Also, instead of using three characters during battle, you can now use four. I really appreciated these upgrades from the original game.
One of the things I really appreciated in the first Shadow Hearts was the slew of side quests in it, and this game has even MORE. If you are the type of person that loves to find everything in a game, expect to need a guide and a ton of time will have to be set aside as well. This one took me longer than the average RPG, and that was without doing any side quests at all. There's a ton of side stuff in each town, and you can go back to previous areas later on to unlock new side quests to perform. None of the side quests are that obnoxious, either, and they were truly enjoyable. Joachim's "Man Festival" side quest, in particular, was rewarding, and hilarious at the same time.
The dungeons themselves are a little trickier this time, and I must admit, there were times in some areas where I wanted to pull my hair out. There's a bunch of stereotypical RPG puzzles that make no sense, usually involving switches, multiple floors, pushing lights in the right sequence, collecting keys, using multiple parties, and winding mazes. Almost every dungeon, from the very first one, will have you thinking about what to do next. I remember one dungeon where you are on a ship that made me nearly cry. You have to split your party up into two groups, and each group has to push buttons to help the other group progress deeper into the ship. It took me quite a while to figure out how to properly progress. Thankfully, there is a map now that will show you where you are in relation to the dungeon. That saved my ass on more than one occasion. This is not the easiest and most linear RPG in the world when it comes to dungeons.
This game is pleasing on the eyes and easy to listen to. The cutscenes are full-motion video now, so each character can express emotions as needed. This really adds to the dramatic tension of a lot of scenes, as you can now see how they are feeling. The scenes also added in voice acting, and while the dub won't make you think you are watching a movie, I definitely consider it to be in the upper echelon when it comes to voice acting in video games. There's a lot of quality songs in the game, as well. The final boss theme has a sort of eerie chant to it, and there's also a great boss theme that plays a few times later on in the game. The song that plays during chase scenes and other tense moments really added to the tension of the moments, as well. Those of you that are fans of Japanese pop songs will be pleased to know there's several of those in here, as well, including an amazing song from a female vocalist that plays during the ending.
Browsing various message boards and reading other people's opinions on this game, a prevailing notion I seemed to notice when it comes to a main complaint is the light-hearted mood the game takes at times. One of the main allures of the original was its dark tone, and Covenant seems to shy away from the darkness altogether. Instead, it relies on humor, more vibrant colors in the area designs, and a storyline that doesn't entirely shy away from the darkness, but focuses more on humor. It did not really strike me much during the game, as there's still a lot of brooding and conflict, as well as self-conflict in Yuri's mind and heart, but it's noticeable if you play them one after the other. I was not really deterred by the stylistic changes, and did not mind them at all.
That's because this is the most fun video game I have ever played. The storyline gripped me from the powerful beginning to the emotional conclusion, the near-perfect battle system was added upon and refined, and the game moved at a steady but reasonable pace. This game does take a little bit to pick up steam, which is my main complaint, and you really DO have to play the original Shadow Hearts to truly appreciate it, but I cannot possibly see anyone who likes the battles of the original to not like the battle system in this one. It's got the same basic idea, but improves on it tremendously. The style change of the storyline and atmosphere is jarring, but if you can learn to appreciate it, there is nothing that will prevent you from absolutely adoring this one like I did. It truly is the pinnacle of the genre.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 01/05/09
Game Release: Shadow Hearts: Covenant (US, 09/27/04)
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