Review by Psycho Penguin

"RPG fans, your savior has arrived."

There's a lot of complaints about role playing games nowadays. People say they are nothing more than glorified books, with stale battle systems (I got to push X again? Sigh.), boring storylines (save the damsel in distress or save the world from an evil madman in some ancient fantasy land!), and redundant fetch quests. And they'd be right. As big of a RPG fan as I am, I can admit to the flaws of the genre, and I wished a game would come along and break all the stereotypes and blow me away.

And it did.

Shadow Hearts is simply one of the greatest games I have ever played. From the amazing opening to the heartbreaking conclusion, this was a wild ride with an incredible battle system and well paced storyline. Forget that fantasy storyline crap, this is dark stuff and it takes place in the actual world. Forget that "stale battle system" complaint, pushing X will get you nowhere in this game except a quick trip to the game over screen. There is no reason any role playing nut will not go absolutely crazy over this wonderful game. Even haters of the genre will find a lot to enjoy with this game.

The game starts off with a simply beautiful cutscene involving a young man riding a train, when suddenly an old magician comes in to attack some soldiers and kidnap a young woman. The young man ends up rescuing the damsel in distress, and the adventure begins. And what an adventure it is. You'll travel around Japan and Europe, trying to stop the evil madman from summoning an evil god to destroy the world. It's not terrifically unique stuff, but the storyline is well paced and you will never be bored.

Plus, this is one of the few role playing games where I actually cared about the characters. The dialogue is superb, as the characters actually felt like real people who are saying things I would say in the same situations. A lot of it is funny, but a lot of it is simply charming, as well. I really liked how the storyline did not entirely focus on the romance of the two main characters, as there are some side characters who play an important role as well, and the enemies are well developed as well. They have reasoning for being "bad" and I found myself seeing where they were coming from sometimes.

As wonderful as the engaging storyline was, Shadow Hearts has one major improvement that helped it make the leap from "excellent role playing game" to "one of my favorite games ever", and that is the simple astounding battle system. Every action you perform during battle has something called a "judgment ring". When you choose an action, a ring pops up and starts spinning. You can either hit the "hit area" to perform the action, or the "strike area" to get a "perfect" action, which increases the performance of the action. The closer you get to the "strike area", the better your action will be.

For instance, let's say you want to use a healing item, which heals 100 HP. You choose the item, and the ring pops up and starts spinning. There will be a big orange area and a smaller red area at the end of it. If the spinning line ends up in the orange area, you will perform the action and you will regain 100 HP. However, if you manage to hit that red strike area, you will get a bonus amount of HP, and will be healed for more than 100 HP.

Every action in this game during battle, from magic to skills to items to regular attacks, has this judgment ring, and each character has different judgment rings, so timing your attacks is crucial. This made battles very interesting and addictive, as I constantly wanted to improve my skills in timing the rings just right. Those of you that complain that RPGs are nothing but "push X all the time" (and I see where you are coming from) will be in for a treat with this game.

Another awesome thing about this game is the fact the game actually tracks all sorts of things for you, from the percentage of times you have landed perfect attacks, to the percentage of times you hit the combo ring and landed a successful attack on the opponent (or used an item/healing spell properly). I constantly checked my score to see how I was doing, and it's just another little thing that made the game so addictive.

Other than that, the battles are standard fare. They are turn based, with menus. It's basically a Final Fantasy game with a judgment ring added on for fun. You get a wide variety of spells and skills as you level up, which you can use during battles. There is nothing terribly unique about these battles outside of the judgment ring, except for one more thing.

That thing would be the fact that your main character, Yuri, is not your typical RPG hero. He is a human who can fuse with demons and turn into various demons. During battle, you can use the "fusion" skill with Yuri, and he will turn into a demon, who has stronger statistics and special skills that work like any other skill or magic (and I noticed thatthe judgment rings aren't any harder to pull off, either.)

These fusions affect a couple of things. Each time you enter a battle with Yuri, when you kill an enemy, you obtain its soul. Each enemy has a different soul element. There are six total elements that you can obtain, and each element helps towards leveling up a fusion. When you level up the fusion, there is a certain way to obtain its next level.

Because not only will you have to level up the fusion, this game makes you go to a "graveyard" and find the gravestone of the fusion, then fight it to obtain its soul. You can then use it during battle after defeating it. The graveyard also lets you clear out "malice" which builds up as you fight enemies. There is a "malice meter" which indicates how close you are to getting it filled up. When it gets to red, you will sometimes encounter an impossible battle (until later on in the game), which you need to run from. The only way to get this battle to disappear is to go to the graveyard and fight a malice monster to clear the meter out.

I found this slightly annoying, as I think the meaning of this was to simply prevent power leveling, but you can still power level in the game. You just need to sometimes stop to go to the graveyard before resuming your leveling up. It's a bit of a nuisance, but nothing that is terribly bad, and you won't need to do too much leveling up in the game, either.

The other thing a fusion will affect is Yuri's sanity. Another unique aspect to this game is a "sanity points meter" during battle. Each character has a sanity points meter, and when it gets to zero, they go berserk, which is like confusion. The only way to stop this is to use a healing item, which restores some of their sanity points. Think of it as a magic points/hit points meter, only you really should try to keep it above zero, so they don't go crazy. It only really matters during boss battles, as they can get quite long, and your sanity slowly drains from each attack (most actions take off 1 SP), and some bosses will drain sanity (although you can equip an accessory to protect against that.)

Another awesome aspect of this game is how it takes place in real life ancient Asia and Europe, so you'll visit a lot of places from those continents. There are your usual shops, as well as a somewhat flamboyant man who will upgrade your weapons. Upgrading weapons is another thing I always tried to do, although it can get quite expensive sometimes. I found it to be a fun little diversion, and it really helps some characters (as it improves both their physical AND magical attacks).

The dungeon designs in this game are typical fare, with some puzzles to solve along the way. I found most of them to be perfectly fine, and I did not have to use a FAQ to solve any of the puzzles in any dungeon, which is unusual for me. Therefore, I found the dungeon designs to be perfect. The random battle amount is not terribly high, as I found I could go entire screens before without getting into a battle. I really liked exploring the dungeons in this game, even though quite a few were somewhat linear in nature.

A lot of people complain that this game is dated looking, and I suppose that is accurate, as it came out the same time as Final Fantasy X did (and it doesn't look nearly as good as that game did), and was originally designed as a game for the Sony Playstation ONE console. However, I found this game to be pleasing to the eyes, as the character designs were superb, and the backgrounds were pretty well done. Some of the areas were just very freaky in design, which fit the mood of the game perfectly. I really had no problem with the graphics, even though they are kind of dated now. If you've ever played Legaia 2, I kind of compare it to those graphics, just darker.

I did not know what to expect from the game's soundtrack, as I usually like a few songs in a game, but rarely will I like the entire soundtrack. That was not the case with Shadow Hearts, as I found it to have one of the better soundtracks I have heard. Each song fits the mood of the area perfectly, from the happiness of some towns, to the dark, brooding dungeons.

This game has an insane amount of replay value, due to the massive amount of side quests in the game. You can go back to areas and talk to people at different times to get different things, and there's all sorts of quests, ranging from getting every character's best weapon, to obtaining Yuri's level 3 fusions and ultimate fusion. You could spend a lot of time just doing all the side quests this game has to offer, and that's nice, because there's a new game plus option for those of us that like to experience the game without a FAQ, then go back to it on a replay to get all the side quests.

I never found this game to be too challenging, as the few times I died were mainly due to cheap boss tactics (which are easily solved when you figure out how to stop it, like a boss that will use an instant death attack on everyone can be solved by equipping everyone with accessories that can protect against instant death), and as I said above, the dungeon designs were not too complex. The final boss gave me a run for my money, and some of the later dungeons can prove to be quite grueling at times, but there was never a moment I thought I was stuck and hit a BRICK WALL in the game.

So, as you can probably tell, I was a big fan of this game. I played it for hours on end each day, just to see what was happening next in the game. The battle system is simply amazing and one of the best battle systems I have ever experienced, if not the best. If you have not played this game, you are really missing out. Next to Final Fantasy X and Xenosaga, I can say this is my favorite RPG on the console, and I think it might even be better than those two classics. It is that good. And then there's a sequel, which so far seems to be just as good. There's no reason not to play this, and it's worth every penny you'll spend for it.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 12/23/08

Game Release: Shadow Hearts (US, 12/11/01)

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