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Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Publisher: Midway (2004, PS2)
Shadow Hearts is a game of contrasts. On one hand, you have an immensely violent and brooding hero, fighting in a world filled with hellish demons. On the other hand, you have flamboyantly gay shopkeepers, even stranger cast of supporting characters and a real world setting that grossly misinterprets historical figures and events to its whims. The games consist of moments of tragedy intermingled with moments of total ludicrousness.
The first Shadow Hearts -- which was released in American within a week of Final Fantasy X and got totally demolished at retail as a result -- errs a bit too much on the serious side. The third Shadow Hearts, subtitled From the New World, takes place a warped version of 1920s America and conversely errs a bit too much on the wacky side. Sitting beautifully in the middle is Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which balances its tone perfectly.
The game initially focuses on a young German soldier named Karin, who encounters a malicious demon during the occupation of France in World War I. This demon is actually Yuri, the shape-shifting hero of the previous title, who seems to have made an enemy of the Vatican. Yuri and Karin eventually team up and run off, accompanied by a puppeteer who uses his dancing marionette to attack monsters.
Later, you'll be joined a giant wrestler/vampire who will occasionally switch into a his alter-ego, the butterfly-mask wearing "Grand Papillion". As you traipse through war-torn Europe and Japan, you'll run into such historic personalities as Rasputin -- one of the big bad guys, obviously -- all while fighting demons, and occasionally running subquests to find gay porn so you can upgrade your weapons.
This completely twisted worldview is half of what makes Shadow Hearts so instantly memorable. The other half is Yuri, one of the most amusing protagonists seen in an RPG.
He's part brooding anti-hero, the kind popularized by Final Fantasy's Cloud and Squall, but he's also part sarcastic jackass, able to make light of his situations, wherein his predecessors would just go into the corner and brood. It's also amusing that a guy who can transform into dozens of different demons is the straight man amongst a cast of total weirdoes.
The scenario is pretty cool, but Shadow Hearts also deserves commendation for the Judgment Ring system. For years, developers have been trying to answer the question -- how do we make battle scenes more involving than just picking selections from menus? In Shadow Hearts, the Judgment Ring is a dial with portions of the circle marked in green.
When you begin an attack, the dial begins to move, and you need to hit the action button as it crosses over the green segments. If you miss, you lose an attack, requiring quick reactions to successfully strike your foe. This in itself isn't particular innovative -- Square's Super Mario RPG featured something vaguely similar, which has since been reused in the whole line of Mario-inspired RPGs.
But these implementations are fairly shallow compared to Shadow Hearts, which features an extra element of risk. There are extremely narrow red slivers on the Judgment Ring, just on the edges of the green areas. If your timing -- and luck -- is good, then you can stop the dial on these segments to get some extra damage.
This idea is greatly expanded upon in Shadow Hearts: Covenant, as you can customize the size and type of Judgment Rings, allowing you to balance how greatly you want to play the game of risks versus rewards. As such, the fights are like slot machines that you can control. You can also turn them off completely, if you prefer the traditional way of fighting. But once you get used to it, you realize that major battles become all the more compelling when they rely on your reflexes -- and your willingness to take risks -- as much as your strategy.