Originating with the relatively unknown game [i]Koudelka[/i] on the PS1, the [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] series has managed to develop itself a reputation as one of the premier RPG series in the world. Utilizing a highly Westernised artistic design and set in Europe near the start of the 20th century, [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] is not your typical Japanese RPG fare. Indeed, in terms of style, it is very close to the likes of [i]Castlevania[/i] and [i]Devil May Cry[/i] rather than the usual fantasy, sci-fi or pseudo-fantasy/sci-fi setup that most RPGs employ. The character art is very unique and really can’t be compared to any other games I can think of in the RPG genre. And indeed, art style is not the only thing that [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] is unique in.
The most notable gameplay aspect of [i]Shadow Hearts: Covenant[/i] is the Judgement Ring. A circle with a line circling it, players must press the X button at appropriate times on the ring in order to successfully carry out an attack. Players with quick reflexes can even go for ‘strike areas’, or little red areas at the apex of an attack area that will allow for the full power of the attack. The Judgement Ring does two important things for the quality of [i]SHC[/i]’s gameplay. First, it really makes the turn-based battle system a lot more interesting. As a player getting rather bored of just selecting attacks from menus, the Judgement Ring offers a little excitement to the formula. Now, the concept of the Judgement Ring could get rather boring, but this is where the developers cover their backs on that extremely well. The second thing that the Judgement Ring offers is a deep level of customization. Between items that can change the size of the areas, the option to pick a different number of physical attacks per turn, different kinds of rings, keys which allow for multiple spins of the ring and a whole slew of nasty status effects which can affect the Ring’s behavior, the Judgement Ring completely and utterly controls the flow of the game’s gameplay. In other words, it is not a gimmick. No, it is a completely new way of playing an RPG.
Now, time to move to rather more frivolous aspects of the game. [i]SHC[/i] has always offered a lot in terms of presentation. Detailed character models complement some really nice gothic architecture and outdoor areas, which feel really natural. There are a series of absolutely beautiful FMV sequences that pepper the game’s story, and of course, all the usual cut scenes, dialogue boxes and other non-interactive touches. The music isn’t hugely memorable, but the game’s OST, from what I’ve heard, has some nice remixes. Of course, none of the music is going to drill through your ears, so that is something. The voice acting, however, is mostly a revelation. While undoubtedly there are some characters with voices that make you want to strangle them (Garan), [i]SHC[/i] has some great voice acing and definitely some great dialogue. Too many RPGs have been dubbed into English really poorly, but thanks in part to being set in Europe, Midway decided to get some decent voice actors to do the setting some justice.
So we’ve confirmed the game offers nifty presentation and really good gameplay innovation, but what else is important in the RPG genre? Well, story and characterization, of course! The [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] series has made a habit of breaking almost every RPG clichA