I’ve got to hand it to the folks at Midway. Even in the face of adversity the company continues to deliver A caliber titles. It started off the year right with The Suffering
and continued its strong showing with the underappreciated Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy
. Content to show that it’s back to hold its place as one of the top dogs in gaming, Midway has unleashed another beast on the gaming world, this time in the form of an RPG. It might not have the words Final Fantasy
in it but for our money, it’s the best RPG currently available on the market.Shadow Hearts: Covenant
is a strange departure for the predominantly American developer. As it was developed in Japan by Aruze Group, it opens up the door to the usual problems that plague Japanese titles imported to America. Luckily the writers chose a universal storyline as its plot; one devoid of strange Japanese mythos that Americans might not be so familiar with. This one takes place during World War I. The Germans are somehow looking to take advantage of some technology that they feel will give them the upper hand against the Allied Powers. This seems like strange subject matter but the storyline is woven together so well that you forget about the absurdities thrown into the game. When you meet a Vampire/SuperHero/Over the Top Pro Wrestler for the first time you might bat an eye and illicit a chuckle, but you'll eventually move on and recapture the game’s predominantly serious tone.
Why does this remind me of the putty patrol?
What’s a great plot without great storytelling? The designers realized this and took great care to ensure that the story was delivered to the gamer in a compelling and entertaining manner. It’s easy to see that the designers were thinking cinematically when they were developing the plot. Everything pans out here like it would in a movie; all of the shots are framed nicely and the camera work does an excellent job of displaying the action. Instead of this just being a video game that you play, it turns into an experience that unfurls before you; much like a movie would. Because of this the game doesn’t just invite you to play it; it grabs a hold of you and compels you to experience it. Once it digs its claws into you it’ll hold on to you for quite some time too. Midway packaged this sucker on two DVDs which add up to over 40 hours of gameplay, excluding restarts and time spent leveling up your characters. Say goodbye to the sun because you’ll be spending a ton of time indoors.
What I really like about Shadow Hearts is that it takes plenty of chances in hopes of differentiating itself from the competition. The choice to set the game in the early 1900s was an excellent one as it affords the gamer the opportunity of stepping into a time period that has seldom been recreated. There’s just something undeniably attractive about being able to see various parts of the world in their pre modern state. Everything, from the architecture to the clothing has been recreated beautifully to give you the impression that these locales were based off of their real life counterparts. When you step into the streets of Venice you really get the feeling that it was derived from blueprints of the real city. Simply stunning and the varied scenery is a gorgeous site to behold.What separates Shadow Hearts from the competition is its unique combat system. While turn based, the game throws a little monkey wrench into the mechanism. Whenever the player executes a command, whether it is an attack or a spell, a wheel pops up on the screen. On that wheel are sweet spots which need to be hit in order to properly execute the command. As a line passes it players need to stop it in the proper area. Hitting it in the sweet spot will yield a more powerful attack while missing completely will cancel the attack. This is a nice system because it adds some more pressure to the gamer, especially in high tension situations. Combos add a new dimension to the battle as they allow multiple players to chain together hits in one sequence. When used correctly you can devastate an opponent and take him out of the battle before he can attack. Even healing spells need to utilize the wheel so missing the hit zone entirely in a critical situation could mean the end of your party. Players can customize the wheel to their liking and additional objects can be used to add more hit zones or increase the size of the sweet spot. Furthermore, players can opt to disband the wheel entirely and go for the traditional turn-based mechanism. This isn’t recommended though because it takes most of the fun and suspense out of the game.
Most games take themselves too seriously nowadays, pitting you in life or death situations and ones filled with consequence and sacrifice. We face those kinds of situations in our everyday lives, who wants to see that in their video game? If you’re like me you play video games as an escape from life, not as a mirror of it. It’s the reason that you see more games like Burnout 3
and Grand Theft Auto
and less games like Ronald McDonald’s Super Happy Fun Drive Thru Simulator
. This is what makes Shadow Hearts so charming, the fact that it refuses to take itself too seriously. Sure the storyline has some heavy elements and the plot can be pretty deep, but the game never goes more than 15 minutes without providing you with some sort of comic relief. The best part about this is that the comedy doesn’t bring the game to a screeching halt either; it actually enhances the action on the screen. There are some situations where you can honestly go “hey, that’s happened to me before!” My favorite is the time when the main character is so entranced by a female fortune teller that he can’t find the nerve to ask her for a favor. It takes a little elbow to the breadbasket from the female lead to bring him back to his senses. These little touches add a nice little spackle of humor without derailing the entire game.
For a Japanese-made RPG the dialogue is downright superb. There are plenty of instances where the meanings and emotions get lost in the translation from English to Japanese, that’s not the case here. You feel and experience every single emotion that the protagonists feel thanks to the writer’s ability to convey the proper message exactly when it’s needed. All of this comes across clearly thanks to the inclusion of Dolby Pro Logic II
encoding for the in-game audio. Accompanying the sound effects is one of the best orchestral scores ever created for an RPG. I haven’t heard music this good since, well, actually I can’t even remember when I’ve been this enamored with a soundtrack. I wouldn’t be surprised if Midway decides to release an OST later on down the line. And it gets better too; all of the cutscenes feature Dolby Digital encoding for the true surround sound experience. Make no mistake; games like Shadow Hearts
are the reason that you decided to upgrade your sound system.
Initially Shadow Hearts won’t impress you with its visuals, but give it time and it’ll happen. As you progress you’ll see plenty of nice little touches that you haven’t seen in any other RPG before. Things like real-time lighting and shadows cast by the main character’s lantern. This is something that we’re accustomed to seeing in survival horror games, not an RPG game that’s supposed to focus more on story than visuals. When the special effects aren’t dazzling you the clean texture work and beefy player models will. From the opening frames of the game the animation dazzles and fails to relinquish its grip. It’s smooth and realistic with a sense of fluidity that’s lacking in most RPGs. Just look at the characters faces and see the emotion as they speak their lines. Brows move, eye lids flutter and characters gesticulate properly to accommodate the situation. It’s all really pretty to see, especially when it all comes together.
If Shadow Hearts has any faults I’d say that it’s a bit too easy, but I’m reaching here. There's an extremely annoying amount of puzzles in the game but they're not too hard, just tedious. It’s hard to find anything wrong with this game, mainly because it manages to sidestep all of the problems that plagued the competition. Even the camera system is ingenious; instead of forcing you to constantly rotate and baby-sit it, the designers went for a survival-horror-esque system where the camera pans and follows your character. Little things like this that really put the game over the top of the heap and onto the podium.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t played an RPG this good since Dark Cloud 2
. It’s so polished and ingenious that it’s a wonder that Midway hasn’t put more marketing muscle behind it. Make no mistake, this is the best RPG to come out this year and may very well be the best RPG to come out for quite some time. If you love RPGs you simply must own Shadow Hearts: Covenant