Shadow Hearts is set in the real world, in the early 20th century. The protagonist, Yuri Hyuga, is half-Russian, half-Japanese and is not a typical hero, as the excellent starting cutscene makes plain. Not for Yuri the over-sized sword and kind-hearted nature of a standard RPG protagonist. He’s slightly messed up, a bit cheeky and obnoxious and has the ability to fuse with demons, becoming a range of powerful monsters. He also hears voices. (Well, one voice. And if he disobeys her he gets stabbing pain in his skull).
The intro seems him on a train, rescuing a very sweet Christian girl (with a rather short skirt) from an English gentleman in a top hat who has murdered half the passengers. A cuddly, cutesy RPG this is not.
Compelled by the voice in his head and Alice’s short skirt, Yuri travels with Alice to find out why the gentleman (Roger Bacon) wanted to capture her. They begin in the Far East, where they meet some new party members including the entertaining Zhuzhen, the spy Margarete, an amusing vampire named Keith and an annoying kid called Halley.
The game takes place first in the Far East and then Europe, and sees not only the mystery of Roger Bacon unravelled but the deepening relationship between Yuri and Alice. The dark undertones, excellent writing and three-dimensional characters really do make it stand out.
In particular, the sound is great. There’s no voice-acting outside of cutscenes, but the music is absolutely top notch. The graphics, however, are below par and it’s not hard to see it was originally meant for the Playstation rather than PS2.
Gameplay is excellent. Each of the characters is unique, with Alice wielding holy magic, Zhuzhen more offensive spells, and so forth. An especially innovative and excellent feature is the Judgement Ring. Basically, a character has to hit sections within a circle as a marker moves around it. It sounds simple (and it is) but it also adds a great element of timing and fresh opportunities for status effects. If the player is tired or a bit rubbish at timing it can be turned off, but the opportunity for critical hits (achieved by hitting the last few degrees of a coloured section) is lost.
There are two endings to the game, and a New Game Plus option (the same applies to the following game).
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a direct sequel, and also on the PS2. Yuri returns but none of the other main characters from the original game are playable.
World War One is well underway, and a certain village in France is protected by a ferocious demon, which is, of course, Yuri. However, a German officer and a man from the Vatican manage to curse him and he and his companions (a puppeteer and Blanca the wolf) are forced to flee. The German officer switches side and joins them. There are a further four characters that join the party, some of which are more, er, interesting than others (the gay vampire superhero being far more original than the rather tedious Lucia, for example).
The first part of the story is about Yuri overcoming his curse and wreaking vengeance upon those who caused it (which is handy, as the same people want to rule the world). Amusingly for a game that starts off with the standard “Any resemblance to events or people living or dead is purely coincidental” message it features Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II and a few other historical characters.
Later the story shifts from Europe to the Far East, where the party must prevent the destruction of the present timeline and the rewriting of history.
The graphics are a clear step up from its predecessor, the music remains very good and there’s more voice-acting. Something which is a bit niche but I loved was the varying language options, and I used this game to practice my German. The game also has a lot more quirky/surreal/silly humour than the first, and although it has darker moments the tone is generally lighter than its predecessor.
The Judgement Ring is improved upon, with the ability to add new areas for more hits in a standard attack or widen areas. Each character has a unique set of abilities and means of improving them. I especially liked Blanca’s, which involve fighting and defeating other wolves to gain new abilities.
I didn’t include Shadow Hearts: The New World in this retro-review as, although it’s part of the series, it isn’t really a direct follow-on, Yuri isn’t the protagonist and it isn’t as good.
Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts: Covenant have sharp writing, fantastic music, an innovative and brilliant combat system and are two of the best modern RPGs there are. It’s a damned shame the series ended after The New World.