Developed by the now defunct Sacnoth, Shadow Hearts was an underrated gem of an RPG which went largely unnoticed during it’s release back in 2001. This may be due to the fact that it was overshadowed by games released that year such as Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It is also the spiritual successor to another game that slipped under the radar when released for the PSX, Koudelka.
The game starts off on a train, where an elderly British warlock named Roger Bacon attempts to abduct Alice Elliot, a young lady whose priest father had been recently murdered prior to the journey, cue our main protagonist, Yuri Hyuga, to come in and make the save. However, it is soon made clear that he is no ordinary human and from this point on you begin your journey to find out about the importance of Alice and why such a powerful warlock is intent on capturing her. Not to mention your efforts to discover the relevance of Yuri’s existence.
Set in an alternative version of 1913, you play as anti-hero Yuri Hyuga, a half-Russian half-Japanese who is a harmonixer, someone who can summon powerful demons or even gods and fuse with them in order to obtain their attributes and natural elements. Upon hearing a mysterious voice in his head he is made to take on different missions. At first following the voice’s orders for the sole purpose of experiencing the thrill of fighting strong creatures, his attitude begins to change as he meets Alice Elliot and as a result begins to learn more about himself and his powers. You start your journey in Asia for the first part of the game, where you meet all kinds of strange allies, such as a “quack” oracle and a spy, as you progress towards the second half of the game. You travel to Europe and meet even more wacky people, such as a peace loving vampire and a kind-hearted orphan just to name a few. Along with meeting allies, you go up against some frighteningly powerful foes, the two main antagonists, warlock Roger Bacon and evil taoist monk Dehuai. Both men intend to use Alice’s powers to invoke an almighty god, however, it is originally unclear what either man’s agenda is and what they intend to use such powers for.
Shadow hearts is pretty much similar to most JRPG games that were released in this era, with random encounters, HP and MP, turn-based battles, however, the one thing that differentiates this title to all others is the judgement ring system, when using an attack a big ring will appear on the screen with an arrow going all the way round, similar to a hand on the clock, you must time the arrow whenever it goes past a hit area, or if you want to do more damage, you can match it to the critical area which has a smaller width. The hit area can change depending on what action you choose to perform during battle, and can appear as yellow, blue, green, orange and the critical area is red. Normal physical attacks appear as yellow, items appear as blue and special abilities appear as green, the closer you get to the edge of the area the more effect your action takes. There are certain enemies that can perform status ailments affecting the judgement ring, this can range from invisible hit areas, small ring and a sped up ring. Another unique selling point of this game is the SP (Sanity Points), these go down every time you take a turn, once it reaches zero your character ends up going berserk literally, making you attack your own party members, it can go down even further into the negatives if you don’t refill using pure leafs and pure seeds. My favorite feature of the game was the ability to fuse with monsters, every monster has its own skills based on its element, there’s fire, water, wind, earth, light, dark and a non-element type which can only be unlocked through completing various side-quests.
The boss battles in this game can be quite tough if you’re the type of person who prefers to rush through the game in order to complete it in the quickest time possible, but if you’re like me and you prefer to take your time with grinding and leveling, then it shouldn’t pose much of a problem. Each boss has its own strength and weakness that can be exploited, like the one you fight in the cursed village where physical attacks do no damage to him and you must rely on using special abilities. The final battle can be frustrating on your first playthrough as you have to go through two bosses without any save points in-between to top it all off, you’re left with the exact same stats after you get through the first fight, but if you completed some of the sidequests before then it should be a breeze.
Through my experience of playing JRPGs (believe me, I’ve played my fair share of them), one important element that makes a huge difference is the soundtrack and this game does a good job of delivering it. Composed by Yoshitaka Hirota who had previously only worked as an assistant and Yasunori Mitsuda, previously worked on Chrono Trigger with the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, Chrono Cross, and Xenogears. There is no need to understand the lyrics to the ending theme in order to appreciate its beauty, just listening to it play at the end as the credits roll touches you in a way that makes you want to pick up the gamepad and play it again from the beginning. That being said, allow me to introduce you to a moment of eargasm.
One of the weaker points of the game was it’s graphics, however, despite the fact that it isn’t as graphically advanced as certain other titles released at the time, it more than makes up for it with its bleak atmosphere, the dark and foggy scenery as you enter each village or area of the map puts you on edge immediately, almost like something you see in a horror movie.
There is also the option for additional playthrough via the New Game Plus option after you complete the game, giving you an opportunity to complete various side-quests, some which have to be completed in order to get the alternative good ending, or you can try to complete the monster library by encountering new enemies, gain everyone’s ultimate equipment, find hidden items, perhaps even start a new game with all of Yuri’s fusions completed. Whatever you choose to do, this game provides plenty of replay value.