As a loyal fan of the
role-playing genre, I’m overjoyed with the amount of truly stellar RPG titles
that are currently being released for our beloved PS2. Starting with the
outstanding Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, the recent crop of RPGs are
not only breaking from the usual Final Fantasy formula but are showing
far more imagination and creativity. This was the case with the first Shadow
Hearts, a game with not only a great story but also fun battles. Its
sequel, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, is one of those rare gems that is just
waiting for fans of the genre to pick up. And trust me when I say that you’ll
love every second of it.
You’ll quickly come to
realize one thing the very minute the opening cinema pops on screen–this is no
ordinary RPG. Covenant is set in a world that’s somewhat familiar yet bizarrely
surreal and filled with fantastical creatures and characters. The story is set
in 1915 during the first World War as sexy Lieutenant Karin Koenig of the German
Imperial Army is sent to the village of Domremy where her men are slaughtered by
a very familiar demon (that’s right, Yuri is back) who spares her for obvious
reason, well, obvious if you’ve played the first game but it’s revealed later on
in the story. Having survived her encounter with the demon, she is once again
sent back into Domremy with the aide of a Vatican sent Cardinal known as Nicolai.
All of this sets in motion an adventure filled with demons, an interesting cast
of characters and a quest to discover the secrets of a mysterious society hell
bent on world domination.
The cast of characters I
mentioned are a motley crew of mismatched personalities that make the
wonderfully intricate and neatly told story so interesting. Aside from lovely
Karin and the steadfast Nicolai, there’s the hunky tortured anti-hero of the
first game that is Yuri (who is cursed and still brokenhearted by the death of
his ladylove, Alice). Making up the rest of the oddball party is a wrestler
that also just so happens to be a vampire by the name of Joachim and an exotic
dancer/fortuneteller named Lucia. Oh, and that’s not all. There’s a puppeteer
named Gepetto (not the Disney-inspired Gepetto, mind you, this game is not
that weird) and his favorite living puppet Cornelia, a white wolf named
Blanca and little Princess Anastasia–you know, the fourth Russian princess of
the Romanov dynasty (okay, maybe the game really is that weird).
As you can see, the game
is very original in its characters and masterful storytelling and you’ll quickly
be hooked into the plight of this colorful party. You’ll be drawn in by their
personalities and if you loved both Xenosaga Episode 1 and Arc the
Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, you know that it’s the showing of genuine
emotion that makes us really care what happens to the characters in role-playing
games. The game’s world is a pretty large one, as seen in the world map you
have accesses to during the game, but that’s okay because this game is made up
of two whole discs! There’s plenty to explore and find here but it’s not as
overwhelming as, say, Final Fantasy X. It does, though, mix its dark
undertones with a fresh breath of comedy that’s mainly directed at certain
situations (vampire wrestling) and enemies (you fight a rubber ducky and a
number of other children’s toys come to life).
Like any RPG, your
character’s level up and gain experience by defeating enemies in battle.
Battle, you’ll quickly find out is another aspect of the game that will hook you
in just as well as the story itself. I seldom look forward to the constant
battles thrown at gamers most RPGs possess but I have to admit that Covenant
makes me actually look forward to a fight. The reason being that the turn-based
battles have you setting up your attack or spell and then interact with what the
game calls a Judgment Ring. The Judgment Ring basically is a ring with colored
areas. A green arm suddenly spins and you must hit a colored area in order to
make a hit. Miss the colored area and you’re the one that gets hit by the
enemy. Hit a red spot and you’ll get a Strike . . . a powerful blow that takes
away more hit points than a normal Hit.
You can later customize
the ring to cover more Hit Areas and Strike Areas. You can even perform a
combo, which allows you to double (or quadruple) team a bad guy and add more
damage. Of course, the combo isn’t easy to unleash thanks to more demands to
the Judgment Ring. And what RPG isn’t complete without summoning (called Fusion
here) a beast to help you out, although in this game characters like Yuri has
the ability to morph into a powerful monster. So battle is a question of
strategic planning and thusly gives you a lot more responsibilities than just
randomly attacking enemies in any particular order.
Magic also plays a big
role in the game and character’s like Nicolai can learn different spells that
cause all sorts of damage and heal spells for injured party members. This is
good to have since the game takes you through various locales and dangerous
dungeons. The game does start simple enough but by the time you get to the
second disc, you’ll be discovering several side quests and a variety of
menacingly tough new enemies. You’ll find plenty of secrets along the way, but
as I said, it’s not as much as the things you get to see and do in the recent
Final Fantasy games. You do, however, get two different endings depending on
the way you arrived to the game’s interesting finale.
visual presentation is nothing to sneeze at and that’s saying a lot for a game
with a lot of jaggies. Still, the game is a nice visual treat thanks to neatly
detailed characters and wonderful animation. Each character conveys emotion
beautifully thanks to detailed facial expressions done just right. The cut
scenes are right up there with those found in most Final Fantasy games and the
visual effects just radiate. The backgrounds are also neatly rendered so many
of the locations won’t fail to leave you impressed.
As far as soundtracks go,
Covenant has a beautiful one that goes wonderfully with each cut scene
but does a slightly repetitive one during battles. Still, though, its
hauntingly sweet melodies are great to hear in a game. There are even cut
scenes with plenty of dialogue and it’s delivered really well for a game
featuring some really strange characters. The sound effects are minimal but
still just as good.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
is an exceedingly enjoyable RPG
that’s both captivating and addictive enough to keep fans of the genre more than
satisfied. With a story filled with colorful characters and plenty of humor,
it’s hard not to love everything this game has to offer. I wish there were much
bigger towns and areas to explore but this is but a minor complaint considering
the overall size of the world map. Covenant is a worthy sequel to a
great game so missing out on this one would a real shame. A Must Have for any
will make you look forward to each and every battle thanks to its unique battle
options and, of course, the Judgment Ring. You can customize your characters
and upgrade their attacks, spells and the way they unleash combos. But the
Judgment Ring . . . keeps you on your toes and you’ll love it.
The crisp graphics fall under the
Simply Beautiful category and its hard not to love how fluid the characters
movements are during cut scenes or during battle. Its flashy effects are
dazzling and each detailed character is brimming with personality. Okay, so
there are jaggies aplenty but it’s all ignorable.
With stunning visuals like the ones
found here, it only makes sense to include a score that so richly conveys the
beauty of the wonderful story. Luckily for us Covenant’s soundtrack is
as marvelously sweeping and cinematic as those found in the majority of the
Final Fantasy titles. The voice acting is also top-notch and filled with
great dialogue . . . most unusual for an RPG but very welcome.
The dungeons are crawling with all
sorts of beasties that range from the simple to the more complex to beat. Many
enemies require you to at least perform one or two combo sets and, of course,
level up before attempting to bring down key bad guys.
You won’t find a better balance
between excellent turn-based battles and a story filled with genuinely
well-structured characters with a real purpose. It’s blending of both fantasy
and reality makes this a strange but imaginative game comprised of two discs. I
mean, a vampire wrestler and a puppeteer named Gepetto all in the same party?
How weird and cool is that?
This is a good year for RPG fans
considering the number of excellent RPGs available at this very moment. Yet if
its originality, cool battles and an excellent story you crave, Shadow
Hearts: Covenant is a game you must own. RPG fans do yourself the favor and
pick this one up.