Final Fantasy had better watch out. So many copycats are coming out of the woodworks eventually one is going to match up with the long running series. Shadow Hearts is definitely a reproduction of Final Fantasy X, with a huge difference. Covenant is one hell of a weird game.
The story in Shadow Hearts Covenant is a very simple one. During World War I demons roamed the Earth protecting their own interests and generally causing havoc for the Kaiser. Oh, and there is something about an evil church and super powerful mistletoe, and the end of the world, but you don’t really want to know all the details, do you? One thing that cannot be said about SH:C is that it lacks originality. While this may seem odd, considering I just called it a copy of FFX, but it is only the general gameplay and feel that is mimed. The plot, art and especially the characters are so weird; you begin to wonder how many drugs were imbued during the creation of this game. This is definitely a good thing, though at times it almost seems the story becomes weird, for weird’s sake.
You’ll fall right in love with this cast of characters; everything from a wizened old puppeteer to a hyper intelligent dog will join your party. The best by far, however is the vampire superhero wrestler, who spouts some of the best lines in the entire game. To add to the weirdness, he uses random objects, like a broken refrigerator as weapons in battle. There are many, many more examples of how this game is different, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.
While the story is pleasant enough, in a uniquely Japanese way, you might start to get bored with the repetition of the battles. The Judgment Ring makes this aspect a little more exciting, but I can’t help but think that this is merely a device to paint over the redundant random battles. The Judgment Ring is a timed button press mini-game that defines every action you take from using items, to attacking. By stopping a quick moving line at the right points on a circle, your attacks can become more, or less, powerful. It also means that if you miss the sweet spots on the ring, your attack or crucial healing potion goes to waste. Again, this makes the random battles a little more palatable, but in the end it feels like an added annoyance.
The battles themselves take up a majority of the game, as you will encounter one about every four seconds. I really had hoped this type of encounter system had gone the way of the dodo, but apparently I was wrong. This probably wouldn’t be such a big deal, except for the fact that the damage system is completely unbalanced. Battles can rage for minutes at a time because of the large amount of time you have to spend on the defensive, healing and defending incoming attacks. You will often be pitted against six to seven enemies, all of which are capable of dealing about 50% damage to a single character. By no fault of your own, you can find your self facing a game over screen, which never makes for a good time. I am an easily frustrated person, to be sure, but I’m betting Mother Teresa herself would’ve been cussing out this game.
Another factor that tends to make this game a bit harder than it really needs to be is the lack of a workable map system. You will find yourself lost in a maze, with only a tiny amount of the map available for you to look at on the fly. You can pause the game to look at a full map, if applicable in the area you’re in, but even that is overly confusing. The world is incredibly beautiful and the levels are well designed though, so you might not even notice the map system was designed at the last second. Certainly if the random battles would have been something more akin to Chrono Trigger, this would have increased the fun by a factor of ten.
The graphics are a big part of this game and they are simple beautiful. The world is an odd amalgamation of the 1900 Europe and the best anime you’ve ever seen. Every character is perfectly rendered, and the artistic direction is inspired. You’ll really love the feel of the graphics, which are decidedly darker than most RPG’s we’ve seen recently. Expect a lot of rainy areas and dark caves.
In most RPG’s the voice acting makes me cringe, and wish for the days of 8-bit digitalized sound. Covenant is a pleasant surprise in this area, with actors that really seemed to care about the lines supplying the entire dialog. The music is equally well done, though none of it sticks out as superb. You’ll never catch yourself laughing too hard at the spoken word, and that in itself is a feat when it comes to RPG’s.
This year has been full of promise, though with most of those games failing to capitalize on that early attention. It is nice to see a decent game come out of a studio that is not known for creating these types of games. It’s a sign of growth in an industry that desperately needs it, and I urge you to support this trend, and give Shadow Hearts: Covenant a try. If nothing else, it’s something you’ve never tried before.
M. Shawn Darnell
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