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Skankin' Garbage's Review of Shadow Hearts: Covenant

After finishing the original Shadow Hearts, an unsung gem that was released around the launch of the PS2, I waited several months in anticipation of playing Shadow Hearts: Covenant, the sequel. The game had recieved much more attention than its predecessor (and it's prequel, Koudelka, on the PSX), and I'd heard nothing but praise about the game. I thought "Wow, one of my favorite RPGs of the past few years just got the star treatment! This is gonna be great!" Well, sorry to say, but months of anticipation don't mix well with a bad sequel. That sums up Shadow Hearts: Covenant quite well; decent game, terrible sequel.

Let's start with the good stuff. The graphics are very nice, and a nice improvement from the original game overall (You'd hope so, considering the 2-3 year gap between the games). I personally preferred the battle graphics from the first game, because it looked smoother and more detailed in its animation; but, the style was similar, and still not bad at all. The amount of cutscenes in the game was significantly increased, too, helping to feature the nice new graphics.

The music is amazing. The main composer, Yoshitaka Hirota, returns as the main composer again. He's again accompanied by Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears) whom fortunately plays a bigger role in the composition this time. (Mitsuda only wrote about nine or ten songs for the original Shadow Hearts). Also joining the mix now is Kenji Ito (SaGa series). Suffice to say, this is an excellent team; two big name composers with one of the most original-sounding up-and-coming composers around. I don't know what I could possibly say negative about this soundtrack. One thing I must mention is that the voice acting was a bit amateur; a lot of the characters' voices would match the sound of the characters, but the actors themselves wouldn't be very good at doing their part. It was a huge improvement over the original game, though, which had almost no voice acting, and ALL of it was bad.

The gameplay was pretty nice. The original battle concept is pretty similar; everyone has attacks and special abilities that are specific to only them. After choosing an action, something called the "Judgement Ring" appears; it's a circular symbol that has a few indicators on it. A line starting from the center will circle around the judgement ring, and you must press a button when the line goes over the indicators to successfully score attacks, cast spells, use items, et cetera. The number and size differ based on characters and attacks used. This takes a basic combat system and puts an interesting spin on it to keep it from going mundane. A new feature added into this game are combo attacks, which allow you to combine several peoples' attacks together and score damage bonuses based on the amount of hits landed in the combo (all attacks hit a certain, specified number of times, so it's not as complicated as it sounds). Overall, the combat system is nice, and combos are a welcome addition to the game, even though they're not necesary (I found them too tedious, and didn't use them often). The only problem with the fighting, which is accredited more to the story pacing, is that the fighting seems to come way too frequently, with not many breaks in between. I suppose the encounter rate is just a little too frequent, as all.

So far, so good. We've got a game with great aesthetics, and a combat engine that's tried and true with a few minor (good) changes. So, what's so bad about this game? Well, it really all falls apart in one place: The storyline. Quite frankly, almost everything about it is bad.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes place in the just shortly after the start of the first World War, about seven months after the events of the original Shadow Hearts. The story focuses on Yuri Hyuga (also the protagonist of the first game), a man with the ability to turn into Demons. He is cursed by an corrupt agent of the Vatican and has his powers suppressed. Because this corrupt guy is evil, he foreshadows some crazy evil plans in motion from a cult called Sapientes Gladio, and Yuri, along with a misfit gang of people (A female German general caught up in the action, the Uncle of Yuri's late girlfriend, and...a wolf), and set out to try and find out about his curse, Sapientes Gladio, and how to stop them.

It all starts out pretty nice...but many problems ensue afterwards. Let's try and tackle them, one by one.

  • The atmosphere of Shadow Hearts: Covenant has completely changed from the original game. SH:C has a literally dark atmosphere, where almost every scene depicted is a nighttime scene or a dusk scene (a la Batman). The original SH was just downright...frightening. It was creepy, and could be very terrifying to play. While this isn't bad, it could be argued that this was one of the defining characteristics of the original game; I certainly would argue that.
  • The localization altogether is really poor. The official name of the game is Shadow Hearts: Covenant, but even the TITLE SCREEN calls the game Shadow Hearts 2 (which is the Japanese title). This seems like a minor detail, but the game is full of things like this. There are several naming inconsistencies with people and things from the first game. Also, any time the game flashes back to the first game, all the scenes depicted have Japanese text. This sucks, because the scenes are always relevant, but you can never figure out what scene it is by looking at it. Lastly, in cutscenes with captions, the captions almost ALWAYS deviate from what the voice actors are saying, which quickly becomes very obnoxious.
  • Character problems overall... I will comment that the characters are very, very funny; in fact, if there was one saving grace in the script and dialogue, it'd have to be the humour. Yuri is very clever and sharp, making all of his lines a riot. Joachim and Lucia were some of the funniest comic relief characters I've ever seen. I'd say the humour is what kept me playing the game. However, a huge lack of character development and interaction from almost the entire cast, as well as little motivation for them even staying with the group makes the cast seem really static and shallow, and serves to make the combat feel really tedious, breaking up the pace with far too much combat in between any storyline tidbits.
  • Retconning (changing storyline points from the previous game) of certain things...particularly, a complete retconning of the main antagonist of the first game's intentions. This, in my opinion, completely ruined the integrity of the first game, and makes it borderline retarded.
  • And finally, the number one kicker of the game; the ending. With such a poorly constructed story with minimal motivation from most of the cast, I hoped the ending would be the glue that put it all together, but it instead completely destroyed it, but, depending on which of the two endings you got, would completely destroy the original Shadow Hearts, too. I don't want to spoil anything, but it was quite unnerving to see on one hand, a 'bad' ending that covered itself, but was unsatisfying and would never happen; and on the other hand, a 'good' ending that is 100% plothole, no matter what angle you try and view it from (and trust me, I tried many different ways and researched for days after finishing the game in pure bewilderment).

To conclude, I believe I read in an interview with the main genius behind Shadow Hearts that simply stated "You don't need to have played the first game to enjoy the second game." While this might be false in a lot of ultimately unimportant things (easter eggs and humourous references), it would certainly hold true in all of the ultimately important ways (plot consistency). Having played the original game, it's hard for me to write my review without that element of bias. That's why I say that Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a good game, but a terrible sequel. If you've never played the original Shadow Hearts game, I'd say give it a try; it's a hell of a fun game, and you'll probably laugh like you've never laughed in a long time. Having no expectations for the plot, you might even enjoy it. If you've already played the first Shadow Hearts, I'd have to reccomend against playing SH:C if you really enjoyed the plot of the first game. I've never seen a game's plot so completely ruined by a sequel, and I've played Chrono Cross.