February 18, 2007

Shadow Hearts

I just finished playing Shadow Hearts, a gothic RPG set in 1913 shortly before World War I. It features some traditional RPG concepts like elemental magic and standard dungeon exploration and combat. The biggest differences are in the mood which is more spiritual and religious while set in realistic environments and the use of a "judgement ring" as your key to successful action both in and out of combat. It's also a little shorter at about 30 hours, in part because it eschews world travel in favor of moving directly between individual locations.

The storyline and environments are interesting and fully realized. Since you move between locations without having to manually traverse the distance, and the locations can only be seen from one angle, they are fully rendered with detail and care. Over time, you'll come to understand the motives of both your archnemesis and the protagonists in a very natural and fluid manner. And at the end, when everything is revealed, those motives are ones you can sympathesize with.

The judgement ring deserves special attention since so much of what you do involves it. It's most often used during combat to successfully execute the action you chose from the battle menu. As a spinner turns, you have to time your button press as it passes through certain areas. Depending on how well you an time things, you may or may not succeed at performing your selected action, and you may be able to perform the action with a bonus like extra damage or stronger magic.

The ring is also used at various parts outside of combat to open doors and win items. This secondary use is somewhat pointless as there isn't any real penalty for failure since you're always close to a save point and in most cases you don't lose anything—you just have to try again.

Unfortunately, the judgement ring is probably the only thing that keeps combat from becoming a boring button pressing session. Since you have to constantly focus and concentrate on timing, the ring keeps your attention. Otherwise both you and the enemy will end up performing the same actions over and over again. There is little need for variety in attacks since your choices are so limited (there are not a lot of spells or special skills to choose from). That's not to say combat doesn't require some strategy and thought. It's turn-based and the enemies are strong enough that you'll have to pay attention to healing and status abnormalities.

Also, some of the bosses are difficult because they have unique attacks often with status effects and there is no way to plan ahead for protection against those effects. You'll only find out the best form of preparation after you've entered battle, and by then it's too late to change your equipment or characters. Since you are limited in what accessories you can equip, I often found myself in trouble for not having the right things equipped, and there aren't enough of the rarer items to keep them equipped on characters all the time. Eventually I was removing all accessories before swapping a character out.

Graphically, the monsters and characters aren't all that great. The polygon count seems low, although perhaps not for the time, and the movements a little jerky. Plus, all the monsters look very strange. They're often some form of deformed ghost or spirit, and even normal enemies that you would expect to be human become some sort of monster during combat to reflect strange occult experiments that were performed on them or their mental state.

I did like the music. It fit the mood and environments very well, although they are not the best compositions.

Posted by josuah at February 18, 2007 12:29 AM UTC+00:00

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