I've been playing RPGs for a long time. Final Fantasy was the first NES game I had, and I wore it out. I remember doing the medium level Nintendo Power challenge of beating the game with all Black Mages. Final Fantasy 2 was my very first SNES game as well. I remember writing an angry letter to Nintendo Power when Super Mario World won all the awards, claiming that there was voter bias because it was packaged with the SNES, thus more people had access to the game. I remember skipping school my freshman year on a Friday to buy Final Fantasy 3 from Babbage's for $79.99 and playing it for 4 days straight. I've played the Fantasies and Phantasy's, the Lufia's, Grandia's, and any other ia's, the Chrono's and the Xeno's, you name it, and it's a notch on my bedpost. Well, if I notched RPG's I've beaten on my bedpost, which would be quite silly now that I think about it.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is my favorite RPG of ALL TIME
Let's try and narrow down the reasons why into a manageable review and not War and Peace, shall we?
Graphics: Graphics whores rejoice! This is the best looking RPG ever. It kills the original in graphics. It embarrasses any FF game out there. There is so much attention and detail to everything, its very hard not to stop in mid game and just start drooling. The game is loaded with FMV, and they all look impeccable. Every character moves as if they were alive. There's no jagged edges, mistimed lip syncing, weird postures or characters that walk as if they were bowlegged. The game takes on a movie quality in some of the FMVs. It's a pleasure for the player to be able to watch.
All of the locations bear a similar amount of detail. Each has incredible detail and is made to be consistent with the time period. The battles are even more of a step up. The characters look a lot better then they did in the original. Yuri's fusion monsters in particular have a lot more detail. Thought has been put into them and it pays off. Spell effects are also top notch; a noticeable improvement over the first game.
Sound: I read a lot of reviews out there that claim that this is the one area that the original is still superior. And after listening to both games extensively, i don't see it. This soundtrack, much like the first, would easily make my top 5 RPG soundtracks. Once again, Yasunori Mitsuda helps out with the tracks, and once again it's an amazing result. The game makes a great distinction in styles between the Europe and Asia sections of the game. The mood and setting fit even better this time. My personal favorite in the Europe section is the normal town theme. It's a GREAT song. Unfortunately, it plays in most of the towns in Europe, so you hear it a LOT during the first half of the game. A little variety would have done well in this instance. The second half of the game is near flawless. The battle theme and the boss theme for the Japan section are both brilliant and shoot straight to the top of the list of battle and boss themes, respectively. I can't name a weak link in the soundtrack, unlike the first game which had a few weaker songs.
The sound effects are light years better than its predecessor. This game has a TON of voice acting, and it is almost all wonderful. There is one exception, Lucia, who I thought was a filler character. Yuri and Karin in particular are voiced very well, and so are a few characters who return from the original Shadow Hearts (who I won't name due to spoilers). It is all top shelf work. The battle sounds are also fixed. Character sounds and voices in battle are just as good as the story scenes. Even battle effects are done very well. For example, the sound of Kurando's sword hitting an enemy, or the explosion that happens when Yuri fuses with a monster are excellent. A good ear goes a long way in this game.
Gameplay: Okay, so the Judgment Ring in the original Shadow hearts was an innovative and fun way to control the game and yet make it interactive, instead of the same boring old menu systems. So surely they could just keep it as it is and have a sure winner, right? If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Yeah, right.
The Judgment Ring is what controls everything in the game. When it is your characters turn, a needle spins around a wheel. Your character will have to press the attack button one to five times (depending on the character and the action you are trying to take). If you press the button in the hit area, the move will succeed. If you press it in the red "strike" area, you will succeed above and beyond. Your attacks will do a little more damage or your healing items will give you back a little more.
So, how could they make it any better? How about by including an amazing amount of customization. First, you can control the amount of hit areas a characters ring has. A being called the Ring Soul (which provides some GREAT comic relief) will give you items that can increase the amount of hit areas. For example Yuri can have anywhere from 1 to 5 hit areas on his ring - it's up to you to choose. There are also hit and strike expanders. So, if there is one area that you can't seem to hit, use a few of those items to increase the area you have to work with. The game also gives you choices in the type of ring to either make things easier or harder on you. For example, the "technical" ring has smaller areas for you to hit, but it increases the damage the character gives. The "practice" ring has no strike areas, but it allows you to miss an area and still continue your turn. This level of customization takes a great battle system and moves it up there with the likes of a Grandia.
Story: I saved this for last, because there are so many great things, I'll have a high propensity to ramble. This is a direct sequel, and takes place about 6 months after the original Shadow Hearts. This coincides with the beginning of World War I, and the game does another fantastic job tying it in with historical events. You will meet a lot of historical characters (some playable, some very evil enemies), and aside from a few dates, the game is very accurate. Nautilus has done an amazing job of capturing the feel of the time period, making the background early 20th century in appearance. All the NPCs fit the period in terms of clothing style and mannerisms. The only exception are the playable characters themselves who look and dress and act like they are from modern times. It's a bit jarring, but it doesn't detract from the fun. Although hearing crusty old Gepetto tell Yuri that he's screwed is amusing when you realize that wasn't even a slang term back then.
Anywho, regardless of dates, the German army attempts to invade the village of Domremy in Northern France. This unit is led by Lt. Karin Koenig and is defeated by a solitary winged demon of darkness. She returns to Germany and brings a new unit along with Cardinal Nicolai Conrad who will try and exorcise the demon. Nicolai has come from the Vatican in Italy to aid the Germans against France. Within the first hour of the game, you learn the demon is Yuri, the main character from SH1, you learn the game is going off the BAD ending, which I also will avoid due to spoilers. Yuri loses all of his powers and is cursed by a great magic. You learn who the real bad guys are in this game, and your team is formed.
The game does a great job tying the events of SH1 together. After playing the game with a very skeptical eye, I cannot find any inconsistencies. Covenant strikes a wonderful balance in relying of the characters of the first game yet developing new characters for this storyline. While some of your party members from the first game make cameo appearances, none play a prominent role in the story. So, they don't detract from the new characters that the story is focusing on. One of the main NPC characters who is a focal point of the story was a minor part of the original Shadow Hearts, and the game does a fantastic job of explaining their motivations and the reason for this increased detail. It makes me sad that there aren't more direct sequels. This was a wonderful continuation that kept the spirit of the first game alive, and developed it in a thoughtful, yet non-obvious direction.
This game is significantly more light-hearted than the first. It still has more serious overtones than most RPG's, but this time it focuses a little more on the humor side than the dark side. The reason for this is the cast of characters, which may be the oddest assemblage I can recall seeing. When you have in your midst a creepy old man, a wolf, a homosexual wrestler, a ditsy exotic dancer and a princess (historically accurate princess, I might add) and are fighting against the likes of a dominatrix, a infamous historical figure (name withheld due to spoilers), mad scientists, and strange "baby-head" magicians, the potential for comedy is immense. This game does a great job not letting it get out of hand, and balancing the serious side with the comic side. The result is an enjoyable experience for fans of either.
I have to take a minute here to make note of how the "love story" is done in RPG's. This first started to materialize in the Final Fantasy games: Cloud and Aeris, Squall and Rinoa, Zidane and Garnet, Tidus and Yuna. This started becoming the central theme in the game, and who can argue with the results? Those are some of the most successful games of all time. But I'll tell you this: Shadow Hearts: Covenant DESTROYS them in terms of character development and conveying emotion in a game
I tried thinking of why exactly this is. I think a major part of this is that the game is a direct sequel. Most stand alone games have the lead male and female characters starting to get attracted to one another in the first 5 or 10 hours, there's RARELY enough storyline justification for you to become emotionally involved with them. You just take for granted that they are the main characters in the story and watch them develop. But this game is something special. If you've played the first game, you basically have 25 hours of back-story, 25 hours of motivation that explains why Yuri feels the way he does. And Covenant does a great job of having Yuri progress and deal with his feelings throughout the game. You mix that in with the relationships with the other characters, particularly Karin, and the result is perfect. It's really hard to explain this without spoilers. But there is a scene nearing the end of the game that has more emotion and feeling than any ENTIRE GAME I've ever played (The scene in FFX where Tidus realizes what's going on is not bad, but gets KILLED in comparison). This scene is not only the pinnacle of THIS game, but it also wraps up the original Shadow Hearts. By this time you have around 65-70 hours invested in this story, and the results leave you feeling every emotion there is in the book. If you ever get emotionally invested in the games you play, there's a good chance you might cry during this game. And I can't name a game that comes close in eliciting that kind of response. It really is something you truly have to feel for yourself.
Miscellaneous: Here's random goodness that didn't fit anywhere else:
WARNING: DO NOT PLAY THIS GAME IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED THE ORIGINAL. MANY PEOPLE WILL SAY THIS CAN BE A STAND ALONE GAME, AND THEY ARE LYING. YOU ARE REALLY DOING YOURSELF A DISSERVICE, AND THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF THE GAME IS TREMENDOUSLY MITIGATED. SO GO FIND THE FIRST ONE - IT'S ABOUT$20 AND WELL WORTH THE MONEY. WARNING OVER
- This game does an admirable job of fleshing out your party members. One in particular is damn near worthless, but each one has special side-quests and character development. Sometimes these characters and their relationship development are featured more prominently than the main story, which makes them feel important. Also, they each have independent skills and usefulness in battle. So, there's rarely going to be a time when you aren't switching between them.
- The humor of this game is very skillfully and intelligently presented. There are some outright funny lines and characters (Lenny and Veronica come to mind). Yuri retains his brash personality from the first game (Yuri's line of the game: "Your curse doesn't mean CRAP buddy!"). This game has its share of sexual and even homosexual innuendo-, and its hysterical at points without being contrived or derogatory in any fashion. Kudos to Nautilus for making such a unique blend of personalities all mesh together so well.
- The game is bursting with originality. It ties together almost seamlessly with the first game. It takes the highly original idea of the judgment ring and adds a new flavor to it with customization. It introduces a lot of great characters, many of whom are based on actual characters from history. It's not something you see often in an RPG, or any video game for that matter. And they deserve admiration for being able to use history and creativity at the same time.
- Almost everything in the game is enjoyable. There are no tedious parts of the game of power leveling or dungeon crawling. I like being able to do side-quests in any order I want. I like tracking down character's special skills, weapons and armor. I like finding homosexual pornography in order to get my creepy old man new twisted outfits for his puppet. No, that's not a misprint. In order for Gepetto to get more dresses for Cornelia, he must find "Stud Cards" to exchange with the fashion designer. Once you get a "Stud Card", take a look at the picture of it in the inventory.
- After all the praise I've heaped on this game, the best compliment that I can give it is how refined it is. The production values are second to none; everything looks flawless. This game is so polished it's unbelievable. And I've noticed a lot of sequels that try to change a lot of things around and end up messing up the qualities which made the first game so special. But there's none of that here. This is the first sequel I've ever seen that not only fixes every single flaw of its predecessor, but retains every good quality of the original, and in most cases makes it better.
Summary: I've said it all. You give me the "If you could pick one game..." question and this game is the answer without hesitation. This is as near flawless as you can get. One of the most intelligently developed and emotionally captivating story-lines, a magnificent soundtrack, graphics that are unrivaled by any RPG on any system, and an innovative and challenging gameplay system that has only been improved upon. Everything about Shadow Hearts: Covenant shows a lot of care and effort, and most of all love, being put into the final product. Again, I urge you to play the original and also Koudelka if at all possible, as it adds so much more to the enjoyment. With those 3, it's a good 80-90 hours of RPG gaming that is unparalleled by any I've ever played. Strongest recommendation for the RPG of the year in 2004, and one of the greatest ever.