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SummarySensation! Final Fantasy in 1913!
The GoodShadow Hearts is a traditional Japanese RPG with an original setting and some interesting gameplay ideas.
The setting of Shadow Hearts is the first thing to talk about, and the most important feature of the game. It is set in China and Europe of 1913. I don't think there was another RPG before it that was set in this combination of historical and geographical regions.
There is plenty of fantasy in the game, lots of magical creatures, evil warlocks, and other stuff appropriate for an epic "world-saving" game. In China, all kinds of typical hell demons and local undead greet you, while in Europe, you'll encounter such a standard member of its mythology as vampire. There are many references to folk culture and beliefs, especially in China (the Chinese part occupies half of the game). You'll have to free young girls possessed by evil spirits, or to help a "good" Dao monk to fight a "bad" one. This supernatural stuff is finely and skillfully merged with concrete historical details, for example, the Japanese/Chinese conflict, the occupation of Shanghai, intrigues and schemes of the officers in the Japanese army, wandering Chinese monks, Russian spies, etc. Europe is slightly less colorful than China, but has also a great deal of appeal, and the storyline that evolves in Europe relies heavily on its culture and history, especially that of the Middle Ages. There is alchemy, dreams of immortality, church conflicts, "forbidden magic", and other interesting stuff.
The atmosphere in this game is another thing to pay attention to: taking a cue from its progenitor Koudelka, Shadow Hearts features a lot of dark and creepy scenes; nothing to shock an experienced player of survival horror, but certainly surpassing the usual Japanese RPG requirements.
Shadow Hearts is connected to Koudelka plot-wise, but is much less experimental in its gameplay. Shadow Hearts is not a horror-survival title (although the horror theme is present in many of the game's quests, locations, and monster design), but a more typical Japanese RPG, similar to Final Fantasy games in its epic scope, story, and combat mechanics.
The story of Shadow Hearts is an old-fashioned world-dominating, world-saving, princess-saving tale. Cliches abound: there is the conflicted, slightly rude, but charming hero; the love interest - shy and innocent, with big blue eyes, who possesses hidden powers everybody want to get, and whom you must protect at all costs; the colorful set of support characters (there are six party members you can choose from to create an active party of three people); the big bad guy, who constantly avoids your attempts to eliminate him, laughing at you, demonstrating his power, and calling you a wimp; the not-so-big bad guys, who also must be stopped; the even-bigger-and-badder-guy, whom you suddenly recognize as your ultimate enemy; and most of all - the sheer "epic-ness" of the whole thing: the world is not enough. Religion, demons from hell, fanaticism, fighting the "evil within", memories and flashbacks from childhood, world domination, and even God himself.
All those cliches, however, are served with the stylistic flavors of the setting, and that is what makes the story more interesting and exiting than in many other similar games. For example, the main adversary is a historical figure; your party members have real-world nationalities; even monsters and demons have more roots in real-world mythology than it is usually the case in comparable games. The narrative also flows really well, has a good balance, and the sub-quests that gradually fill out the story are for the most part quite involving.
The characters are another strong point of the game; the cast is wacky and colorful. What other game would let you control a half-Japanese, half-Russian young adventurer with beast-morphing powers, an innocent daughter of a priest who fights using a Bible, a super-sexy Russian blonde spy girl, an old Dao monk, a vampire who has been sleeping in his castle for hundreds of years and got bored with the lack of action, and a London street urchin and thief? My favorite character is probably the spy Margaret, who uses pistols in battles and "orders" her special attacks per wireless.
The writing of Shadow Hearts is much better than you'd normally expect from a Japanese RPG. The English translation is also quite good, with nice usage of slang, so you you shouldn't worry about poor or inadequate English lines that plague so many translated games.
The gameplay, while very traditional in its core, offers some pretty cool ideas. Yuri can transform into various types of monsters, who have their own attacks and abilities. There is also an additional SP (spirit points) bar. Your SP gradually lowers in a battle, especially after large SP-consuming moves (such as transforming into a monster). Once the SP reaches zero, your character goes berserk, and his (or her) SP must be restored by special items. It adds an extra challenge to the battles, which are otherwise not particularly hard (save for some bosses).
But the real innovation of Shadow Hearts is the judgement ring system. When you perform a move, a disc with a spinning indicator appears. The disc is divided into several areas. If you stop the indicator while it spins over a marked area, your attack will deal damage. It will be much more powerful if the indicator falls on a smaller border area between different colors. Finally, the attack will miss completely if the indicator stops on an unmarked area. Various attack have various degrees of skill required to stop the indicator. Normal attacks have three fairly large colored areas, so you can hardly miss them. The most powerful special attacks have only a small marked area on the judgement ring, and the miss can be critical, especially in large boss battles. Ans that's where your quick decision will determine the outcome of a battle. You'll be constantly facing the problem: should you do it the more secure way, but deal less damage, or to try and stop the indicator over the tiny critical damage area, while risking not to hit at all.
The judgement ring system is great. It adds a lot of pepper into the placid flow of turn-based combat, and makes the battles way more dramatic and suspenseful than they would have been without this system. There are also many items and accessories that will allow you to make the indicator spin more slowly, or spin faster, but with more damage inflicted by a critical attack - there are many possibilities. Also, the judgement ring system is very nicely implemented by bargaining in stores (you can always try to bargain with the help of the ring, and if you hit all the areas successfully, you'll get a discount), and by solving puzzles. Some puzzles require you to handle the judgement ring in various ways, sometimes you'll just have to stop the indicator over an area, sometimes you'll have to push an indicator to the desired point, while it is trying to spin in an opposite direction. But there are also traditional item-placing puzzles, that are very smoothly incorporated into the general flow of the game.
The graphics of Shadow Hearts are a lost art now: it is probably one of the last games to use pre-rendered backgrounds. Granted, those backgrounds would probably look just the same on a Playstation, but it dosn't change the fact they look marvelous. The 3D characters, on the contrary, clearly show the possibilities of Playstation 2, although they don't really match the level of Final Fantasy X. There are a few great-looking CG videos in the game, a particularly impressive one showing a real er-hu (Chinese string instrument) player!
The BadEven for a Japanese RPG, Shadow Hearts is too linear. There are a few side-quests and optional uncovering of stronger beasts for Yuri, but that pretty much sums up the things you can do in the game outside of following the main story. Particularly aggravating is the lack of a real world map, replaced by linear jumping from dot to dot, which is a dubious fashion if ever there was one.
Then, of course, there is the occasional corny line in the dialogue, extra cheese in some of the plot twists, and the abundance silly "mood marks" above the characters' heads: exclamation sign for a sudden revelation, interrogation sign for a puzzling situation, and even small hearts as an expression of affection. They don't quite fit the serious and even spooky atmosphere of the game.