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SummaryFinal Fantasy in 1913? Not really
The Good...well, actually, the 1913 part is true. Shadow Hearts is a Japanese RPG set in China and Europe of 1913. I don't think there was another RPG before using such a scenario. The game certainly deserves some points for this choice.
Taking a cue from its progenitor Koudelka, Shadow Hearts features some dark and creepy scenes, surpassing the usual genre quota. Of course, it also features emoticons popping above characters' heads during dialogue, but at least it has the decency of not including cute pink anthropomorphic animals in your party.
The stylistic flavors of the setting contribute to our initial interest in the characters. 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 is usually the case in comparable games. Few other games let you control an innocent daughter of a priest who fights using a Bible, an old Daoist monk, or a vampire who has been sleeping in his castle for hundreds of years and got bored by the lack of action.
The Judgment Ring system is basically a bit of arcade reflexes added to the standard Japanese-style turn-based combat. It would be an exaggeration to state that it truly enhances the battles in a significant way, but at least it makes them less dull.
The BadDisregarding the setting, Shadow Hearts is just a vanilla Japanese RPG. Even as a representative of its genre, Shadow Hearts is way too linear. There are a few minor 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 terrible habit if ever there was one. Forget about exploration, optional areas, or anything else you liked doing in Final Fantasy games: you are being guided from point A to point B in the most direct fashion imaginable. The dungeons aren't much better: they are small, straightforward, and hardly ever conveying the atmosphere due to the artificial pasting of 3D characters into pre-rendered, static backgrounds.
Customization is as simple and as streamlined as they go. You have no control whatsoever over how your characters become stronger: they just acquire their character-specific abilities as they level up. There is no hunting for rare items or ultimate weapons, no fiddling around with customization screens, no tricky optional bosses requiring you to come up with some unorthodox tactics. In short, what is left is the plain genre template reduced to a bare minimum.
Then, of course, there is the corny dialogue, extra cheese in the plot twists, as well as irritatingly nonchalant - and typically Japanese - treatment of supposedly serious topics. When Japanese designers try to deal with historical events, real-world cultures, or anything remotely connected to religion, they end up looking like a bunch of clueless, yet overly zealous school kids. No wonder Japanese games usually make a better impression when they are set in pure fantasy worlds.
The Bottom LineShadow Hearts may entice you at first with its retro exotics, but take away the historical setting and you'll get a run-of-the-mill Japanese RPG plagued by the common contemporary genre-specific flaw: snore-inducing linearity and lack of choice.
By the way, the sequel is basically more of the same, just with cooler characters and mind-numbingly low difficulty level.