Playing video games regularly for over twenty years, I’ve absorbed them into my identity, and constructed an elaborate vision of the afterlife based on them. Once I die, I’ll unlock the New Game + option and restart my life from birth with all the possessions and experience from my first life. Using this advantage, I can explore the world in more detail and test out the alternatives to decisions I made the first time through. Eventually, by discovering every available potential story line, I’ll unlock the “Good Ending.”
Think Buddhism, but without the discipline or commitment.
Still, this scenario relies heavily on the assumption that the “Bad Ending” comes more easily and that I actually desire the “Good Ending.” Unfortunately, the Shadow Hearts series routinely flouts this concept, rewarding players for overcoming enticing challenges with good endings written with the appeal of an off-Broadway musical version of Twilight. So I have to decide between extending my stay in a game with a colorfully dark atmosphere and impossibly well-conceived side quests or walking away from a deep contemplation of malice and monstrosity in the human soul with a positive, bubbly, can-do attitude toward the world.
Let me rewind, though, and start from the beginning–of the third game. Shadow Hearts: From the New World rounds out the trilogy of games about a man with demons fused into his heart searching for love, acceptance and purpose in a Europe and Asia torn apart by the malice preceding World War I by creating an epilogue starring none of the same characters, demons, or setting as the first two games and taking place well over a decade after they ended. But in spite of the awkward continuity break, the game actually turned out pretty good.
Nautilus has played with combining the irreverent with the dark, and by this game they managed to construct a world of Lovecraftian horrors that will leave you rolling in the aisles. You play as Johnny Garland, sixteen-year-old boy detective and the least interesting character in the entire Shadow Hearts series. As the game opens, the creepy Professor Gilbert, on sabbatical from his quest to become the kingpin gangster in Gotham City, hires Johnny to track down a missing person. Unfortunately, his career in investigation comes to a dramatic end when a monster materializes and eats the guy he’s tracking. But to prove the adage that every time God shuts a door, he opens a peep show, Shania, an Aryan Native American with breasts the size of all three pair owned by protagonists of the two previous Shadow Hearts games and Koudelka put together.
Now you may remember me praising Samus Aran for contributing her femininity to a story that doesn’t ask for or need her gender in the least. Considering my stance there, I’d come off as incredibly hypocritical and misogynistic if I confessed to favoring Shania because I enjoyed watching her. Well, yeah, she has the anatomical proportionals a Barbie Doll and kind of gives off the vibe that no one can focus a story around a Native American unless their standing ovation happens in the players’ pants, but to that I say one thing: Frank Goldfinger. Very shortly after Shania joins your party, you encounter the middle-aged Frank hiding behind a cloth sheet as three monsters pound the snot out of him. When he emerges bragging about how neither Johnny nor the monsters ever saw him, he claims to have studied the Brazilian Ninja Arts in order to protect the United States. At that point, the game’s message rings through like an air raid siren in a library; don’t interpret anything seriously. The irreverent, nonsensical characters count among the games strongest features. If you partake in a certain side quest, you even realize that each one supposedly embodies one of the seven deadly sins, a very interesting bit of symbolism until you realize that Gilligan’s Island actually pulled it off much better.
Like previous instalments of the series, combat revolves around the Judgement Ring, a spinning dial that asks the player to activate it at very specific points in order to determine the success and effectiveness of attacks and spells. While many RPGs suffer from excessively repetitive combat that often forces you to just hit “X” over and over until the battles end, the Judgement Ring offers a more engaging system that asks you to hit “X” more often and at very specific times than those games. Oddly enough, it works. It encourages players to aim for minuscule strike zones to buff up their power, which increases the chances of missing altogether and screwing up the attack. For a mechanic intended to represent the unpredictable whims of fate, it creates a sense of control over the battle that few other games can rival.
In addition to the characters and the combat system, the game design and atmosphere make the game worth playing. I enjoy the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but holy hackney Batman, his stories sound like he threw the Oxford English Dictionary into a garbage disposal and dumped it onto a page covered in glue. So what I really mean when I say I enjoy Lovecraft is that I enjoy Shadow Hearts and appreciate his influence on them. Nautilus painted a dark world with vibrant colors. The unorthodox monster design offers something more grotesque than the standard vampire, werewolf, zombie, or other human- and animal-based design. I’d pay $50 for a Shadow Hearts 4 just for the artwork.
Like the monsters, the game itself gives us something refreshingly unorthodox. Most RPG developers work within the fantasy genre, with sci-fi as their backup. The real-world, alternate-history setting of this series, and I understand the New World setting for all I mock it. It didn’t make sense at the end of Covenant to continue with Yuri’s story, while the Americas provide an untapped source of history and landmarks to work with. It provides enough background to qualify for the series; the judgement ring, lottery games, a wacky vampire from the Valentine family, Roger Bacon and his porn addiction, and the emigre manuscript. While the plot doesn’t wow me with complexity, they use events and ideas from previous games to prevent the story from falling into formula. The plot of From the New World springs primarily from Nikolai Conrad’s release of Malice in Covenant, along with the running theme that no one has ever successfully resurrected the dead using the emigre manuscript.
While many found it a weak follow-up to the games starring Yuri Hyuga, and the game itself didn’t make enough money to ensure continuation of the series, the game doesn’t disappoint. This forgotten/hidden gem perfects the judgement ring combat system and adds an entertaining complexity to the magic system and combo attacks. Also, I bought the soundtrack for this game (and for Covenant) because it created such a perfect mood. Bottom line: don’t play From the New World expecting a strong story or a familiar protagonist (although enough characters make cameos to keep it entertaining); play the game because Nautilus perfected their art and won’t likely make any more instalments of a great, atmospheric series. And breasts. Large, but not quite comically large breasts.