In tenth grade, my friend Albert (who today would probably be best known for his work on this) came to school with a hilarious bit of trivia. It seems he found a book in his pastor’s office that listed off pop culture icons that defied God. Most notable among the entries, it suggested we shun the Smurfs because a) Papa Smurf used magic to help his fellow smurfs instead of prayer, and b) Gargamel drew actual Satanic symbols when casting his own evil spells. While these aspersions seem about as productive as speculating on the sexual orientation of a teletubbie, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, the final instalment of my reviews on the game series, kinda, sorta, actually does this.
Legend states that King Solomon used a ring engraved with the Star of David to capture and enslave 72 demons. A book known as Goetia, The Lesser Key of Solomon, or sometimes Lemegeton, supposedly authored by Solomon himself, lists off all these demons, describes them, and shows the crests used to call them into service. Not only does Covenant base its magic system off this legend, sending the player across the world to find these demons and equip them, but when you summon them in-battle, the actual crest from the book appears on the battlefield. So just a warning, while I recommend this game, you may run the risk of actually calling monsters out of your television.
Now that I’ve issued my disclaimer, I can get on with describing the game…except I don’t really have much to say that differs from my articles on the original Shadow Hearts or From the New World.
The game follows Yuri Hyuga once again, continuing from the bad ending of the first game. The Vatican sends Nikolai Conrad, who has a personal beef with Yuri for beating Albert Simon before he had the chance, to curse him. Attacked with the “holy mistletoe” curse, Yuri loses all weapons, items, and fusion demons from the last game, as well as the ability to get any action from the game’s double-D female lead (which, not to ruin the game for you, probably works out in Yuri’s favor.)–probably the games greatest irony considering mistletoe’s reputation for inspiring sexual hedonism akin to playing Twister. Once thusly cursed, Yuri and Company set off on a crusade to take down the secret society responsible for making the Vatican look like Dick Cheney’s personal assassination squad. Along the way he rediscovers demons and, you know, just might learn a little something about himself.
Like the original, Covenant emphasizes character development over action and plot. Unfortunately, players despise quick-time events that ask them to “press X to not die,” so I don’t think they’d readily accept “press X to introspectively examine your purpose in life after the death of your lover.” On the positive side, Nautilus did not actually include these events in the game, instead favoring flimsy excuses for geographical movement into a series of irrelevant dungeons.
And while the story masterfully outlines Yuri’s development, I wouldn’t go so far to say that each character adds something vital to the story. Much like the dungeons, it feels like the guys at Nautilus sat around trying to think up caricatures to round out a battle party. “We can’t get through the game with only two characters!” someone said. “Let’s throw in a super-hero….pro wrestling…vampire,” offered a staff writer, who probably just flipped through the nearest copy of Game Informer until he found three successful titles. Granted, when given the option of using a super-hero pro-wrestling vampire, few players will resist the call. Shadow Hearts has always designed their characters people want to use in battle.
But hey, if you do one thing well, just do it ad nauseum, right? The game uses the alternate history genre to present a parade of cameos. Characters from the first game make appearances, including Kato, Albert Simon, Roger Bacon, Alice, Keith and Margarete–as well as historical figures like Lawrence of Arabia, the Great Gama, Gregori Rasputin…and Margarete. Also, Kato looks more than a little bit like Bruce Campbell, so that should count for something, I think.
However, the carnival of characters and the dismissive plot tend to retcon parts of the game’s universe. Apparently, Albert Simon only wanted to destroy the world in the first game because he needed more power to fight one of the major villains in this game. I’d need a good long time with the latest edition of the DSM to count the psychological disorders required to make that logic work. Apparently Yuri only needed to sit down with him and have a chat about the problems of overkill to solve the conflict in SH1. Whether he does or not, the change in motives takes the fangs out of previously enjoyable villainy.
Covenant improves on mechanics developed for the original. Players have options for customizing the judgement ring, as well as equipping an item that slows it down to a reasonable speed. In the first game, the ring fixed the traditional RPG mechanic of finishing battles by hitting X repeatedly–by making you hit X four times as often and at very precise moments. Covenant offers their characters a reasonable amount of MP, making magic and special techniques a valid option. The game clearly had influences–if you ran a drug test, its urine would contain more than trace amounts of Final Fantasy–but in Covenant, it developed enough of its own flair to stand on its own…which of course made it branch off into obscurity, eventually leading to the cancellation of Shadow Hearts 4 and the downfall of the series, despite attaining a quality and ease of playability that other RPGs would envy.
Covenant exists to impress. This game introduced me to the series, and still stands as its strongest game. A rare occurrence of RPG direct sequelage, it manages to inform the player of all relevant plot points from the first game in less than three cut scenes, seemingly animated by Yuri’s own hand-drawings of the events. These scenes also illustrate the otherwise dark, gothic game’s aloof sense of humor, although the gay-sex-between-athletes innuendo remains a reward for the fervent side quester.
And on a final note, Shadow Hearts does side quests better than any any other game I’ve played. If you’ve ever played an RPG, you’ve probably gone through dozens of quests for ultimate weapons, magic, or skills, only to find yourself at the end of the game with literally nothing left to use them for except the final boss who at that points fights back with all the rage and fury of a plastic cup filled with pudding. Covenant, however, offers multiple side quests for every character, most of which include full-length dungeons and bosses. Yes, eventually you’ll run out of options and have no choice but to end the game, but by then the game feels satisfying, if not just a little too easy.
So I should probably throw this in before wrapping this up: Solomon didn’t write the book. Unless he knew German. And worshiped Jesus…thousands of years before his birth. But as an element of the real world–as well as all the other real-world elements in Covenant–it immerses the player into the fantasy, and it does it well. Well enough, obviously, to get me to play an entire series over the course of two months. Although I don’t rate games, I feel this particular game merits some sort of quantitative praise, so I will bestow upon it my highest ranking: 10 stars out of two thumbs up multiplied by 100 tomatoes.
Sorry for the delays in updating. I’ll target some shorter games over the next few weeks to make up for it. Thanks for reading!