Shadow Hearts: Covenant – PS2

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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.

Yuri (as Amon) and Karin in homage to the box art to the original game

Yuri (as Amon) and Karin in homage to the box art to the original game

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.

Torture scenes exist in all three main series games...but only here do you get a BDSM dominatrix along with the pain.

Torture scenes exist in all three main series games…but only here do you get a BDSM dominatrix along with the pain.

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.

Summoning demons with a book, resurrected girlfriend, and chins bigger than China...coincidence?

Summoning demons with a book, resurrected girlfriend, and chins bigger than China…coincidence?

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.

Yes, the dog is sidling to avoid being seen.

Yes, the dog is sidling to avoid being seen.

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.

Why play the game? Here are two big reasons.

Why play the game? Here are two big reasons.

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!

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Not a Review, but Consider it a Halloween Bonus

So I don’t usually spend a lot of time on creepy pasta websites; as a teacher, I understand that it’s good exercise for aspiring writers, but I personally don’t find them very scary.  However, after the conversation I recently had with a guy who had been haunted, I feel I need to spread his warning to as many people as possible.

Recently, as you may have noticed, I’ve been playing through games in the Shadow Hearts series, a hidden gem of an RPG based on Lovecraftian horrors and demon possession.  The game features some amazing design, but has a very aloof sense of humor, so like most horror fiction, I didn’t find it very scary.  However, I recently received an email about a comment on one of my posts about Shadow Hearts. It simply said,

“Stop talking about this game. It’s evil, and every disc should be snapped in half and melted down!”

As any avid gamer can sympathize with, I’ve endured plenty of people accuse me of being anti-social, or a serial killer, or a school shooter for playing video games, and I also know about the religious fanatics who think things like Harry Potter are gateway drugs into a lifetime of worshipping Satan.  I dismissed this comment as belonging to either one or the other.  I denied approval for the comment and forgot about it for nearly a week.

This person didn’t give up, though. He pieced together some of the personal information I talked about in my blog posts, figured out where I teach, and looked me up on the school’s directory.  One day I logged on to check my email, and found an unknown address in my inbox. The subject line read, “Shadow Hearts Blog Post.”

I clicked on it and read the email. “Please don’t encourage your readers to play Shadow Hearts. The game is dangerous.”  As a blog comment, I simply wouldn’t respond, but since the guy had my email address, I figured I’d politely tell him to stop bothering me, and that I didn’t want my blog to be hijacked by religious fundamentalists.  I figured I’d leave it at that and ignore any further emails, but the response I got intrigued me.

“I’m sorry if I gave the wrong impression. I’m not a religious fanatic. I just need to warn you that people have died because of that game.  It’s very important.  Please give me just a little bit of your time.”

I told him I’d listen, although I only thought it would give me something interesting to put on my blog. I wrote back and told him I was willing to hear him out.  I’ll post his response verbatim below:

“My trouble with Shadow Hearts began about six months ago. A student in my dorm was taken to the hospital just after midterms. Rumor had it that after two weeks straight of studying, he had spent three days straight playing video games, then just keeled over. I had heard that every so often, kids in Korea or Japan will do that. The guy was some sort of Asian, so I thought that might have been the case. Word got out that he died a week later, but no one believed it until his parents showed up to clean out his room.

“The next day was my laundry day. People are always getting rid of stuff in our dorm; they’ll just leave it on the table by the washers for anyone to take.  I like to get there early so the machines don’t fill up, so I throw in my wash and look around at the new pile on the table. Underneath a stack of notebooks and bad kung-fu DVDs, I found a copy of Shadow Hearts in near perfect condition.

“Being somewhat of an RPG nut, I snatched this game right away. I probably even looked around the room to make sure there was no one I’d have to fight for it.  I had played Covenant, but I’d never even seen a copy of the original.

“The first thing I did was open it up. I saw the disc inside, reflecting the fluorescent lights above me. I later learned that this wasn’t the standard label design, but I didn’t know it at the time.  I held it up and to stare at my reflection, but I saw something dark move behind me. This freaked me out a little, so I stopped and turned. I didn’t see anyone in the room. It was dark outside, so I stared at the window for a few minutes before I convinced myself I was just being crazy. So I turned around to examine the disc, which I found designed with part of a demon’s face. A glowing red eye, like one of the monsters from the game, stared back at me. It even seemed to move as I tilted the disc, like one of those holographic images. I saw it blink once, but couldn’t seem to make it happen again.

“Having no plans for the day, I immediately ran up to my dorm room to play it.  I remember the title screen, a solid, dark crimson that gave the title of the game, Yuri’s amulet, and the phrase, “Limited Edition: 1/3.” At that point, I thought I had hit the jackpot, finding a rare game being tossed out in a dorm laundry room. I played most of the day, clearing a good quarter of the game in one sitting before I remembered the Asian kid and decided to call it quits.

“That night I dreamed I was in a graveyard—the graveyard from the game.”

[author’s note: For those who have not played the game, the main character, Yuri, has a graveyard in his soul.  He can go there to fight monsters and demons, and if he wins, he can transform into those monsters during the game’s combat. Several other major story events occur here as well.]

“In this dream, I heard voices coming from the tombstones. They hissed and whispered.  I couldn’t see anyone or make out any words, but I felt like something was watching me.  It was dark, but I remember running to two of the three gates, and neither one would open.  I ran towards the third, but I somehow knew—even though I had never played the game—that the God of Death was waiting behind it.  The whispers grew louder, and I woke up suddenly, sweating and breathing heavily.

“What frightened me more than the dream, though, was that I could still hear the whispers for a few seconds after I woke up.  The noise died down very quickly, but in those seconds, I heard the first clear words come out of the darkness: ‘Black God.’ The nightmare bothered me, and while I can usually shake off bad dreams and go back to sleep, this time I felt like I should sleep with my reading lamp on.

“The next day I felt much better, but the dream still hung in my mind.  I wondered about the phrase ‘black god,’ so I googled it.  I didn’t find much at first; just some manga and anime references, a facebook page, and a bunch of images.  I was about to attribute the whole thing to a pizza nightmare, when I got the impulse to delve further. I typed ‘black god shadow hearts’ into the search field, and came up with something important.  One of Yuri’s high-level monsters is called ‘Czernobog.’ Apparently Czernobog is a real mythological thing, although I couldn’t find much information about it, other than his name translates into ‘black god.’”

“I wasn’t scared at the time. I thought it was interesting. I had seen Czernobog in the game, even if I hadn’t gotten far enough to use him myself.  But there was no way even my subconscious mind could have known that it meant ‘black god.’ Still, all this thought about Shadow Hearts made me eager to play the game again.  I turned it on, not expecting anything to happen, but when I selected ‘continue’ on the title screen, a demon’s face flashed on the screen for a second, the same face from the holographic image on the disc label.

“During my playthrough, some weird things happened. Somehow, I lost all the fusion monsters I got the day before, but I could use one new one; Czernobog. I noticed some other glitches as well. During a normal playthrough, each character’s sanity points drop slowly, little by little on each of their turns, and when it reaches zero they turn berserk.  Every half hour or so, however, Yuri’s sanity points would instantly drop to zero, even when it wasn’t his turn. He’d immediately transform into a demon—the one from the disc label and the title screen—kill my other players in one hit, then turn and stare at the screen. At that point, the game would freeze and I’d have to restart.

“After this had happened three or four times, I lost my patience and shut off the game. As an afterthought, though, I opened the Playstation and checked the disc label. As much as I tilted it, all I could see was my own face staring back, and parts of the room behind me.

“That night, I dreamed I was in the graveyard again.  I heard the whispers just like before, tried the two gates, and stood frightened before the third. This time, though, just beyond the bars of the God of Death’s gate, I saw two red pinpoints of light glaring back at me. It was then that I woke up like the night before, sweating and gasping. Once more I heard the whispers for a few seconds, making out the word ‘angel.’ Except this time, when the words died down, I saw the lights. Outside my window, they formed from slits, as if something were opening its eyes. I waited for them to vanish, like the voices, but they didn’t. Frozen with terror, it took me probably five minutes to gather the nerve to reach for my reading lamp. When I clicked the light on, the red lights vanished, but my window filled with my reflection, and I could no longer tell if anything lurked outside.

“I did some research on what ‘angel’ might mean in relation to the game.  I learned that two monsters, Sandalphone [sic] and the Seraphic Radiance are both types of Angels in Jewish lore.  I remember Covenant talking about King Solomon, so I thought this was more than a coincidence. I didn’t want to play the game, but I wanted to know if what I suspected was true, so I popped the disc in, loaded my save file, which did not summon a demon to stare me down, and checked my fusion monsters.  I only had one, the Seraphic Radiance.

“The idea of an angel made me feel better, so I decided not to push my luck and shut off the game. That night, though, I had the same dream: the graveyard, the whispers, and the red eyes, staring at me. This time, though, I woke up with a pain in my chest, which made me think of the way Yuri grabs his heart every time he transforms into a monster. The eyes stared at me until I turned on my reading lamp, but this time, I had the distinct feeling that I wasn’t alone.

“I went a week without even touching the Playstation. I investigated possible sources for the lights outside my window and found nothing.  I asked everyone in the dorms if they had been talking late at night, giving off the impression of voices I may have heard in my dream, but no one had.  All week long, wherever I went, I felt like I was being followed, like something was constantly watching me. I continued ignoring the game, hoping it would go away. Still, each night I had the same dream, but each night the red eyes seemed to get closer and closer.  One night I woke up and screamed when I saw the eyes inside the room with me. I tackled the light, struggling to turn it on in my panic. When I did, the eyes disappeared, but afterwards, every so often, I’d hear the whispering in my head, even during the day. Also, and I could have been imagining this, I had phantom chest pains at odd intervals, usually when I was alone.

“Finally, I thought the only way to end the nightmares would be to finish the game, so I once more picked up the controller to plow my way through the end. Unfortunately, the glitches got weirder and weirder.  Characters would randomly die, the music stuttered, droned and crackled, and eventually cut out completely, leaving no sound in the game except for a static hiss, which reminded me too much of the whispering of the demons. The accumulation of malice [author’s note: malice is the vengeful souls of enemies Yuri has killed, come back to haunt him, and he has to fight it to prevent it from getting too powerful.] occurred very fast, maxing out after every battle.  Eventually, I couldn’t fight against it at all; I go to the graveyard, and instead of asking “Do you wish to quiet the malice,” the masks would ask “Do you wish to quiet your dreams?” All the while, as Yuri progressed through the story, losing more and more of his mind and soul to the monsters that possessed him, my chest pains became more frequent and more fierce.

“Eventually, I reached the point in the game where Alice meets the God of Death. Normally, this is where the game decides how the story will end; Alice fights in exchange for Yuri’s soul, and if she wins, Yuri doesn’t die, while if she loses, she dies in his place. Except, neither of those happened.  She crossed the gate (the one I was too scared to cross in my dream), and the game went black.  Moments later, I heard a deep rumbling voice say something in a language I didn’t understand, and then the game continued, starting after Alice’s fight. I finished the game an hour and a half later. Both Yuri and Alice survived, but after the ending credits where the game should have described the start of World War I, I found myself face to face with the red-eyed demon.  The pain in my chest grew, and I blacked out.

“When I came to, the game had been turned off, but I could hear the whispering demons loud and clear, running through my head constantly. I felt like something unnatural was living in my body, making it difficult to move, although I found I could still control how I moved.

“That night, however, something inside me took over. Rather than trying to escape the graveyard dream through the two gates, I found myself unwillingly stepping closer and closer to the God of Death’s gate. The masks that taunt Yuri in the game now taunted me, and the monsters’ whispers now rose to a disquieting laughter.

“The world went black, and all of existence felt like it simply turned off, except for the red-eyed demon, feasting on some grotesque lump, smacking loudly. It sucked down the morsel in its mouth and turned so I could see its face. ‘I have enough souls for now,’ it said. ‘I’ll come for you when I get hungry.’

“And then I woke up. I listed the game on eBay within ten minutes. I wanted no more part of this. It needed to be as far away from me as possible. I wasn’t thinking at the time. I didn’t consider that someone else might play it and see the same visions that I did. But someone in Oregon bought it, and I dropped the game off at the post office even before his payment came through.

“It didn’t stop the howling demons in my head. Sometimes they scream so loud I can’t hear anything in the world around me. They call to me. Taunt me. Screaming curses and damnations, mocking my imminent death. I can’t think straight.  I had to drop out of school, and I couldn’t spend normal time with friends ever since.  I black out once every day or two, and I come to miles away from wherever I was before. What little sleep I get is spent entirely in the graveyard in my soul, and throughout my waking nights I simply stare at the red eyes constantly watching me at the foot of my bed. I can’t see them when I turn on the light, but I know they don’t go away. The fear and torment only left me once; leaving me completely lucid just long enough to read about a mysterious death that happened to a teenager in Oregon.

“And instead of guilt over this kid’s death, all I can feel is the spark of hope that the God of Death has passed me over, but I don’t know for how long.”

Here, his email ended, except for a few pleas for help, and a repeated request to take down my posts about Shadow Hearts and to denounce the game to anyone who would listen. I haven’t done that, and I don’t intend to, but something bothers me about his story. The game, if he is to be believed, said it was one out of three in a limited edition. I’ve scoured the internet, but found no mention of any special releases, nor have I found testimonies or newspaper records of any similar incidents. It makes me curious if there are two more of these games, packaged and sealed, waiting to burst forth to take the lives and souls of anyone unlucky enough to buy them. Whether the story is true or not, it can’t hurt to urge you to be careful when buying a Shadow Hearts disc.

I kept daily contact with the guy who told me this story. One way or another, I knew he needed some human contact, someone to connect with, to ground him either to life or sanity. I heard from him every day for nearly a month, but decided to relay on his story when his emails stopped abruptly over a week ago.

Shadow Hearts – PS2

Shadow Hearts holds the distinction of having the most kick-ass box art of all time.

Shadow Hearts holds the distinction of having the most kick-ass box art of all time.

Hehehe.  Let’s talk writing for a bit.  Hehehe.  Villains have made derisive laughter an art form. People love it.  I used to practice my evil laughter as a kid.  Hehehe. It even merited an Austin Powers gag. Hehehe.  Used correctly, it can create an air of menace by painting a game’s enemy as powerful and confident, a daunting task for the hero. Used incorrectly, it gives the impression that he may wander off in the middle of the battle looking for something to eat.

And sadly, Shadow Hearts leans in the direction of the latter, with villains and heroes alike floundering in the aftermath of a dentist-office gas explosion.  While I love the series, I can’t help but admit the flaws in the writing.

The first game in the Koudelka universe branded with the series’ title, Shadow Hearts introduces Yuri, the harmonixing youth with a heart of gold and a soul full of filthy, horrible monsters.  Hearing a voice in his head telling him to rescue Alice, the damsel in distress, from the Japanese Army who hold her prisoner on a train bound for Shanghai.  Finding the Japense soldiers dead, Yuri squares off against an English gentleman who goes by the name of Bacon, a moniker that, when shouted in a spirit of anger and vengeance, equates the game’s antagonist with clogged veins and heart disease.  After receiving a thorough trouncing, Yuri summons the strength to leap into the stratosphere while carrying Alice (because in video games, injuring people only makes them stronger) and the two land in the first of many episodic, horror-themed, RPG adventures.

I’ll spare the details of the rest of the plot because they simply don’t matter.  For a story with so many things going for it, the actual action of the story could have coalesced from the flotsam of sunken B-horror films. They don’t fit together well, but the game wants us to focus on them, even going so far as to devote major cut scenes to ghost-story backgrounds for minor bosses. At one point, Yuri and Alice stumble onto a village terrorized by a ghost who kills a new victim each night.  When the elder tells them about the ghost, she really hams it up.  Real people supposedly have died, and this monster has put Alice under the fatal curse, and this woman squeezes out onomatopoeia that would make five-year-old girls giggle.

Kinky! The second of four games, the female lead has gone up to about a B-cup. Future games will push those boundaries.

Kinky! The second of four games, the female lead has gone up to about a B-cup. Future games will push those boundaries.

But you don’t play Shadow Hearts for the plot, you play it for the premise.  Oddly enough, the character development and relationship between Yuri and Alice carry the story.  As a harmonixer, Yuri fuses with monsters to gain strength in battle, but the demons possessing him take their toll on his soul. The battle system furthers this aspect of the story; characters have sanity points they must maintain, and every time Yuri transforms, his sanity points drop drastically. Running out of points drives characters into a berserk state where they can’t distinguish friend from foe, and it counts towards a K.O., depriving them of exp at the end of battle.

In what I consider a fascinating treatment of a hero (even an anti-hero), Yuri can’t withstand the effect this has on him.  He succumbs to insanity and destroys Shanghai.  Later, after she brought him back to his senses, Alice tries to save Yuri’s soul by offering her own to the god of death.

Er…spoilers…

Torture...mini skirts...peg leg...there's so much going on in this scene I can't withstand the power.

Torture…mini skirts…peg leg…there’s so much going on in this scene I can’t withstand the power.

And in that aspect, one of my major beefs with the series emerges, because Alice’s fate changes depending on which ending you get, and while the player can work through some interesting challenges to get the good ending, the easy ending to achieve actually feels more satisfying.  Yuri struggles for peace in his soul during the whole game, and he owes much of that peace to his relationship with Alice.  The fact that his peace requires her death provides a darkly poetic irony to conclude the story, and also to propel him into a frustrated angst that moves him to action in the sequel.

On a technical aspect, the game doesn’t vary too much from its successors, Covenant and From the New World.  The judgement ring still stands between you and nearly every action you perform, including magic, physical attacks, items, and interacting with the non-combat environment.  While I’ve previously praised this idea (somewhat) for making the game more engaging, I sometimes feel that it doesn’t always make sense; I would think the whims of fate have very little to say in whether or not you can pick up kettle from a table.  That more often falls under the whims of degenerative neuromuscular disorders, which don’t seem to bother Yuri most of the time.

One staple of modern RPGs becomes extra annoying in this game; the three-character party.  Too many games feature multiple characters as a selling point, only to limit you to a three-member team.  Furthermore, they generally require you to stick with whatever twat they’ve decided to make protagonist (I’m looking at you, Legend of Dragoon!), which pretty much limits you to two characters.  Now, while I’d play with Yuri more often than other characters, I still enjoy all the others–in fact, Shadow Hearts has made a name for itself by introducing bizarre characters in every game, so I hate cutting anyone from the team.  Furthermore, I grew very fond of Zhuzhen, the Chinese wizard, but halfway through the game, the new characters eclipsed his power in a way that made him obsolete.  I liked the ol’ coot, and for some reason they paired up Yuri with a new old-guy friend in Covenant, so he sadly drops out of the story.  Margarete, the “alluring female spy” also intrigues me–mostly because if you google her name, pages about Mata Hari pop up.  Sadly, Mata Hari dies during World War I, so I guess they had a reason for keeping her out of the sequel.

First of many appearances by the judgement ring

First of many appearances by the judgement ring

The game has math issues as well. The bonus for hitting the judgement ring in the strike zone adds only a small boost to attacks, noticeable only at mid-game levels and not effective until end-game levels.  Every enemy has one of six different elemental affiliations, but using opposing-element attacks has all the effect as mounting a spatula to the end of a bayonet. Support spells grant similar half-hearted measures, akin to increasing your defensive capabilities with a fine, state-of-the-art sheet of newsprint, or increasing your speed by thinking about a Roadrunner cartoon you saw as a kid. Halfway through the game I realized I could take off all stat-increasing equipment and replace them with accessories that grant status immunity and still suffer no noticeable loss in power or defense.

The unwelcome house-guests of the soul take inspiration (mostly) from the suits of a tarot card deck.

The unwelcome house-guests of the soul take inspiration (mostly) from the suits of a tarot card deck.

Fortunately, the game knows it failed miserably, as evident by the fact that the sequels fix all of the complaints I just raised here.  Elements and status attacks have a noticeable impact in Covenant and FTNW, equipment offers helpful bonuses, and parties consist of four members.  Furthermore, the game recognizes that just because characters don’t enter battle, they also don’t vanish entirely, and the subsequent games let you switch out the main characters when you don’t feel like using them.  I always thought the convention of peek-a-boo style party forming didn’t make sense.  At one point during Shadow Hearts, in his quest for the ultimate weapon, one of my characters had to fight his brother one-on-one.  Unfortunately, little bro KO-ed my fighter, and even though five other playable characters witnessed this event and still had full control of their senses and perfect health, I found myself staring down the business end of a Game Over screen.

Maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much if I hadn’t saved over an hour earlier…

Sorry for the infrequent posting, but school demands more attention. I’ve been on a Shadow Hearts kick lately, so expect a review of Covenant next. Afterwards, Anne wants me to play The Last Story for Wii, and I’d like to go to a Sega or SNES RPG, so that should be interesting. Don’t touch that dial.

Shadow Hearts: From the New World – Playstation 2

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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.

Quack, quack, quack!

Quack, quack, quack!

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.

Seriously...I'd play it just for this guy.

Seriously…I’d play it just for this guy.

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.

Yeah, it LOOKS easy...

Yeah, it LOOKS easy…

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.

Shftnw_mon_038

Well, mostly non-humanoid

Well, mostly non-humanoid

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.
shadownewworld393

Koudelka – PS1

Many Victorian women preferred to wear bondage corsets as tops.

Many Victorian women preferred to wear bondage corsets as tops.

When Hiroki Kikuta, composer for Secret of Mana, left Square to found his own game company, he wanted to produce something fast-paced, exciting and dark, citing Resident Evil as his inspiration.  The developers working for him at Sacnoth, however, wanted something more like Final Fantasy and other games being released by Squaresoft.  I enjoy cross-genre works.  They take bits of the familiar and twist it into something fun and new.  Sacnoth’s 1999 release, Koudelka, takes the best of both worlds, combining the fast, exciting combat of Resident Evil with a well-written, progressive storyline like an RPG.

Just kidding! It’s actually all the backtracking and item hunting of a survival horror game with the repetitive random-enemy encounters of an RPG! Congratulations to Sacnoth for totally missing the point of playing either of those genres.

The story opens in 1889 when a voice calls a young Gypsy girl, Koudelka, to the Nemeton Monastery in Wales.  Equipped with nothing but her traditional Victorian-Era hot pants, bondage corset, and a personality that would strip the skin off a crocodile and rust off a Buick, she climbs the wall into a Medieval torture dungeon full of fresh corpses and stale plot premises.

I punched a chair!

I punched a chair!

From the point where she meets up with the game’s two companions, the story kind of flows freely, like a soda that Sacnoth spilled in a lake and then tried to put it all back in the bottle.  The characters seem to want to investigate the bulk supply of mangled corpses stocked in the monastery, but kind of lose interest when the ghost of a little girl dumps them into a hole, and that plot kind of peters out in favor of a mystery surrounding the back story of one of the games lesser noticeable characters, who literally dies in the second scene he appears in, at which point the game drops even that plot.  Eventually, it settles on something somewhat interesting; as it turns out, a priest tried to resurrect his wife, who happens to be the former love interest of one of the playable characters.  However, messing with dark magics never ends well, something went horribly wrong, yada yada, and now we have to fight her soulless body.

Fin.

This guy! Dark...

This guy! Neat.

In a game that clearly attempts to build a Lovecraftian atmosphere, that part of the story rouses interest.  Still, the story stands on a foundation of apple sauce, jello, and the hopes and dreams of lousy game designers, and it falls somewhat flat.

Really? You can't figure this one out?

Really? You can’t figure this one out?

The semi-strategical combat system attempts for something interesting, but doesn’t work right.  The player can move characters around on a grid like most tactics games, but every battlefield consists of a flat, featureless floor.  Only one battle bothered to include any obstacles, and due to a weird quirk where the game refuses to let you step past the entire line containing the foremost enemy, it ended up looking like a bunch of people who couldn’t navigate themselves around an inanimate wooden box.  Furthermore, considering the small size of the battlefield, large move capabilities of the characters, and lack of limits on ranged and magic attacks, it ends up amounting to a system almost exactly like the SNES Final Fantasy games where players and enemies line up and face each other like colonial armies.  Actions in battle consist only of standard attacks, moving, and casting a handful of spells–four attack, two healing, and a smattering of support–that might level up by the end of the game if you cast them enough. The game lacks money and shops, so all items and equipment come from either picking up randomly placed items that blend in with the environment, or from random creature drops.  As a player, one strategy fits all, and with very few options to choose from, most battles in Koudelka–which, I remind you, calls itself a strategy game–end up playing out exactly the same as every other battle.

Roger Bacon

Roger Motherfuckin’ Bacon

Koudelka stands as a shining example of how unlike in Hollywood, games sequels can succeed even when the original holds itself up to standards I wouldn’t accept from a kindergarten school play.  Sacnoth apparently understood that the only interesting things about this game were the magic spell used to resurrect the dead and the creepy old monk, Roger Bacon, who wanders around the monastery like a madman.  They went on to develop a little-known but excellent series called Shadow Hearts, recycling very little from the Koudelka universe other than those things.

This might look neat...if it weren't made of polygons.

This might look neat…if it weren’t made of polygons.

Still, I won’t say I hated Koudelka or that I had trouble rousing up interest in it.  It just feels like they needed to screw up before they figured out what would work in subsequent games.  I can tell they put some work into the Lovecraftian monster design, but on the rendered polygons of the PS1 they intimidated me about as much as a Lego Cthulu.  And while themes of dark magics and forbidden knowledge work well in Shadow Hearts, Koudelka had all the consistency of a story narrated by Leonard from Memento.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to like games even when they don’t deserve it.  For the most part, I feel that way about Koudelka.  As a long-time fan of Shadow Hearts, I still consider this a must-play for series completionists.  Still, I’m not likely to  come back to it any time soon.