Malik (10/18/04)

Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PS2)

Azure Group/Midway

This is probably about the best in RPGs to come from this weird season of too many releases of big name and too little time and money to enjoy them all. However, it's also going to, for these reasons and more, be one of the most under appreciated titles of the season. This game, much like the one that original Shadow Hearts that came before it, is coming out in a time when it's the hardest to be noticed. 

Basically, for those who haven't tried the SH series before (which also includes Koudelka on the PS1), this game breaks many of the conventions of standard console RPGs. First, and foremost, is the matter of the plot... 


Played Koudelka? I doubted it. For the most part, Koudelka has no bearing on SH2. Played SH? I doubted that too. While many people would argue that you can play SH2 with no knowledge of SH, and they are partially correct, you will definitely not get the full experience. This is especially true since SH2 is a direct (plot-wise) sequel of SH. So, before I get into SH2, I should give a quick recap of SH. 

In SH, you played as a young man named Yuri, who's father is Japanese and mother is Russian, who had the unusual ability to fuse his body with the bodies of deamons. This ability gave him the name of a harmonixer, and also such names as deamon and devil. However, the important matter is that he has this unusual ability that is relatively unexplained in origin. 

The general world of SH, which is continued only a year later in SH2, is one of early 20th century Earth. The Japanese-Russian war has just ended (important since Yuri is...well, you read it above), and WWI has not yet begun, but tensions are building around the globe. For the most part, many historical events are treated his a good dose of realism, however there is enough fantasy to make it unique. For example, there are, obviously, deamons, magic, and other supernatural elements (including vampires...that's important since a vampire joins the party, and it's good if they can exist in this world if one does exist). Also, gender roles have been treated with a modern feeling to them. Technology is, for the most part, what you should see in the 1910's, and political alliances are as one should find them in this era of history. 

One day, as a young woman named Alice (who is the daughter of a rather influential and intelligent holy man...who recently died) is traveling across Eurasia in a train, she is attacked by a mysterious man who calls himself Roger Bacon. At this point Yuri saves her from certain doom by this mysterious man who has the ability to summon and control powerful forces of evil. After this, the two of them travel on a journey to find out how to stop Mr. Bacon and to discover some truths behind the both of them. This is also where I'll sto the general SH recap and delve into some spoilers about SH (so, if you haven't played that game and plan to, you might want to skip ahead a'll know how far to skip ahead to). 






Suring this journey, Yuri has to confront his nature, including some inner deamons and his vision of his father, and also they have to find a way to save Yuri from his own destiny/fate. During this journey, they discover that the man they called Roger Bacon is actually Roger Bacon's apprentice, Albert Simon. Also, they learn that Roger is really a crazy and brilliant 1000 year old man (Albert would be about 700 years old) who knows many of the mysteries of the universe. By working with Roger, the heros learn how to take down Albert, who is interested, in the long run, to summon a god from space to supposedly lay waste to the planet and remake the world in Albert's unique style. 

Most importantly, to the general story of SH2, Alice lays her life down in order to stop a curse from destroying Yuri's soul. This, in the game, can be stopped through certain story events, if one chooses to pursue them. However, SH2 seems to assume that you achieved the sad ending of SH (in which Alice has to die). Also, of great importance is the obvious; you stop Albert Simon from destroying the Earth and you slay this god that he summoned. 





End Spoilers 

So, as SH2 begins, Karen, a German lieutenant, is getting ready to lead a small force of soldiers to capture the French town of Domremy. As she arrives there, a rather impressive demon is found protecting the town. After her unit is destroyed, and Karen lays on the ground in a daze, she catches a glimpse of this deamon turning into a human...which would be Yuri. So, she returns to her commanders in Germany, who introduce her to a young priest named Nicholai, who is an expert in the occult. 

Nicholai leads Karen to a tower in the Vatican that contains an artifact of great power that can seal the demon away. Long story short, they get this item and return to Domremy. Once there, Karen's troops are sacrificed (by who? Play the game), Yuri's deamon forms are sealed, and Nicholai prepares to destroy Yuri. At this point, Karen can sense something is wrong, and she helps to save Yuri. At which point, she is deemed an enemy of her former colleague, Nicholai...who reveals that he is not a priest (which is amusing that they reveal this at this point in the game since when Karen and Nicholai were in the Vatican, you could check Nicholai's background info and see that he isn't a priest...a small oversight by Azure), and is actually a member of a secret organization called Sapientes Gladio, which is upset with Yuri, since Yuri had destroyed their enemy...Albert Simon. Nicholai, without much in terms of an explanation, tells Yuri of how he was out to destroy him since Simon Albert was his target...thus, for some unexplained reason, Yuri has now taken Albert's place in Nicholai's group. 

At this point, Yuri teams up with Alice's uncle (a puppeteer named Gepetto), and Gepetto's grand-daughter's friend (a wolf named Blanca, who also helped to protect the people of Domremy) as they are hunted by Nicholai...while Karen tags along in the background. It's about this time that Domremy is laid to waste, but Yuri is too caught up in being hunted down as his powers are diminished to do much to help out. It is this point in which the game fully takes off, as you deal with the issues of your curse (that prevents you from becoming a deamon again...and it grows worse from there), being hunted by Nicholai, and the growing issues of war as WWI has recently broken out. 

Overall, the plot is one that is hard to simply explain on it's own. The depth to the plot and the character development is astounding. While this game tends to take a sillier approach to plot than SH did, it's a brilliant work of historical fiction that is unlike anything else seen in games. Not only is the world a perfect blending of fantasy and reality, but it is given it's own life beyond what other RPGs tend to show. Each town and location changes, even if in only minor details, as the game progresses. For example, after about 6 months of game has played out, Domremy is rebuilt with townspeople who still remember the fate of the original village. Also, after a dungeon is cleared, the state of the place may undergo some important changes (but you're rarely required to visit again, so these changes will go unnoticed to those players who are more interested in just finishing the game than those who want to experience the epic world and plot). Also, almost all NPS evolve and change as the game progresses. 

On top of that, there is the fact that the characters in SH2 are all unique and show more than just one singular emotion or characteristic. While Yuri is the leader of the party who knows the most about adventuring (he did the whole adventuring thing in the last game, so he should know something about this line of work), he is also the most childish of the group with his sexist behavior, being bitchy and aloof (all done with a good deal of humor...the type that's rare in a game by actually being humorous). However, this is only the beginning to understanding who Yuri is, since there's also his vengeful nature, his deep sense of regret about what happened to Alice, his side that's concerned with how the curse will destroy him...there are far too many aspects to his character to explain here. This type of diverse and deep character applies to every player character and many of the important NPCs. This is no FFX, with the one dimensional Tidus and Yuna. 

So, in a nut-shell; the plot of SH2 is deep and unique despite being in the real world. The world is not simply handed to the players with an attitude of "read about it in a history book", but rather is deep and fully explained down to some elements that don't even tie into the overall plot (like how many other secret groups were founded when Sapientes Gladio was founded, yet they are not even important to the plot). Also, the characters are all unique and diverse. So, to summarize, a perfect plot-sequel to a great game. 

Game Play 

Ever play Shadow Hearts? I doubted that one...I know I already asked, but...anyway, this game continues many of the same elements that were found in the game play of SH. I seriously believe that one needs to play an RPG for the plot, and since SH2 cannot be fully appreciated (in terms of plot) without having played SH, I'll just graze the basics of SH. 

First off is the Judgment Ring (let's just call it the Ring). Basically, in a battle situation (this is only really seen in's not a puzzle solving device like it was in the original SH), when you want to do almost anything short of defending, setting up a combo, performing a fusion, or running, you will have to successfully accomplish a turn of the Ring. A circle will appear on the screen with some colored areas (in pie wedge shapes) and a small bar (like the hand of a clock) will swing around the Ring, starting at the top position (think 12 on a clock), clockwise, until it gets back to the starting position. Your objective is to hit all of the colored areas (press the X button when the arm is over a colored area) and to not hit a blank section (don't press anything at these times). Some spells/special abilities require you to hit a few set locations on the Ring before you get to a final section, which will be blue and will become more blue as the section progresses. If you hit, in these cases, the darkest areas (which will be a tiny red strip after the deepest blue section), then the spell will be it's most powerful. As for standard attacks; there will be one orange area for each attack you have access to (fighter types can get up to 5 attacks per round), with a small red strip at the end of it. If you hit orange, then your attack will succeed, and if you hit red your attack will succeed with some extra power to it. However, if you miss, your turn will end, but depending on your settings, you will probably still get off some attacks (in other words, if you have 5 attacks and you hit successfully for the first 3, and then miss the fourth, your turn will end, but your character will dish out three attacks). Even items require you to use the Ring, but they are usually more friendly of rings, depending on how bad-ass the item is (awesome items have difficult rings). Using the ring for an item can also (for some items) yield a red strip in the Ring. Hitting the red for an item will increase it's ability (like squeezing extra juice out of a healing item, or using a life restoring item to give back a little more HP to the fallen character). 

The Ring can also be adjusted as you play.  These adjustments come by finding special upgrades. The upgrades can increase the number of attacks you get with each round (increasing the number of hit regions on the to two additional hits per character), increasing the size of a hit region, increasing the strike region (that red area that has a better damage per hit), or adding a status effect to your hits (including lowering defense, adding status problems like poison, or causing an enemy to have it's turn delayed). Also, the nature of the ring can be changed to one of five setups. The setups include allowing you to miss a hit zone but still continue your assault (for lowered damage), the standard ring (miss one hit zone and your attack ends there), a technical ring that will only work if all hit zones are activated (miss one and all the prior ones fail), or there's a gamble ring that gives on small hit zone that will count as hitting all of them if you can hit it (but the speed of the ring will also be different each time). Also, there is an auto-ring, but this will give you a weak and limited attack, even for your fighter types.  You can even equip some special accessories that will slow down the ring to make it easier to hit (but you can only equip 3 accessories, so you must decide if it's really worth it). 

Lastly, a word on the Ring. While this may sound like an annoying addition to the standard RPG battle system, it is actually not nearly as bad as it sounds. In the end, the Ring adds to the involvement of the player. Instead of pulling an FF7 in which you just keep pounding the X button, you have to actually time your button presses, and thus you have to be involved in the battles. It also makes you feel like you have a little more control on how well your attacks are received (if you can keep hitting the red zones, then you feel like you're actually being rewarded for your patience, and if not...then you don't). 

Speaking of equipment, SH2 uses the more modern idea of equipment with having one piece of armor, one weapon, and three accessories per player. The weapons are all character specific, the armors are usually split by class type (mages vs. fighters) or gender, and the accessories are usually usable by all except for a few character specific items and a few gender specific items (guys can wear a loin guard while women get an apron). Also, all equipment can be purchased or found as you play through a dungeon...there is, thankfully, no item creation bullshit. 

The dungeons and towns are all played in a similar method to a modern 3D RPG, in which you have a static RE style camera and you simply walk around. However, the world map is exactly like it was in SH; you have a big map of either Europe or Japan, and you simply select where you want to go, from the available selections. This is more limited in exploration than a game like Tales of Symphonia or other classic style RPGs (world map full of random encounters that you must walk around on to find new dungeons or towns), but more enjoyable than the FFX/Star Ocean 3 method of having a really linear map that looks like a chunk of a dungeon or town in which you can only go from point A to point B (with a really rare point C). 

Lastly there are the special abilities and magic. As you play, you will come across magic crests (crests that represent a deamon's power), that you can equip on any character that is not able to fuse with a deamon (you only get one source of deamon power per character). Each crest has one or two spells associated with it. You are limited to a certain point value that each character can equip and each crest is valued at a certain point value (strong crests will cost more points). This way you must decide carefully which powers are better uses of these limited points. These point limits go up as you level up. Also, there is a small mini-game involving the crests that allows you to upgrade their powers (new spells are added to the old crests), if you can solve a few thinking puzzles. The spell selection is pretty standard to an RPG. They include the standard selection of healing, offensive spells, status altering spells, etc. 

Also, each character has a unique set of special abilities. These are usually related to the character type. For example, Karin, who is the master of the rapier, learns special skills to use with her sword, while Joachim, the vampire wrestler, learns wrestling moves. Yuri, meanwhile, can gain new fusion deamons as he progresses, and then upgrade these fusions to have new skills. Each character will have to undergo a certain trial, find a special item, or use SP (soul points; you get them after each battle along with your money and experience) to learn and upgrade their powers. These powers, for the most part, can do about the same thing as the spells can (heal, offensive magic, etc), but are usually a little more refined; they could be more powerful versions of spells, or they may just cost a lower MP cost to use. 

Overall the game play of SH2 continues the theme of SH flawlessly. So, if you've enjoyed the game play of SH, then you will find exactly what you loved from the first game. However, if you never played SH, then, with the plot being a direct sequel, I'd suggest you try out SH first (also, it's cheaper, so you can see if you'd like SH2 for a lower initial cost). Basically, SH2 is the perfect example of why innovation in RPG should be controlled. There is nothing new, and not a damned thing to complain about. 


Everyone says this is a FFX rip-off...well, if you liked the visual style (not the setting, but the style of realism) of FFX, then you'd enjoy the visual style of SH2. However, as I like to say, SH had this same visual style (and wasn't called a FFX rip off...probably because it came out before FFX...thus SH2 is not a FFX rip off...think about it), so if you liked the original, you'd like this. 

The visuals use a good blend of CG styles to make a realistic looking world with a good level of detail. The people look like they should with some nice level of detail in the more minute areas, such as hair and facial expressions. Unfortunately, some facial expressions do look a bit on the bad side (when you see Yuri start to get weepy-eyed, the quality of the visuals will go out the window), however the majority of them are brilliantly done. 

Since the basic theme of this game is a WWI game that involves a good deal of the occult, the visuals are nicely dark and spooky. The best way to think about it is what would happen if RE had better visuals (like how RE4 is looking) and was set in the 1910's. However, when the setting needs to change, like when you visit an area that hasn't been damaged by the supernatural or by the war, like the city of Cannes, the area looks like it should; calm and tranquil, but obviously touched by civilization. 

When you reach certain areas of the game, higher quality cut-scenes will begin. They continue the overall visual theme of the game, but with a more refined level of detail (like how FF7 introduced us to, so many years ago). The only real issue with these moments that I can find, and that's only if I want to sound cranky and bitter, is how the scenes were obviously designed for the Japanese version of the game (the voiceovers do not match the mouth all). However, considering how many games have this same "feature", it is nothing worth complaining about. 

Lastly, the special effects seen in the battles (via spells or special abilities) are awe inspiring. The effects are all crisp and clean looking and match the mood of the ability flawlessly. Especially this applies to the fusion deamons. Each deamon looks creepy and terrifying (with the exception of all of the light and the lowest level dark aligned fusions...who look a little out of place). Just the look of the fusion being initiated is enough to explain how well the visuals match the game (to watch as Yuri grabs at his head and screams in pain as his body is engulfed in an eerie glow and then is replaced by a hulking deamon...damn!). 

So, overall, unless you want to pointlessly bitch about the poor lip-synch and the one or two poorly animated facial emotions, the visuals are top-notch in SH2. The images are highly detailed and refined in appearance, the effects are wonderful, and the visuals (unlike with FFX) match the mood of the game. It's WWI and occult, so the visuals better show that, and they do. 


Ok. I'll start with the good. The music is great. It's a great blend of different music styles that relies heavily on techno, but also brings about some Aribic vocal styles and some interesting chanting sounds. Unfortunately, it doesn't match the environment too well, in terms of the setting. However, the music always seems to play out nicely with the emotions currently being evoked by the game play. It's a lot like the audio styles of SH, but with some nice evolution in quality. 

The sound effects are also nicely done. There isn't much to say beyond the fact that they sound as realistic as you'd ever expect to hear from a PS2 game. Doors creak, the wind blows and whistles, wolves howl, blah, blah. It's not that this is bad, it's just it's nothing that hasn't been done other words, it's good and it can't be described with simple words. 

However, there is one important part that the sounds of SH2 fall apart. That would be the voice acting. While some of the voice actors are quite skilled at their trade (like the actor who plays Yuri has some talent, and Kato is voiced with skill), there are none who really stand out as Oscar worthy or anything like that. However, while a few voices are well done, there are about 10 times as many that are horrible. The voice actors of any character that's old or extremely young is just bad. The voice actor for Roger Bacon makes me want to gouge my ears out, the acting for Anastasia is annoying, and the voice acting for Lucia is some of the worst I had ever heard...until the voice of (as the party calls him...I can't recall the name of this minor character) Babyhead was heard...worst voice acting I've heard in a video game. Luckily the voice acting is not frequent enough to drive one completely insane, but it makes you wonder how so bad of actors could have been chosen. Did the casting crew decide that they would try to make Yuri, Karin, and Kato sound better by surrounding their voices with the worst voice actors in the industry? That's the only theory that I can think of for this massive oversight. 

So, in the end, the audio portion of SH2 is great...90% of the time. Once you hit a cut-scene, you can't help but think, "I hope it's only Yuri, Karin, and ears can't take the others anymore!". The music is great, and the audio effects are also well done. If only game producers and developers would get the idea down that there is more to voice acting in a game than finding the cheapest the very least, they could also call on people who voice cartoons and at least get an average performance (like Tales of Symphonia did), or they could try to hit up Atlus for some advice (since they've shown plenty of quality can be found with voice acting in Disgaea). 


With some rather nice visuals and some great audio (even with the many bad voice actors, the audio is quite refreshing and of high quality, overall), this game has plenty for the eye-candy loving fanboys. Then, with the classic style of game play with practically no innovations, SH2 has something for the RPG purists. Plus, with a good number of side quests and unlockables that are not, in any way, needed to finish the game, this is great for the collecting loving whores. Plus, with how easy it is to get into the game, and with how simple and non-obsessive the game play is for everything from the main quest to the bonus quests, this game is great for the non-obsessive as well. When you throw in a great plot that is so unlike anything we see on a regular basis (and unlike anything that's not Shadow Hearts related), this is a great RPG for almost all people concerned, as long as turn based combat and random battles don't turn your stomach...and if they do, have a ball with Star Ocean 3 and leave us real RPG geeks alone. So, I'll give this game nothing short of the wonderful score it deserves; Shadow Hearts: Covenant deserves nothing less than a 9.25 out of 10 (if the story was a little more focused on the serious elements and not the humorous parts, and with good voice acting, this would be a 10 all the way). I just suggest you finish SH before starting this game to get the full experience (plus Shadow Hearts was a brilliant game on it's own), but it's still a great game even without the knowledge you'd get from the original.