Last week we covered Shadow Hearts, a 2001 RPG developed by Sacnot for PS2. At the end, I also recommended trying out its sequel, Shadow Hearts: Covenant (released in 2004), and after finishing the first game I couldn’t resist the urge and decided to beat its sequel as well. What did Yuri decide to do after the end of the first game? So many questions were left unanswered and I had to answer them as soon as possible. So here I am writing down my impressions of Shadow Hearts: Covenant in the latest Old Games review. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum for those interested in playing the previous game.

The game takes place shortly after the ending of Shadow Hearts, in 1915, amidst World War 1. The opening cutscene follows Lieutenant Karin Koenig and her fellow German soldiers as they try to occupy the village of Domremy, only to be easily repelled by “the Demon of Domremy”. To assist the Germans, the Vatican sends over Cardinal Nicholas Conrad. The two go to the Apoina Tower to retrieve the Holy Mistletoe, an ancient relic with the power to defeat demons. Armed and ready, they return to Domremy where all hell breaks loose. The demon turns out being Yuri, Nicholas betrays Karin by killing everyone besides the two protagonists and stabs Yuri with the Mistletoe. This is the beginning of another journey that will take the cast around the world as they chase after the villain. You will be able to follow the plot even if you didn’t play the first game as flashbacks are used whenever necessary, but beating the first Shadow Hearts will the story much more enjoyable.

The Ring Customization interface - Shadow Hearts Covenant review

The Ring Customization interface

The pillar of the combat system remains the Judgment Ring (for more info on this, read our Shadow Hearts review), this time coming with a series of enhancements to further gameplay. First, you can customize each character’s ring. You can expand the width of each individual hit area by using ring items. These items can be redistributed at any time, so you can move them around your party. After that you can apply add-on effects on your attacks such as Poison and Evasion Down. Then you change the number of hit areas in the ring. In the screenshot above, you can see Gepetto with 3 hit areas, whereas he starts with one. But that’s not all! The last function is called Ring Type and it allows you to change the type of Judgment Ring your character uses. Are you really good with it? Then set up a Technical Ring so you can dish out additional damage. But fear not! You keep missing those Hit Areas? Set up a Practice Ring, expanding all hit areas. This degree of ring customization is a welcome addition to the game, adding more depth through Add-on Effects and a higher skill cap with Ring Types.

Another addition to combat are Combos. Characters that are standing close to each other can combo their attacks together in a long chain. Performing combos deals additional damage and if you combo with 4 people (the max size your party can be), the last person in the combo can unleash a deadly Combo Magic. Flawlessly performing combos can be tricky though. Spells and attacks have specific “hit boxes” so if don’t know what you are doing you might end up completely missing a spell. For example: you use a spell that throws the enemy in the air. If you follow that up with a ground spell it will completely miss, breaking the combo. Mastering the Combo system allows you to maximize your damage output but I personally felt it wasn’t well implemented and unnecessary to beat the game as I found Combo Magic a bit underwhelming considering how much effort you need to invest in order to use it.

The new combat interface - Shadow Hearts Covenant review

The new combat interface

Combat also becomes more three-dimensional compared to its predecessor as how units are positioned becomes relevant. For example, if you gather you characters close to one another to pull off a Combo, that makes you more vulnerable to AoE spells as they can hit your entire party. Spells now come with different areas of effect, from circular to linear, instead of the classic one target or all. While this is a great idea, the implementation is not so great. You cannot move your units to specific positions and you cannot force the enemies together until mid-late game when you unlock a spell for it. This means that hitting multiple enemies with a spell all comes down to luck as the player cannot force the enemies to group (excluding the no-damage Gathering spell). I supposed the different types of physical attacks you can perform such as Hard Hit, which pushes an enemy, was supposed to give you the ability to do that, but since you cannot decide the direction you are pushing the enemy towards…

How do your character unlock spells? Each character has interesting unique abilities such as Gepetto’s Marionette and those are unlocked and powered up by gathering specific items and completing side quests. Yuri’s Fusion ability remains as overpowered as before and works in a similar manner. Covenant adds Crests into the mix for further customization. Crests are symbols that contain spells and can be equipped to almost every character in different combinations. This allows you to distribute offensive and support spells all around the party or specialize a specific character for a role of your choice. Crests can be enhanced through a specific side quest and there are a lot of them, allowing for powerful and flexible combinations.

A Stud Card, needed to unlock Gepetto's Marionette skills - Shadow Hearts Covenant review

A Stud Card, needed to unlock Gepetto’s Marionette skills

For what is left regarding gameplay, everything else remains more or less the same. The combat UI now displays the turn priority at the top of the screen, useful to plan out your turns ahead. The developers also added a tutorial for your first few battles and the game explains most of the features as you unlock them. The help section is still there to explain everything about the game mechanics and the library gives further depth into NPCs backstory and monster information.

From the AV point of view Shadow Hearts: Covenant follows the lead of its predecessor. The game remains dark and gritty though it does have more funny moments in it with characters such as Joachim and the Great Gama. The graphic quality didn’t receive any particular upgrade and the cutscenes are as awesome as they were before. The soundtrack is well written and fits each moment of the game. Voice over has become more prominent and, while its quality could definitely be better, it is okay to hear. Would have loved to have Japanese dubbing in the options though.

I highly recommend Shadow Hearts: Covenant, both as a standalone game and as sequel. While not all of its combat innovations were on spot, Nautilus made a good job taking a great formula and enhancing it with small but significant changes. The alternate history established in the previous games comes to a climax with World War 1 and the game takes you through some of the most significant events of the Great War, giving more reason to the player to explore this wonderful world. I think that this is probably one of the most underrated RPGs in PS2 history and should be played by anyone who calls him/herself an RPG fan. 10 out 10 will play it again in a few years.

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