When I was younger and mostly played on PlayStation, my favorite genre were RPGs, with Final Fantasy IX being the first game of the genre I owned. As I loved the unique gameplay differences between different Final Fantasy games, I started searching for more peculiar games in the used games section of my local GameStop. One day I found a cover with a strangely dark tone with it. I was mesmerized and decided to bring it home. It turned out being one of the best decisions I ever took. In the second review of our Old Games column I will be covering Shadow Hearts, an RPG developed by Sacnot and released in 2001 for PlayStation 2.

The game starts with the player controlling Yuri on a train traveling along the Trans-Siberian railroad in the 20th century. Your goal is to save a girl before she is abducted by an unknown character who reminded me of some kind of aristocrat out of a Sherlock Holmes story. From there starts an epic journey to discover why this girl, called Alice, is so important. A journey that will take them through China and Europe. From the first couple cutscenes it’s pretty clear that the game has a pretty obscure and grotesque feel to it, involving sorcery, dark occult and so forth. The cast of the game is memorable, each with a detailed backstory and a different reason to help Yuri and Alice along their journey. No character feels forced into the game, instead supporting the plot in various ways and revealing more and more about the main characters as you play Shadow Hearts. This mix gives the game a unique flavor which will remain on your palate for many years after you beat it.

The Judgment Ring - Shadow Hearts review

The Judgment Ring in Shadow Hearts

Combat as well has its own merits. While you will probably be familiar with most of the commands available, you might be taken by surprise when a huge ring suddenly appears in the middle of the screen while you try to attack your enemy. This is called the Judgment Ring, unique to the Shadow Hearts series. Taking the aforementioned example, when you attack a ring similar to the one in the image above will be showed. Your goal is to press Cross each time the revolving hand is on the colored section of the ring. Each hit on the orange section corresponds to one successful physical hit. With Yuri, if you are able to do successfully all 3 sections, he will perform a 3-hit combo on the selected enemy. Pressing Cross on the red area will make your character perform an enhanced attack, dealing more damage. Spells and items also use the Judgment Ring, albeit in a slightly different manner. More powerful spells will have narrower areas on the ring, meaning that you might run a risk of failing and wasting a turn. I really liked this twist to turn-based combat, where more emphasis is put on player skill than luck.

As mentioned before, the game has a pretty colorful cast. For combat purposes, characters are mainly differentiated by their unique command. Yuri for example has Fusion as a special mechanic, which makes him fuse with a monster to gain increased stats and powerful spells. Alice is able to use White Magic, which provides an array of useful healing and support spells. While all the unique commands are useful and special in their own right, the most interesting remains Yuri’s Fusion. Besides being a very powerful tool in your arsenal, Fusion is also central to the story as Yuri fights his inner demons in order to keep them at bay and unlocks new monsters to fuse with, becoming more and more powerful but at what cost?

Alice's White Magic, her unique command - Shadow Hearts review

Alice’s White Magic, her unique command

The rest of the mechanics are pretty standard for any RPG of that era. Characters have a list of statistics that affect how they perform in combat and are able to equip different weapons and accessories to boost their effectiveness. You can farm experience and items by beating monsters during random encounters. Outside of combat you will be traveling around to further the plot or complete side-quests. The Judgment ring is present outside of combat as well, which is a nice idea by Sacnot. Beating the ring is necessary in order to perform specific actions, such as pulling out a lever at the beginning of the game. All rings that are plot related are pretty easy to beat but doing so in as few tries as possible will net you bonus rewards such as items.

The graphic quality is solid and well designed, creating a woefully dark atmosphere which, together with the evocative soundtrack, create an oppressing atmosphere which will pull in the player during cutscenes and dialogues. The CGI cutscenes are an eye candy, its quality being comparable with its contemporary rival Final Fantasy X. Some special effects and the voice over are not top-notch but they are good enough not to distract you from the rest of the game. I would say that the game is so good in the AV department that before you can even realize it, you will be completely immersed in the game’s dark pool of sorrow, fighting alongside Yuri and Alice.

An example of the dark atmosphere in the game - Shadow Hearts review

An example of the dark atmosphere in the game

Some comments about the remaining features. The game has a nice library where you can read about enemies and NPCs, adding more depth to the world and its inhabitants. In the menu you can also find a very useful Help section which describes every gameplay element of the game. I suggest reading a bit of it at the beginning of the game so you can understand all the mechanics as fast as possible since the game does not provide a tutorial. The interface is well drawn and easy to navigate and the input will feel very familiar to any console RPG player. The game is also pretty long, averaging around 30 hours to complete the main story and a dozen more to complete the whole game.

Shadow Hearts is a great game, something that all RPG lovers should try out at least once. From beginning to end, I enjoyed every single moment. Yuri and Alice are some of the characters I have the fondest memories of, even though the first impression I had of Yuri was quite bad. The graveyard is still etched in the back of my mind and I even had a few nightmares about it back in the day. It might be a bit difficult to find a physical copy of it for a cheap price as it comes at a staggering 50€ average in mint-condition but with some luck you will find it in a remote corner of your local videogame retail store, as I did back in the days. Let me know if you enjoyed it and why! If you did, you might want to try out its sequel Shadow Hearts: Covenant for PS2.

You can find Shadow Hearts on Amazon and other e-commerce websites.