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Developer:
Nautilus
Publisher: Midway
Platform: PS2
Release Date: September 29, 2004

by Tony Ames




If youíve never heard of Shadow Hearts, youíre not alone; released with little fanfare weeks before Final Fantasy X it was largely, pardon the pun, overshadowed. However the sequel, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, looks to make a name for itself through sheer quality, and does a damn good job of it.


If not for the darker, somewhat gritty atmosphere, one could mistake Shadow Hearts: Covenant for Final Fantasy X visually. The two match up in every measure of graphics, both on the field and in cinema. And even 3 years later, that level of eye candy still looks slick, polished, and even a bit impressive. Sure, it is a little disappointing that no bars were raised here, but Shadow Hearts: Covenant more than gets by.


For all that, though, the audio presentation is truly impressive. While the voices themselves are different from their Shadow Hearts predecessors, the quality and quantity of voice acting is vastly improved. The acting is occasionally a bit shaky, but every voice matches its character perfectly, sometimes frighteningly so. The same could be said of the music. On the surface, it doesnít seem to be anything special, and if one heard it before playing the game it could easily be dismissed as average. But listening to it while playing the game, in context, each track suits its scene to the letter, with powerful results. Thus, what might have been just another solid score is instead the most memorable soundtrack Iíve heard in a long time.


If you are familiar with Shadow Hearts, you will most likely remember the Judgment Ring; for those that arenít, the Judgment Ring is a gray circle with various colored regions and a line that sweeps through it, which appears any time you take an action. How well you hit X in time with the line passing though colored regions determines how successful that action is. While the Judgment Ring returns for Shadow Hearts: Covenant, it is now fully customizable using items found all over. Number of regions on the ring, the size of hit areas, and even added effects like statuses are all under the playerís control.


Beyond all that, Shadow Hearts: Covenant also throws combos into the mix. If two characters are close together, when one attacks successfully the other will immediately get a turn and their attack will do extra damage, the amount depending on the number of hits in the attack and their affinity for the combo partner. However, many varieties of enemies will also make use of combos, forcing the player to pay a little extra attention to which enemies are on the field.


Otherwise, Shadow Hearts: Covenant has a few other nifty features, most prominently the ability to see the turn order and how different actions will affect it, opening up a plethora of strategic options, especially in conjunction with the combo system. Also, every character has their own subquest through which they learn new abilities, a welcome change from the "gain" ability at level 'such-and-suchí system of Shadow Hearts.


Complex as all that is though, and for all the audio/visual polish, what makes Shadow Hearts: Covenant special is character. Six months after the events of Shadow Hearts, Yuri Hyuga finds himself at a crossroad. The death of his beloved Alice has left him without meaning in his life. For now he has settled in the small village of Domremy, fighting off the advancing German army. During a skirmish, a member of a secret society inflicts a horrid curse on Yuri, which threatens his very soul.


While the story has merit as a standalone tale, especially with the Great War backdropping everything, events are rather muddled except where they directly affect Yuri as a character. In other words, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is almost entirely about Yuri. However, this in no way means that the other cast members suffer from lack of personality. In their own way, every character can stand out just as much as Yuri, they just get less screen time.


The benefit of this approach is that it is very difficult to not care for your characters. Which in turn makes emotions, whatever they are, run high. When Shadow Hearts: Covenant chose to be funny, I was rolling on the floor. When it chose to be angry, I was ready to fight. And when it chose to be sad, well, some tears were shed. It was an absolute emotional roller coaster to a degree no game I know has matched, and that is Shadow Hearts: Covenant's claim to greatness.


This isnít a ride that ends quickly, either. A lengthy, two-disc tale with all the sidequesting most people could ever want, Shadow Hearts: Covenant took me nearly 40 hours start to finish. And yet, after all that I still wanted to keep playing, yet another sign of greatness.


Final Grade: 96%




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