Partly due to the success of Square Enix and their phenomenal RPG titles, the genre is slowly beginning to receive the recognition that it has solely lacked in recent years. Many companies are now treading into the neglected genre and are producing some top quality projects that deserve as much recognition as Final Fantasy. Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of these titles. The game, developed by Nautilus (a company comprised of ex-Sqaure Soft employees), is your typical turn-based RPG, that tosses in some of it's own unique and fascinating traits producing one of the finest RPG titles to date.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the second title in the Shadow Hearts series, and is a direct continuation of the story formed in the original. The game kicks off roughly six months after the conclusion of Shadow Hearts, as the world sits anxiously during the brink of World War I, with all of Europe at each other's throats. However, the war is the least of their worries, as a secret society known as the Sapientes Gladio are on the verge of unleashing a horde of powerful demons that'll shape mankind and the world they live in. The story begins with Karin, a young female German lieutenant, and her squad who are asked to seize a village in Northern France. Soon after, Karin and her forces are met by a winged demon, which is in fact Yuri Hyuga (the deranged antihero from the first Shadow Hearts), who has the power to fuse himself into the form of demons. Once inside the village, the devious demon wipes out Karin's entire patrol. Struggling to stay alive herself, Karin manages to witness the demon transform back to his human form.
After facing defeat, Karin reports back to her superiors only to be asked to face the demon once again, but this time alongside an exorcist named Nicholai, who is armed with a holy artifact. Nicholai and Karin meet up with the demon once more, with the holy artifact stripping Yuri (the demon) of his transforming abilities, with a curse that is slowly destroying his body from the inside. As it so happens to be, the attack was all part of a scheme by the Sapientes Galdio group, of which Nicholai is also apart of. After witnessing the double-crossing of Nicholai and watching the subsequently destruction of the village, Karin and Yuri team up so they can figure out what exactly the Sapientes Gladio are planning, and how to forbid the curse that Yuri is plagued with.
This is where your adventure begins, as gamers will travel across several areas within Europe, as well as Japan, to find a cure to the curse and to ruin the plans of the Sapientes Gladio group. The progression of the story finds gamers coming across a number of interesting characters, a number of exciting plot twists and light humour that places the story of Shadow Hearts: Covenant as one of the best for a long time. Gamers will fight huge pink cats, play as a vampire pro-wrestler, fight against a villain with a exaggerated breast size and will become witness to a number of corny, yet sadly funny, jokes. The story is usually a key factor towards an RPG titles success, and thankfully Shadow Hearts: Covenant produces one of the finest available, providing enough motivation for gamers to make their way through the 30-40hour adventure.
And this is partly due to the fascinating personalities meet along the way. Yuri is a determined, yet sarcastic, young fellow who does a fantastic job of narrating his feeling and the past events witnessed in the original. Other characters include an innocent, yet crazy, young Russian heir, as well as two gay personalities who are fascinated in trading naked macho-men trading cards for items. Thankfully, these personalities are exactly what bring this game alive. The game isn't one huge laugh-fest, it does get serious when it is needed to be, but the comic relief throughout the game keeps gamers occupied on what could've been a rather lifeless game without these intriguing personalities.
Equally important is an RPG's combat system, and once again, Shadow Hearts: Covenant pulls it off with flying colours. At heart, the battle system is similar to any other turn-based RPG title. You will come across random and scripted encounters that will send your party into a turn-based battle in which your characters will alternate between one another and enemies. The system comprises of melee attacks, spells, unleashing special abilities, using items, and even forming some magnificent combos. The differences between say a Final Fantasy title to this, is that Shadow Hearts: Covenant introduces a circular roulette-like wheel called the Judgment Ring, in which determines the strength and the number of attacks made. A hand will sweep around the ring, and gamers will need to time their button presses so that the line passes over your character's hit zones. Each successful hit in each of the hit zones will determine the number of attacks made. Each of the hit zones on the ring also includes a small critical zone that requires perfect timing to hit. Hitting this zone will ultimately increase your attack strength. There is quite a big learning curve behind this combat system, as gamers can later expand the size of hit zones, add power-ups to your ring (low-probability of causing a poison effect when hitting an enemy for example), and so on.
There are several different ring modes that gamers can also choose from. For instances gamers can select auto ring, which will let gamers take control of the ring themselves, and others that increase the power of your attacks but decrease the size of the hit zones. Thankfully though, gamers will come across a number of modifiers that will increase the size of hit zones, critical zones and even the number of hit zones. A lot of these are often easy to find during your travels, however, others can often be hiding in chests or even under rocks, making it vital that gamers search all areas of their surroundings. Additionally, gamers can also fall victim to a number of ring ailments that affect the way gamers perform. These typically include effects such as poison, speed decreasing etc., but there are others that play affect onto your character's rings. These include making the hand on their wheel move faster, giving out fake hit zones, and even decreasing the size of your ring, making it difficult to see your hit zones at all. The battle system has to be one of the most interactive battle systems I've ever used.
Additionally, the game relies on a lot of focus from the gamer's behalf. Each of your characters has their own 'sanity points' that reframe your character from going berserk. If your SP points hit zero during a battle your character will become uncontrollable and will begin to dish out random attacks on the enemy or even onto your remaining characters. The only way to prevent this from happening is for gamers to give their characters more SP during battle when nearing zero, which ultimately gives up one of your turns. It is something that gamers have to play close attention to throughout battles, and usually only results from the longer boss battles. Another interactive mode within the battle mode is the character combos, which involves moving your characters close to each other allowing them to perform an attack chain. For each successful hit within the combo chain, gamers will receive combo points that'll increase the strength of attacks, and if you manage to pull off a four-person combo, you'll be able to unleash powerful combo magic as a final move. Once performing a combo, your character cannot miss any of his/her hit zones or the combo will break, forfeiting the remaining characters attacks. After one character has successful hit each of their hit zones, a button will appear on the screen that gamers must quickly tap to continue to combo chain. These combos are extremely helpful during boss battles, however, they can be a massive gamble when not performed correctly and are often the deciding factor of you dying or succeeding. The ring system isn't just left to the battles either. Gamers can earn discounts at item stores, or boost sale value by hitting the hit zones successfully.
Aside from this, each character has his or her own special techniques. Yuri can use the ability to transform into demons, Karin can use powerful sword abilities, and Joachim (the pro-wrestler) can use powerful wrestling attacks. These can be improved individual throughout the game. Yuri can improve his transformation powers by acquiring soul powers from battles allowing him to charge up his transformation, which will later allow them to gain levels and new powers. Karin improves her special moves by finding musical sheets that teaches her new techniques, while Joachim has to verse his mentor in the ring to acquire new wrestling abilities. It's a fascinating idea, and brings up a great opportunity for gamers to venture out and improve each of their characters individually.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is unbelievably jammed packed with a lot of features and side-quest. While the first disc forces gamers to follow a strict linear path, but once popping in the second disc gamers will be able to perform several dozen different side-quest that include finding an ultimate demon for Yuri to fuse with, being part of the walkers club (you receive items for how many steps you take) or even venture off to complete your character's move sets. The game is huge. Typically, gamers will take anywhere between 30-40hrs for the casual play-through. But the game has gamers trailing off on a number of side-quests that can expand the game's length to anywhere up to 80hrs plus, without gamers even realising where the time went.
In most RPG cases, the music can be a pivotal aspect of the game's success. And if you have to listen to a disturbing tune every time you're in a battle, it can become irritating. Thankfully, Shadow Hearts: Covenant does a perfect job at avoiding this problem. Each of the combat tunes are catchy and won't be such an issue when having to hear it countless times through your journey. Most of the music throughout the game does a nice job of fitting in with the context of each area. Tunes for towns are often lively and joyful, while dungeons can often be eerie. Thankfully there's enough variety between tunes that each will feel like a completely new experience from the next.
The game does a fantastic job at capturing the emotion and personalities of each of the featured characters. The voice acting is usually spot-on to correspond to the context of each character. For instances, Joachim is portrayed as an old-school superhero figure, and his voice and intelligence corresponds to this perfectly. While on the other hand, Karin is portrayed as a rather serious and kind person, due to her family and military upbringing. While the lip-syncing isn't anywhere near perfect, since it does a rather ordinary job of corresponding to the English words, on the most part, however, the game's voice acting does a superb job of providing a very uplifting experience.
Visually, Shadow Hearts: Covenant isn't anything groundbreaking, but it still does a superb job of recreating the atmosphere and appearance of the locations featured during the early nineteen hundreds. Characters move very fluid, corresponding to each of their character's build. The game also features some fantastic CG cutscenes, resulting in some fantastic viewing.
At the end of the day, you're left with one of the best RPG titles ever made. Let me repeat that. One of the best RPG titles ever made. From it's compelling and entertaining story all the way to it's battle system, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is literally everything a RPG fan could ask for. A lengthy title that'll have gamers captivated from start to finish.
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