Shadow Hearts is a role-playing video game developed by Sacnoth and published by Aruze Corp in Japan, and in the United States and Europe by Midway in 2001. Shadow Hearts is a fantastic game, part of the series that got started with Koudelka on PS, and is the first installment in the Shadow Hearts series.
Matsuzo Itakura, the art director of Koudelka, succeeded Hiroki Kikuta as the president of Sacnoth and created this series. The original soundtrack was released under the name of Shadow Hearts Original Soundtracks Plus1 by Scitron. It was composed and arranged by Yoshitaka Hirota and Yasunori Mitsuda. This was Hirota’s first major video game music compositional work. Mitsuda is a veteran video game music composer, having worked on Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Xenogears. The ending theme was composed by Hirota and the lyrics were written by James H. Woan. It features vocals by Hiroko Kasahara and Kyoko Kishikawa.
The party consists of three party members; with Yuri being the constant member, except for a brief time after a certain event. You can switch party members by speaking to Meiyuan. The battle system is the same as many other RPGs, where you can move members to front row or back row. Every character has sanity points which will dictate on how long they can last in battle before they go into a state of berserk. When this happens you will lose control of the character. However, there are items that you can use to raise SP such as Pure Leaf which will restore 3 SP, Pure Seed which restores 6 SP and Pure Root which restores 10 SP.
The Judgment Ring is a new feature in Shadow Hearts and is used in battles, mini-games, and even shopping. The success of the character’s actions depends on the outcome of the Judgment Ring. There is a learning curve since each member in your party has a different Judgment ring. In the beginning of the game, enemies aren’t so tough; which gives you a nice way of breaking you in before you get heavy into the game. The Judgment Ring is a circle with different color segments and a rotating needle which is stopped by the player’s input. When an action is chosen, the Judgment Ring is presented on the screen. Players then have to watch the rotating needle carefully as it rotates to hit the colored segments. Think of it like playing Wheel of Fortune – you’re trying to win big when it comes to using the Judgment ring because if you miss hitting the selection your action ends. Some party members, like Yuri, have three sections to hit and others have different width to aim for a critical attack or two sections to hit. Enemies or bosses can cause status ailments that will make it smaller or faster. You can also purchase items or win them by playing the lottery to widen the width, slow the speed and so forth.
Another new feature is Malice, which is the vengeance of the enemies that the party has killed and grows every time a battle is finished. Most enemies give one point of malice while bosses will give higher amounts. Yuri has an accessory called a Talisman that displays how much malice has been accumulated. It changes color from Dark Blue (lowest) to Red (maximum) and can view the changes in color on the menu screen. Once the maximum has been reached, the door to the dark side opens and the Grim Reaper is summoned to the real world. The Grim Reaper manifests itself as the one Yuri fears the most and his name is Fox Mask. You’ll meet him in the very beginning. Once Fox Mask has been summoned, the party will randomly encounter him which Yuri will face alone. To clear the malice the player must go into the Graveyard in Yuri’s mental realm. Once inside, there are four masks, Sword, Grail, Staff, and Gold, that will allow the player to fight a monster. Depending on the amount of malice, the monster will be different each time you clear the malice.
The only drawback is the learning curve with the Judgment rings because it does require perfect timing to land on the red, giving higher damage or critical attacks. You really do need to practice; and, in the beginning, definitely take some time to grind and learn how to use this unique fighting system because you’ll be using it for pretty much anything. You’ll use the Judgment ring for puzzles which makes you smash the button repeatedly, getting so close only to fall short. There’s one puzzle, late in the game, which requires the use of the Judgment ring to open a door and I always fall short.
The other thing that gets me is the Sanity Points. Some characters start with a low number which determines the turns they are allowed in battle before the warning appears. It does make it a challenge, especially in the earlier stages during boss fights so always make sure you stock up on Pure Leaf, Pure Seed, and Pure Root when you can.
This game is really one that I always keep going back to. It lured me in with the story which really made my heart ache and the characters to grow on me. I haven’t played a game that, in the first few minutes of gameplay, had me in stitches and just had me so enthralled. My favorite scene takes place in Zhaoyang Village between Yuri and two children in Granny Mayor’s house. I literally laughed so much that I knew this game was going to be a blast. And, Li Li’s story with the dub is another scene where I cracked up until I had tears in my eyes. The story is so tragic, but the dub just makes it hilarious.
Certain locations, items, and characters are tied with Koudelka but you honestly don’t need to play that game to play this one. The game will explain things to you; but, if you played Koudelka it makes a bit more sense, especially with Roger Bacon and the Emigre Document.
I definitely will say if you can get your hands on this game to do so. It’s an excellent blend of gothic style horror, humor, romance and tragedy that just fits so well and really opens the doors to the other two games in the Shadow Hearts line up. I’ve never played a game that had me in fits of laughter only to have me tear up. It’s just an amazing tale that deserves more recognition than what it received when it first came out. I hope when you play this game you have the same fun I did.