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Shadow Hearts: Covenant
  opened by paleface at 20:52:06 02/19/09  
  last modified by paleface at 12:27:18 03/05/24  
  paleface [sys=PS2; cat=Role_Playing; reg=NA]
This second game in the Shadow Hearts series takes place in an alternate reality seemingly set approximately around WWI, like the first game; also like the first game, it features turn-based combat revolving around clicking at the right time each turn as a needle spins around a dial, representing your character's attack accuracy and speed. The well-modeled, mostly young adult characters forming your party usually use either magic--the usual element types of things--demonic transformations, or hand-to-hand weapons while facing off against a bizarre assortment of monsters that often have no obvious precursors in traditional fiction, nor any particular relation to the environment in which you find yourself.
The story seems promising, with dark doings at the Vatican, a nasty demon, and a main character haunted by some sort of demonic possession; the relatively adult and moody theme of the game was one of the main factors in my picking it out for a play, plus I had enjoyed the first game.
Covenant is quite similar to the original Shadow Hearts--very very similar, as far as my limited memory serves. I think a few of the character management options are new, particularly customizing the speed and clickable areas on the combat wheel, and sharing a new (I think) class of spell-casting items among all characters, and I wasn't particularly thrilled by having more micromanagement responsibilities for my characters. You eventually get more characters to choose from than you're allowed to take in your party at any one time, but the choice of who to take seems pretty straightforward, because the characters aren't particularly balanced, and some are just more effective in battle than others.
In battle you can elect to try setting up combo hits between characters. A series of tiles at the top of the screen shows the order in which your characters and the monsters will attack, and if you choose well, and get a bit lucky in not having enemies hit characters waiting for others to combo with them, which spoils the whole combo effort, you can get off a multi-character combo attack that will do...incrementally higher damage; the slight increase in damage doesn't really seem worth the effort or risk involved in trying to set up a combo.
Most of the spell options all characters get don't really seem worth the effort, either, particularly since they cost a relatively high amount of a given character's magical power, which has to be recharged by consuming items. You can buy these items, and they constitute the main money sink in the game. As is the case in many RPGs, staying alive really just requires having stocked up on sufficient recharge items before you left the last safe area; have enough magic to cast healing spells when needed, otherwise mash away with standard cheap melee attacks, and you're all set.
This makes much of the more costly attack and spell options available to characters superfluous. The characters are a bright and highly varied lot, with some genuinely amusing personalities--like the macho wrestler who transforms into a golden bat, or turns invisible, at certain times of the month--but ultimately there isn't much point in the highly individualized special attacks they have, and the interaction of all but the two or three main characters is limited, since the inclusion of the others in your party is optional. It should be mentioned that the English voice acting is very well done.
At the point I've reached, which is maybe a third or so through, I think, my party is just skipping along from area to area across alternate Europe, fighting monsters and then a boss. The story is taking its time and wandering around in side issues, and as individually cute as their stories might be, I've succeeded in losing track of what the main plot is supposed to be; there's some stuck-up young punk, and his overmuscled bumbling henchman, and I forget what they're supposed to be doing or why they matter, despite their appearance in a few cutscenes.
This is what I get for taking a long time off between play sessions, but I'm not particularly tempted to pick it up again for a few reasons. For one thing, while the characters (not so much the monsters) are well rendered, the dark style of the game seems to have translated into murky, poorly lit areas, not so much dank and creepy as just washed out; navigating them is kind of a pain, particularly due to the other things I'm not digging so much these days, namely invisible random encounters, and invisible loot/puzzle interaction points inside the random encounter zones. Namely, you'll be set wandering around a maze-like area, not really knowing where to go, only that you're supposed to get something there, and you have to choose from branching path point after branching path point, exploring every nook of every area you come to, knowing that you'll have to double and redouble back to the other areas, and that you'll be switched into combat mode due to an unavoidable, invisible random monster encounter approximately once ever so many steps. This puts a real damper on what might have been the fun of exploring.
It's too bad, too, because the characters are mostly pretty fun, and the puzzles you encounter, while arbitrary, are relatively inventive; for instance, in the last area I explored, I had to match zodiac tiles to phrases in multiple poems, which was really neat, and then I had to match characters to each other to find the right blood type to open a door, which was solved by brute force combining, but was at least a new spin on things, contrived as it might have been.
I don't think I'll be taking up Covenant again, at least not until I somehow lose my distaste for hunting for invisible things in mazes while being attacked by invisible encounters, and then having to mash turn by turn through a generic battle against doofy-looking opponents.
· disc.jpg
· Shadow Hearts (PS2)

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