| paleface [sys=PS2; cat=Role_Playing; loc=NA] |
|Reference added: 406|
"Sacnoth made the stylish Shadow Hearts and Faselei!"
It's been years since I finished Shadow Hearts but I don't tend to go back to RPGs once I've seen the ending, so I'd better just get my lingering impressions down now.
I liked Shadow Hearts, although I think I ended up liking it a little less by the end than I did at the beginning. The story-opening cinematic really grabbed me and got me excited about the game. That's pretty unusual for me, actually, but it pointed the way to a fascinating WWI era world, deep evil secrets, and characters who both kick ass and whose unique personalities assert themselves in the course of serious emotional and physical challenges.
Now, that wasn't all misleading, but in the course of the game certain goofy elements come along that take away from the deep, hardcore feeling of the beginning. I can't precisely remember what all of these elements were, but some of them manifest themselves in silly puzzles or paper-thin supporting characters, like the blond French (wait, was she? well whatever) femme-fatale.
A lot of the enemy character designs are poor, too--they're supposed to be scary or outrageous, I suppose, but they end up looking dumb as far as I'm concerned.
I don't mean to give the impression that the story fizzles out, though, because I don't think that was the case. No, as far as I recall it comes through all right, but without quite realizing the dramatic depths that I had hoped for after the introduction. Developer Sacnoth (ex-SNK second parties or something, they did for instance the stylish Faselei!--see entry 406) even throws in some fan service in the form of an overlap with the world and characters from their earlier PS1 game, Koudelka.
The game is stylish, which is another thing that pulled me in from the beginning. It's got a dark moodiness and quirkiness about it that adds a feeling of suspense without becoming tedious or dull. The stylishness extends to things like the playable characters and the menus, and goes a long way in giving the game continual appeal.
As I mentioned, the WWI time period adds an unusual twist to the usual RPG pattern. The designers play it a bit fast and loose with the bounds of known science, letting in things like magic and demons, but they manage to make these feel like they fit into the dark, chaotic time period that they've conjured up. It feels modern enough that the characters and settings are modern enough for us to relate to easily, but they keep it just distinctly separate enough from our modern reality that it feels exotic--even more exotic than a world of entire fantasy would feel, I think, because you're constantly encountering unfamiliar twists on familiar things.
I've seen a lot written back and forth about the battle system, which is based on timed button presses as a hand whips around a wheel--hit the button as the hand passes over certain red zones and you get critical hits, and can string together multiple critical hits for combos or at least increased damage, but if you miss the overlying larger blue zones, you whiff the attack/spell/whatever entirely. I thought it worked fairly well, and it certainly makes you pay attention through all the game's random encounters.
No, the actual problem with the battle system is that you don't usually need to do anything besides the regular wheel-clicking melee attacks. Most of the special attacks that most of your characters earn aren't that useful when it comes right down to it, and you certainly don't need all of the exotic items that you find during the course of the game--I didn't even use any of them, as far as I can recall, until I found myself in the final battle and figured that I might as well try them out before the game ended.
There's a balance problem here then, and as you might have guessed, the final battle did not present a very satisfying challenge. I don't think I spent any extra time levelling up, so what it comes down to is that the game was too easy.
Before I stop talking about the battle system I suppose I should mention the other main gimmick, which is that the main character (I think it was just him... hm, now I can't remember for sure) can transform himself into a variety of powerful demon forms. There was some sort of caveat for why you didn't do that very often, but I can't remember what that was. I do remember that at times you have to sort of go into your own head to battle and conquer these "inner demons"--that's how you get new forms. A novel system, to be sure, but I think by the end it seemed a little superfluous.