Title :Shadow Hearts
Platforms :Sony PlayStation 2
Publisher :Midway
ESRB Rating :Mature
Game Rating :8.9
Review by :Ken Gagne

The occult and macabre found a place in gaming when Silent Hill, a survival-horror game, employed them to unforgettable effect. Shadow Hearts, a PlayStation 2 game from Midway, brings those same aspects to the role-playing game (RPG) genre. Unlike Silent Hill, Shadow Hearts ignores subtlety in favor of continuous action and player interaction, succeeding in an offbeat and fun game. 

It's 1914 China. Fifteen years after his last defeat, a demonic evildoer intends to again attempt an invocation to bring Hell to Earth. But an unlikely group of heroes, each with his or her own strange powers and histories, may prove more of a hindrance than he expects. 

There's no mysterious fog or other attempts to surprise here; Shadow Hearts is about as blunt as having your evening dinner interrupted by a rotten corpse falling onto your table. The mystical isn't to shock the players, but to establish setting: accepting the main characters as exorcists is easier when facing the proper opponents. Such oddities as contemporary lingo, cellular phones, and "Taoist magic" place Shadow Hearts firmly in the realm of historical fantasy. 

A significant gameplay feature is the Judgment Ring — a misnomer, as there is no judgment involved, only timing. Players are required to stop a moving clock hand within narrowly-defined sections of the Ring to produce positive results. Despite being used for everything from battle to buying items, the Judgment Ring does not grow tedious, as it is innovative and quickly executed. It also presents many interesting gameplay opportunities, including item and attack combinations that affect the status of the Ring. 

There is a refreshing lack of arenas for players to explore. The transcendental troupe travels throughout Eurasia, but conflict tends to seek them out as well. There are a few deep dungeons and tall towers, but major battles are as likely to occur in towns and on trains. Very little time is wasted backtracking through hordes of minor monsters; instead, there's constant story progression and regular boss battles, many which will tax a player's offensive and defense strategies. Stocking up on healing items and selecting the right party members for each combat are essential preparations. 

The gameplay and story outperform the game's presentation. The music has interesting riffs that work well with the morbid themes, but sound odd for a game set so early in the 20th century. There is gratefully little voice acting, which is some of the worst of any video game — yet precious little of the high-quality video sequences. Instead, most of the cinematic cut scenes employ the standard character models, which are incredibly fluid and perform admirably in any environment, be it discussion, exploring, or battle. Magic spells' special effects are surprisingly unspectacular. 

Shadow Hearts doesn't seem like it should be as fun a game as it is. There's little minutia for players to be engrossed in; if not for its difficulty and enjoyability, Shadow Hearts could be considered "RPG lite." But its unique setting and genuinely likable characters make for a bright choice among PlayStation 2 RPGs.

This article is copyright (c) 2002, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 14-Jan-02