Know Your Role #3-Shadow Hearts Covenant

It’s probably no secret to anyone at this point, but I tend to gravitate towards some pretty weird things, or in the case of The Retro Junkies, some pretty weird people. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A:

Word has it after this photo, children threw candy corn at Hickman to stop doing that. Yeah, that. For the love of Scott, stop that, Aaron! Think of the children!
Word has it after this photo, children threw candy corn at Hickman to stop doing that. Yeah, that. For the love of Scott, stop that, Aaron! Think of the children!

Still don’t believe me? Exhibit B:

Yeah, this. All of this. And they call me the weird one.
Yeah, this. All of this. And they call me the weird one.

But even I couldn’t have imagined I would be playing an RPG on the PS2 for the very first time with a character who looks like this:

So yeah, this is Joachim, he’s a vampire..and a wrestler..and he likes butterfly masks AND attacking people with mailboxes. I’m not making this up. If you’re ever in doubt of the idea of being able to work in the video game industry, remember this, that someone was paid good money to come up with this hilarity. Have faith.

Midway made this..that explains A LOT really.

Sound: 9
Let’s cut to the chase here, this is an RPG that is anything but conventional, which I’ll delve more into during the gameplay portion of this review, but what is so refreshing about Shadow Hearts: Covenant is that it doesn’t focus on those aspects of RPGs that by the time it arrived on the PS2 had long been beaten into the ground. In many ways it shatters your expectations and preconceived notions of RPGs. For some people this is a good thing, while others are staunch traditionalists in the genre. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I can always appreciate something different and while the battle music and music that plays as you make your way through the game fits the bill just fine, it is the stellar voice acting that is too impressive to ignore that sets this game apart from many other RPGs, if only on the PS2 alone. Every character has a distinct personality that is very well reflected in the voice acting that accompanies them. I find this very effective in getting players to enjoy the game and invest emotionally in the story. This is something that not every RPG can say they have. Yes, it’s great to use your own imagination in trying to understand what a character is feeling, but in truth, at times you can feel like you’re looking at a blank canvas or just a skeleton of a character, while things like voice acting give these characters new life and flesh out the skeleton to create someone relatable to the gamer.

Even ones that have voices like this guy, because come on, who is more relatable than Gaston..who can make a video game great like Gas-no, I’m not singing your song, jerk!

Graphics: 8
Obviously one of the drawbacks of being different would be critics who use more popular RPGs as the bench park in which to draw their comparison. The graphics in this game aren’t going to take your breath away, which yes to some can be frustrating considering a game like Final Fantasy X was also around at the time. The FMV sections are a mixed bag, and backgrounds can look bland at times, but the characters move realistically in battle, the lighting effects work well, and you don’t have too many instances of seeing jagged edges in the rendering process. The characters can look rough in some cut scenes, but all in all what you see isn’t difficult for the eye to discern. If there’s a character you like, you know who it is when you see them on screen. The environments may not be these vast metropolis type areas as you see in the more popular RPG franchises, but for an RPG on the PS2 what you’re given is more than just simple acceptable. It’s impressive enough in its own right.

Gameplay: 9
If it isn’t apparent enough to you yet that this is not a game that falls into the traditional spin of most RPGs, then I give you the Judgement Ring, which while cool, initially reminded me of this:

You payin’ attention, Focker?

As sad as I am that DeNiro has nothing to do with this game, this Judgement Ring idea was a very fresh idea for the time, and to my knowledge hasn’t been adapted anywhere outside of this franchise, which is a real shame because this is something to take the boredom out of most RPGs and that “wonderful” thing called grinding.

I don't know, grinding sounds dangerous, and I just got my dental insurance.
I don’t know, grinding sounds dangerous, and I just got my dental insurance.

Nobody asked you, hoser.

Yeah, yeah, I get it Kurt. Blah, blah, blah, The Grinder.

What the heck? Can somebody PLEASE get this review back on track?

Thank you, Dusty Rebo. I knew there was a reason I wanted you as Intergalactic Senator..bay-bay.
Thank you, Dusty Rebo. I knew there was a reason I wanted you as Intergalactic Senator..bay-bay.

As I was saying, The Judgement Ring brings the aspect of skill and chance into a place where usually only strategy and waiting your turn reside. You can create combos, heal your characters, and unleash some awesome spells, but only if you place the meter on the ring in the right spots. Some may find this annoying, but I really liked stepping away from the more tried and true action RPG and turn based stuff. I feel this uses elements of both, and in a way is almost an homage to Midway’s finishers used in their fighting games. Another cool aspect of this feature is the ability to customize your judgement ring to a character’s strengths later on in the game. Have a character that’s great with magic but weak on melee attacks? No worries, you can place their best skills and magic on this ring to really utilize the character to the fullest extent. I was especially impressed with the ability to use 4 characters in one string of attacks, which definitely comes in handy with some very strong bosses, even if one of them looks like this:

Do not be deceived by the pink..this is a cold blooded killer..who also enjoys stealing your money.

The game has a nice balance of random enemy encounters and fun but challenging boss fights, and I’d also like to mention that this takes place after World War know, if that era in history had evil pink cats, vampire wrestlers, and some of the corniest, yet hilarious dialogue ever. Shadow Hearts Covenant is an unapologetic RPG that moves to the beat of its own drum, and the genre itself is better for it. I see countless requests to somehow make an HD version of this title, but who knows if that will ever happen? This was a game ahead of its time, but one has to wonder if its brave new ideas were too much for the stalwart developers of RPGs to stray away from a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality that while honoring the sanctity of RPG history is also keeping RPG growth and innovation stale and stagnant.

Overall: 8
At face value, those of us who grew up with Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Secret Of Mana, and even Earthbound, might not fully grasp or appreciate Shadow Hearts Covenant for its innovation and fresh new take (for the time) on the classic boundaries set in RPGs, considering it an average at best RPG that fails to live up to the lofty expectations and standards set forth by its forefathers. However, dig a bit deeper and you will find a unique gaming experience that wouldn’t hurt developers to take more then a second look at in the near future.

Speaking of tried and true RPGs, next time I will be taking a look at Final Fantasy VIII as we tackle the issues of why this game was so heavily overlooked at first, and how it suffered and yet survived the “little brother” criticism in comparison to the mighty beast that was Final Fantasy VII.

Until then, grind on, and remember to always KNOW YOUR ROLE!

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