Shadow Hearts: From the New World
The third installment in one of the most original RPG franchises is here. Can it live up to the excellence of its predecessor?
By Ben S. Dutka
Despite being one of the more underappreciated game series out there, Shadow Hearts has built a strong and loyal following of RPG aficionados. Darker and more forbidding than most with an amazingly unique battle mechanic, the games thrive on engaging gameplay and casts of kooky and diverse characters. It may not have the tremendous glitz and glamour found in other big-budget titles, but its appeal is undeniable.
The original spawned a small fanbase and modest critical acclaim, and the second (Covenant) took a big step forward and landed several award nominations in 2004. Whereas Shadow Hearts: Covenant took place in World War II Europe, Shadow Hearts: From the New World continues the historical tradition by putting the player in the 1930s, and you will visit locations throughout North and South America. The stage is set for another fantastic role-playing experience, but does the series take another step...or will it be a step backwards?
The visuals in Shadow Hearts have never dazzled, and they've never been a major focal point. The best that can be said about From the New World is that the game is graphically very solid, and slightly superior to previous installments. Each area, from New York to Rio de Janeiro, exhibits a fair amount of detail with a heavy dose of old-fashioned charm. There is some graininess and jagged edges, but overall, there's a nice array of color and artistic impression.
The zany characters, so often associated with the franchise, are well designed and unique enough to be memorable. The cast frequently stands out against the backdrops, which is both a positive and a negative, and most fans will appreciate the effort put into the character design. There are a few impressive cinemas in the game to go along with the above-average cut-scenes, so all in all, there isn't much to complain about. However, it won't be remembered for the graphics.
The sound revolves around voice acting that ranges from cheesy to touching, and includes a few laughable moments coupled with surprisingly impressive tidbits. There's a crew of veteran voice actors behind these characters, and the voices do provide a great deal of personality for each party member. The sound effects in battle tend to override the battle music, but they remain clear and powerful, while the soundtrack is mostly average. Depending on how much you enjoy the hectic combat music and the voices of your favorite characters, this category score may change for you, but as it is, From the New World is simply "good."
When it comes right down to it, Shadow Hearts lives and dies with its most appealing feature- the Judgment Ring. The Ring is used for battle, but it's also used in other aspects of the game, including purchasing items and the Lottery. The Ring is an ingenious gameplay mechanic that requires precision and timing, and also opens the door for a huge variety of options. It may seem simple on the surface, but the more you play, the more you realize just how diverse it can be.
When you select a command, you must carry it out via the Ring. If you select an attack - your options are Standard, Hard Hit, High Angle, or Knockdown - the Ring will appear and a thin bar will start to spin clockwise. As it passes over the "Hit" areas, designated in orange, and the much narrower "Strike" areas, designated in red, you hit the "X" button. Depending on how many Attack Boosts are on your Ring, denoting how many times you can attack, you must hit these areas in succession. "Hits" are simple hits while "Strikes" hit for more damage. Missing means the attack is negated.
Magical attacks and Special Abilities are carried out in similar fashions, except there are green "Step" areas that you must hit before the "Hit" - this time shown in blue - and the "Strike," which is red again. If you miss any of the Steps, you cannot complete the command, and stronger spells and abilities can cause up to 4 Steps to appear. Now, the Ring can be customized to change the number of attacks, a special attribute (Apathy, Poison, Paralysis, Instant Death, etc.), and the player may also change the type of Ring.
A Normal Ring means if you miss a Hit area during an attack, any Hits or Strikes you made before the miss will still be carried out. For example, if Shania can attack four times, and you hit with each of the first three but miss with the fourth, she will still attack three times. If you switch to the Technical Ring, however, any miss means the entire turn will be negated, but the flip side is you will do 1.5x the amount of damage with every hit. There is also a Practice and Gambler Ring to experiment with, if you are so inclined.
In addition to the typical status abnormalities your characters can suffer, the Ring can also suffer abnormalities. Enemies can inflict you with Fast Ring and Reverse Ring (does exactly what it says), and the more evil Invisible Ring and Fickle Ring. These are things that make combat all the more challenging, because missing on the Ring means sacrificing commands, and those kind of mistakes can pile up quickly.
During battle, you can also attempt Combos, Doubles, and Double Combos. Combos string character attacks together, but you must take into account the angle of the enemy vs. the angle of your attack. For instance, if you begin a combo with a normal attack from Johnny, the enemy remains on the ground, and Hilda would not be able to use some of her Magical Arts, which require an enemy to be airborne to succeed. The good news is that the game will tell you if your chosen command will work, if the enemy's box appears blue, it will hit, if it appears red, it will miss.
Doubles are for an individual character and allows them to move twice in one turn. You won't be able to move again for quite some time, so there is a trade-off, but they can be very useful. The Stock Gauge, a new addition to the Shadow Hearts series, dictates all of your combos and doubles; it's a bar that fills as you do battle. The higher the Stock, the more turns you can string together, but be wary: enemies can do the same thing. All in all, the Judgment Ring has been refined and nearly perfected, so this is the biggest reason to play From the New World.
There isn't a great deal of exploring because each area has a very set path, and although you can revisit any area previously visited whenever you wish, it's still quite limited. Items and equipment are found just laying around the towns and dungeons, along with the normal chests, and you will soon find yourself constantly pressing the "X" button along all the walls and in every corner to ensure you don't miss anything.
If you get hooked on the Judgment Ring, you'll want to tackle every side-quest and extra mission, moving the game from 25-35 hours to well over 50. Per tradition, each character has a specific quest that generally rewards you with their ultimate weapon, armor, accessory, or ability, and they also represent most of the challenge in the game. Unfortunately, if you're a Ring master and you take full advantage of the Stock system, it's unlikely you'll have too much difficulty beating the game. However, getting erratic with the Ring and moving through unprepared is absolutely fatal, so the adventure is hardly a walk in the park.
Finally, magic is done by utilizing Stellars and Stellar Charts. A Stellar is a spell, either a Healing type (Cure, Heal), Support (Gale, Mirage, Shield, etc.), or Attack (Red Bounce, Rock Javelin, Evil Servant, Bright Crest, etc.). The Stellar is placed in an individual node in a selected Chart, and this is where you can begin to customize. Each node can be increased in level; if you have a Lv. 3 Stellar and only a Lv. 1 node, you need to make a change. And you can even change the element of the node (from Earth to Holy, for example), if you wish to equip a different Stellar. However, making these changes requires money, so plan ahead. It's a well-done system and nicely implemented.
The biggest difference in the third installment is in the atmosphere; while the original and Covenant were decidedly dark, in both presentation and environment, From the New World is brighter and not quite as serious. Furthermore, the main character - a 16-year-old boy detective named Johnny Garland - is a far cry from previous protagonists, as he's closer to your quintessential teenage video game hero, and that, in my opinion, is a step back. The story isn't nearly as well fleshed out, either, but than again, Covenant didn't get good until far too late.
The pacing seems a little off in this one as well; there's a great deal of "dungeon crawling" through much of the middle of the game, and you won't find much besides some tedious puzzles and a ton of enemies. But again, if the Ring is exactly your cup of tea, you won't mind in the least. One major bonus is in the characters, and while it's almost entirely subjective, there is a good deal of humorous interaction and high-spirited conversation. This big positive almost outweighs the less-than-engaging storyline and problematic pacing...almost.
Your quest will take you to some very historic locations in the Americas, and you will become well acquainted with each colorful character. From the beautiful yet vengeful Shania to the talking cat named Mao (get it?) who uses Drunken Fist martial arts; there are many different ways to form your party and go about conquering the evil Lady and her cohort, Killer. One major secret helps the plot quite a bit, and if you can't find a single interesting character, you're not all that interested in RPGs.
Overall, Shadow Hearts: From the New World is not the same caliber game as its predecessor, but the Judgment Ring solidifies a very worthwhile experience. You'll laugh a bit, get a glimpse of how the Americas once looked, watch a zany group of characters interact, and possibly enjoy a decent yet somewhat underwhelming story. But I repeat- the game lives and dies with that Ring. If you love it, you'll love the game, and thanks to its wonderful refinement and implementation, it's got a good chance of landing even more fans. Just remember, it can be wildly addictive...