Swords & Zippers: Return to the Shadows

It occurs to me that a couple of weeks ago I promised I would follow up my exploration of Shadow Hearts with another post discussing its sequel, and I then promptly forgot all about it and instead followed up with some talk of Persona 3: The Answer. So first of all, sorry about that. Second of all, let’s talk Shadow Hearts: Covenant.

As I said the last time we talked about this series, I knew nothing about Shadow Hearts except what my series evangelist friend had told me. He made it sound suitably hilarious and bizarre, so I was keen to try it — it just, for some reason, took me several years to actually bite the bullet, pick up some copies and actually do so. I was impressed with the original Shadow Hearts, though its age was very noticeable — its low-poly 3D models atop pixelated pre-rendered backdrops made it look more like a late-era PS1 game than a PS2 title.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant, though, was a pleasant surprise. Aside from a stubborn refusal to even contemplate the possibility of widescreen displays, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of that rare breed — a PS2 title that actually still looks pretty good even in this HD age. Ditching the pre-rendered backdrops in favor of a fully-3D environment (albeit one from fixed camera angles) makes the whole game considerably more “cinematic” — and makes it feel a lot more like a PS2 game. The character models, too, are packed with detail and full of life. Also, they have nice hair. Seriously!

Shadow Hearts: Covenant picks up where the bad ending of the previous game left off. I say “bad,” but in practice it’s the ending that most people would have got, given that the “good” ending had some seriously obtuse requirements that I defy anyone to have discovered without having a guidebook to hand. I shan’t spoil the exact circumstances of that ending because it’s ultimately not actually that relevant — Covenant stands by itself as a story, though those who already know the characters will doubtless have a greater appreciation of it.

Like its predecessor, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is set in the period around World War I. One of the lead characters — Karin, from the screenshot above — is, in fact, a German officer, though this fact ceases to be in any way relevant after about the first hour or so of gameplay, and her outfit for the majority of the game will also probably help you conveniently forget it’s supposed to be the early days of the 20th century.

The story revolves around protagonist Yuri and his attempts to track down the faction of evil sorcerers known as Sapientes Gladio, who just happen to have cursed him and caused him to lose all the fusion monsters he had acquired by the end of the first Shadow Hearts. (Lest you forget, Yuri is a “Harmonixer,” which means he can transform into monsters and use their special abilities.) Along the way, Yuri and his gang of increasingly-bizarre companions inadvertently recruit Princess Anastasia Romanov into their group, and end up, among other things, fighting Rasputin, who is actually an evil wizard.

The admirable thing about Shadow Hearts: Covenant, much as with its predecessor but to a much greater degree, is how straight it plays it all. Its premise, characters and ongoing plot are utterly ridiculous — there is no getting away from that fact — but it takes it all so beautifully seriously throughout that you can’t help but become enraptured in what’s going on. Even when “what’s going on” is trained wrestler/vampire character Joachim battling his way up a tower of wrestling rings stacked atop each other and populated by semi-naked gentlemen wearing plates of curry on their head. I know, right?

Yes, somehow, despite its inherent bizarreness, Shadow Hearts: Covenant manages to spin a completely coherent tale that is fun, entertaining and emotionally engaging throughout. You genuinely care about these characters, as odd as they are, and want to see them succeed in their efforts to make the world a better place.

The other reason you will want to see the game through to the end is its excellent combat system, which remains consistently fun throughout the whole game. Loosely based on the timing-based “Judgement Ring” system from the original game, Shadow Hearts: Covenant’s battle system features a much wider variety of attacks, combos, a new importance on tactically positioning your characters and physics. Yes, physics — different monsters have different “weights” and thus respond to different types of attack. Light monsters can be knocked up into the air easily and then pummelled repeatedly on the way down, for example, while you’re probably better off trying to knock a heavy monster to the ground and then laying the smack down while they’re trying to get back up.

One of the big draws of the battle system is that every character has their own little quirks and unique features. Yuri has his monster fusion abilities as before; Karin has a variety of dramatic, flourishing swordplay attacks; Gepetto (yes, that Gepetto, pictured above) has a puppet he can power up by collecting “Stud Cards” and giving them to the clearly-homosexual pair of tailors who inexplicably precede the party on their travels around the globe. Other party members gain in power by everything from engaging in battle against various wolves scattered in hard-to-reach locations around the world to learning new aromatherapy recipes or taking photographs of enemies.

To say too much more about Shadow Hearts: Covenant would be to destroy some of the thrill of discovering its many deranged layers for yourself — the increasingly-surreal conversations with the “Ring Soul” over the course of the game are best left unspoiled, for example — so I shall simply leave it with this: Shadow Hearts: Covenant is one of the best JRPGs you will ever spend time with. If you have not yet played it, do so. Don’t feel obliged to play Shadow Hearts first, though you’ll have a greater sense of context and appreciation for the characters if you do.

Just… make sure you play it. Because not long after starting to play it, you will start to understand why that one friend everyone seems to have who loves the Shadow Hearts series has been ranting and raving at you to play it for the last few years.

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Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. You can follow Pete, author of this article and GrE’s managing editor, on Twitter.

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