Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shadow Hearts 3: Going out with a whimper, rather than a bang

I have fond memories of my experience with the Shadow Heart games. It is a series that went from humble beginnings, but eventually spawned two of my favorite RPGs of all times. What some people may not realize is that "Shadow Hearts" formally began with the game Koudelka on the PSX.

I'll level with you: Koudelka was a pretty awful game overall. It was an attempt at combining survival horror with RPG and strategy elements, yet it did none of these effectively. Combat was slow, clunky, and generally frustrating. The load times were absolutely horrendous. For a late-gen PSX game (spanning 4 discs, no less), the graphics were rather subpar. Despite the number of discs, the game was painfully short, as well. For all intents and purposes, the game should have cast away and its continuity ended. Yet beneath all of this, many had to admit one thing: Koudelka did have an interesting story and premise. The dialogue which did occur wasn't that bad.

Someone in Japan saw this, apparently, and the series was revived. . well, indirectly. Some years later, Shadow Hearts was developed for the PS2, which takes place in the same continuity as Koudelka, but with a new protagonist and a loose, yet still significant link to the first game that becomes increasingly clear the further you play. The game maintained the bleak, eerie atmosphere for the most part, yet does away completely with the horrendous battle system of its predecessor, instead spawning an entirely new innovation with the judgment ring system. While the game received somewhat mixed reviews, it still maintains a special place in my heart, but more importantly, it's a marked improvement over the disaster that is Koudelka.

Fast forward a few years later to the next entry in the series, Shadow Hearts 2 (AKA Shadow Hearts: Covenant). While the story is lighter in some respects due to some more comedic elements (I also attribute it to better fleshed out dialogue), it still retains some pretty dark moments. While this is a turn off for some, it's hard to deny that Covenant is a step up from the previous game in every respect: The characters are even more interesting, the story is even deeper, there's much more in the way of additional content and sidequests, customization options have improved, and the combat retains the elements that made the first unique while expanding greatly on it. Hands down, this is an RPG worth owning.

I'm sure you notice a pattern here: Each game represents a marked improvement over the previous. Shadow Hearts 2 was a great game and a tough act to follow, but it would still be possible to make a great follow up. Certainly enough, when Shadow Hearts 3 was announced, I was excited.

Yet when details of the game emerged, I became less and less excited. The game would be featuring a new protagonist, rather than following up on the story of Yuri Hyuga, the protagonist from the previous games, and probably one of the cooler main characters out there. The plot details that I gleaned made it seem thoroughly uninteresting: So much that when the game was finally released and I saw it at Fry's, I shrugged my shoulders and walked past.

I eventually grabbed the game from EBay some months later, as it was impossible to find it in stores after a short time. I had caved in because while the game did feature an entirely new cast, the reviews I read asserted that it still contained the elements that made Covenant great -- certainly this game wouldn't disappoint, right?

Unfortunately, my friends, I introduce yet another game contained in Disappointment Week 2011: Shadow Hearts: From the New World.

Let me state my disclaimer here: As a stand alone game, Shadow Hearts 3 gives you a game with an innovative combat system, decent playlength, a mildly entertaining story, and plenty to keep you busy. It is not by any means, a bad game.

As the final entry into the series, however, one must hold it to a different standard.

While Shadow Hearts 3 features a refined version of the combat system that made its predecessor an engaging game, its uninspiring cast of protagonists, poorly developed villains, and overall weaker story than its predecessors make it a lackluster follow up to one of the best RPGs in the PS2's library. As a result, a series which had shown steady improvement closes the curtain on its life with subdued applause, rather than a standing ovation.


Before I get in depth about the story of the third game, it's important to understand the setting of the Shadow Hearts series as a whole. The games can be characterized as a sort of historical fiction. While the fantasy and horror elements are the center of the game, the setting nevertheless takes place alongside some significant events in the world. The first game takes place primarily in Europe and China in 1913, shortly before World War I. The second game takes place shortly after in 1914 during the midst of the first World War, and carries the party through Europe and Japan. -From The New World-, as the title implies, takes place in the "New World", focusing the journey in the Americas during the late 1920's, just before the Great Depression.

Sadly, Canada did not make the cut as part of the "New World"

The games do not just make use of the setting and time period. They actually manage to incorporate well-known and lesser-known historical figures Yoshiko Kawashima is a significant character in the first and second games, Grigori Rasputin is a central villain in the second game, and even Anastasia Romanov, the Russian Princess surrounded by mystery and speculation to this day, joins your party. With the third game taking place during the 1920's, it should come as no surprise that Al Capone is someone you run into.

Thankfully, he's on your side this time.

In the third game, even H.P. Lovecraft is a character central in one of the sidequests.

Cthulu, sadly, is not, though there's plenty of freakier things than him in these games.

Really, the list goes on. It's one of the things I've always appreciated about the series, and as someone who's always curious to figure out where the creators of games got their ideas, a session of Shadow Hearts often led to a few hours on Wikipedia seeing all the connections. Though I digress.

As mentioned before, the third game takes place fifteen years after the conclusion of Shadow Hearts 2. The game takes place in the same universe and can be considered a sequel, as a reference to a significant event in the second game is a catalyst for the events of the third game. The Emigre Manuscript, a key artifact in the Shadow Hearts universe, is also central to the plot. There are a few other subtle nods and cameos throughout the game to show the connection between the games, but for the most part, From the New World attempts to establish itself independent of the past two games. In a way, From the New World attempts to do what Shadow Hearts did with Koudelka: Create a connection between the two games while only briefly alluding to the previous, yet still emerge as the superior game.

Only, it wasn't quite as successful.

A Tale of Two Heroes
I've already mentioned that Koudelka wasn't a spectacular game. Knowing that, it really wasn't that hard for the first game in the Shadow Hearts trilogy to outdo its spiritual predecessor in terms of gameplay, story, and characters (though to her credit, the titular character herself, Koudelka, was fairly well fleshed out, given the limitations of the game). Furthermore, finding out Shadow Hearts was Koudelka's successor was more of a pleasant surprise for fans who had played the first game, as you saw references to past events, people, and places.

Even the second game, which ditched most of the cast of the first game from the main party, still managed to improve upon the first and surpass it in terms of story and character development. At the same time, they kept arguably one of the most important elements:

This guy

Sure, Yuri's nothing revolutionary in the slew of JRPG anti-heroes on first glance (save for the fact that he's in his mid-20's, rather than an angsty teenager), but he has depth, is developed well over the course of the two games, and has the neat abilities of a Harmonixer, which allows him to fuse his souls with that of a demon's while also assuming its form. Plus there's the fact that he's probably one of the funnier protagonists: Sarcastic and witty at points, dumb as a brick on others, yet also having a few endearing quirks, like a fear of ghosts (ironic, considering his abilities). Overall, he's a pretty likable guy.

Even as a hellbeast, he has the ladies swooning in his arms.

As an interesting aside, Aruze (the developer for the game) pulled an interesting stunt with Shadow Hearts 2: The preliminary 'leaked' info of the game made it seem like the story was focusing on a completely new set of protagonists. Suffice to say, plans were pleasantly surprised when Yuri was revealed to be the main character of the second game. Unfortunately, because of this stunt, much of the speculation around the cast of From the New World had people thinking the same, but alas, that was not the case.

Shadow Hearts 3, instead, completely eliminates Yuri from the story and introduces us to Johnny Garland, a 16-year old New Yorker who owns his own private detective agency.

Sort of like this, but much less successful.

Don't get me wrong: Johnny's plenty likable. In fact, he's probably my favorite character in the game, if only for the fact that many of his remarks throughout the story often make it seem like he's the only one aware of how absurd everything going around him is (like remarking on how no one seems to notice Mao is in fact, a giant cat). Unfortunately, he's not Yuri, and if you're like me and had played the first two games, you were likely hoping for the same.

Now I know what you're thinking: There are plenty of series that take place in the same universe, but omit significant characters from previous games and still manage to be successful. From the New World, however, while including cameos from significant characters in the previous game, makes absolutely zero reference to Yuri whatsoever. It's like the guy never existed. Part of this may be due to how the second game ended: There were two possible endings, which is something the first game also did. However, while Shadow Hearts 2 made it clear which ending was canonical, the third game leaves it ambiguous.

Alright, I know it's clear I like Yuri. And like I said, I honestly like Johnny, too. However, Johnny alone isn't enough to carry the game: The kid needs a solid supporting cast.

The Cast

Let's look across all three games to get a sense of the cast, shall we?

Here's a breakdown of the characters (admittedly, this isn't the best picture of them):

Yuri: Our aforementioned hero: Half-Japanese, Half-Russian, with the powers of a Harmonixer
Margarete: An English Spy charged with the task of halting the Japanese advance into China
Liu Zhuzen: An old Chinese mystic; knew Yuri's father
Alice Elliot: Your standard girl with mystical powers.
Halley: A boy with psychic powers.
Keith Valentine: A distinguished nobleman. Also a vampire.

Certainly a unique cast, but one that worked. Margarete gets a special nod for being the only one in the group without ESP, demon powers, or magic: Instead, she relies on some good old firearms to hold her own. Classy.

And now for Shadow Hearts 2:

Yuri: Returning once again as the protagonist.
Karin Koenig: A former lieutenant in the German army.
Blanca: Badass wolf.
Anastasia Romanov: Russian princess, based on the historical figure.
Joachim Valentine: Professional wrestler and would-be Robin Hood. Also a vampire.
Kurando Inugami: Young samurai in training.
Lucia: ..Uh, obligatory dancer type girl who uses aromatherapy?
Gepetto: Obligatory old dude, also related to Alice from the previous game.

The cast this time has been expanded, and they're just a bit zanier, but ultimately most of them (aside from Lucia, who's honestly pretty forgettable) were a solid group. The seriousness of Karin and Kurando served to balance out the over the top antics of Joachim, while Yuri and Anastasia actually had a few scenes that were endearing, to list off just a few.

And now, we get to Shadow Hearts 3's cast:

Shania: Garvoy Tribe woman with the power to make pacts with spirits (similar to Yuri's power)
Natan: Shania's guardian. Stoic Indian man who uses Gun-Fu (yes, you read that right).
Frank Goldfinger: An American whose plane crashlanded in a Brazillian ninja village, where he then trained to learn ninja arts. Now a ninja who fights for freedom and justice.
Hilda Valentine: A vampire. I'm sure you can guess who she's related to.
Mao: A giant cat who bosses even Al Capone around.
Ricardo: A mariachi who fights to avenge the woman he loved.

..Ok seriously what the hell.

When discussing this game with the Enabler (who, by some miracle, does not own this game in her backlog), her words were along the lines of "That sounds even more random than the party in Chrono Cross"; a phrase which brought back a memory I'd long tried to supress:

Son of a bitch

As if reading my mind, she immediately followed up with "Your entire party is Starky!"

While admittedly, the cast of Shadow Hearts 3 receives more development than the cast of Chrono Cross, most of them still come across feeling rather dull and one dimensional (aside from Johnny). Shania is obsessed with revenge. Natan..really doesn't say much of anything. Hilda, unlike her siblings before her, really doesn't have much presence at all. Ricardo soon fades to the backburner after your initial introduction to him (though his sidequest fleshes him out a bit). Frank is there to lighten things up, but even his comic outbursts do little to bring life to this stale cast. Besides, you know you're in trouble when a ninja named Frank has the most character aside from the protagonist.

The randomness of the cast, perhaps, is what detracts from the overall experience. Without giving any spoilers away, most of the cast of the first two games had some sort of connection that brought them all together. The cast of the final game just feels like a random group of strangers that got strung together for this zany tour.

Only in this case, the movie star is a cat, and not a beautiful redhead.

The lackluster cast, unfortunately, is accompanied by a lackluster story.


I've already mentioned the setting earlier in the post. The plot of the game, however, centers around Johnny and Shania's attempts to uncover the plans of a man named Gilbert: A mysterious little hunchback who hires Johnny at the beginning of the story. Seriously, everything about the guy screams evil and suspicious: However, as most of Johnny's detective gigs up until this point have consisted of finding lost cats, he's all too enthused to take the job without doing a background check.

Unfortunately, finding Marlow sets a whole host of events into play, primarily Marlow being sucked into a mysterious portal, and a horrendous hellbeast being summoned in his place.

Oh that Cerberus. Always ruining a distinguished conversation between gents.

In the meantime, a mysterious red-haired killer is on the run from the police, and just moments before they apprehend him, an even more enigmatic woman shows up, wipes out his pursuers, and heals his wounds with the "Kiss of Malice". Indebted to the woman (who he names "Lady"), the man (naming himself, aptly, "Killer") vows to follow her and stay by her side. At some point, Gilbert joins up with them, hatching some nefarious plan to open a mysterious gate for power, which has the side effect of unleashing hell on earth, essentially.

It's nothing that hasn't been done before. But as any avid RPG player knows (or anyone who takes to reading a good fictional story knows), it's not the plot alone, but the execution of the plot that counts. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, the cast and their trite dialogue does little to help this. The aforementioned villains are anything but exciting, aside from maybe Killer, but even he isn't really given as much depth as he could have been (a shame, too, as he had potential).

When I initially started Shadow Hearts 3, I wanted to give it a chance. The story did seem interesting initially, but the problem is that it -drags- for so long. I will admit that there's an interesting (and well done) plot twist near the end when the game comes full circle, but getting there is such a chore that it didn't have the impact on me that it should have.

Finishing Shadow Hearts 3 was not a linear experience for me. I played the game for awhile when I bought it initially, but as it was unable to hold my interest like its predecessors, it soon went back to the pile of half-finished RPGs. I'd periodically take it out and play it, but the horrendous pacing of the story made it hard to continue playing, particularly in light of all the other offerings I had, game-wise. It was just lacking that spark that kept me playing through the previous games: While I was curious to see how the plot would unfold in 1 and 2, I hardly cared in the third.

That, sadly, is a shame, when you consider the game from a gameplay standpoint:


If you've played any of the Shadow Hearts games, then you're familiar with the judgment ring system. For those who aren't, here it is in a nutshell: Every action in battle (item usage, standard attacks, and special attacks) are dictated by the use of this ring. The needle spins around the ring, and a timely press the X button in the correct hit zone determines success. So far as I can tell, this system is unique to Shadow Hearts (though it does make an appearance in Chaos Wars, but only because that game is a massive crossover). What's nice about this system is that it alleviates the idle approach to combat

..And requires a bit more of an active focus on combat. There are options to tweak the ring so that it's a little bit more forgiving. However, as a Shadow Hearts veteran, I decided to forego such.

..Which as it turns out, was a bad idea.

I'd mentioned before that From the New World had a refined version of the combat system, right? Certainly, there were tweaks to it that made it flow smoother than 2's (which was a significant improvement over 1's), primarily to the combo system, magic system, and wider variety of spells, as well as special skills.

To me, at least, it seemed like they tweaked the battle difficulty as well. Not only did the Judgment Ring seem to spin faster (making those accessories that slowed the needle spin much more appealing now), but the enemies seemed to be stronger, not to mention -smarter-

Lead Developer for the SH3 combat engine.

This was both a blessing and a curse. As a fan of the combat system, I praise anything that's an improvement over it. Battles were longer, battles were more involved, and battles put me more to the test! This should be a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, and I'm sure many RPG fans here can relate, if you've grown weary of the characters and story, and are just trying to advance the plot so that you can either get to the 'good' part, or just finish the game, then all of these combat tweaks can suddenly become annoying. While I can appreciate the changes in hindsight now, I'll have to admit that during the game, repeatedly missing the judgment ring (whereas I was able to hit it perfectly in 1 and 2) became pretty frustrating.

Yeah, sort of like this by the end of a session.

Beyond combat, however, Shadow Hearts 3 still maintains the plentiful character sidequests (often used for the best skills or ultimate weapons) that made the first two games fun. Oddly, much of them feel more crammed in the end than before, but I'll praise them for doing more to develop the characters more than the main plot did. Sadly, since it happens so late in the game, it did little to salvage my care for the characters. Adding to this misfortune is the fact that there's nothing that tops the hilarity of the Man Festival from SH2 (don't ask, just play, or YouTube it).

It involves this guy, meaning it can be nothing short of glorious.

Concluding Thoughts

In some ways, I realize that my post is unfair to From the New World. As I've noted, it's not a bad game, and improves on some of the areas of the second game. However, Shadow Hearts 3 fails to improve upon, or even equal the parts of the previous two games that were the most important: The plot and characters.

Could I recommend this game? That depends. As a standalone game, it's decent. If you're seeking to play the entire Shadow Hearts trilogy, then it might be best to play this one before the second (or even the first, if you can deal with an inferior combat system). Most likely, however, it you become heavily invested in and enjoy the plot of the first two games, then the third will likely disappoint you.

And perhaps that is the biggest tragedy: Had Shadow Hearts ended at Covenant, fans would have been left wanting more, yet (depending on what ending you consider), the second game could be seen as a fitting conclusion to the saga.

The fans desired more and we got Covenant. While a good game in its own right, it is truly unfortunate that the curtain of the series closes with the knell that is From the New World.


Anonymous said...

Lucia was my favorite character in Covenant. I find it sad how many people bitch about FTNW and still claim to be a fan of the series. I have played all of the games countless times but I find myself returning to FTNW more than the others. In fact, I'm on my 16th playthrough of it.

Ayn said...

Not totally sure if this is trolling but.. I think it's perfectly acceptable to criticize FTNW and still be a fan of the series. As I've noted in the post, it's not a bad game, and quite frankly, it improves on the battle system quite a bit. If you can distance yourself from Covenant, it has quite a few of the things that still make it a Shadow Hearts game.

It just felt like the character dynamic was lacking more: I liked Johnny quite a bit. Both Frank and Ricardo were pretty good too (his sidequests fleshed him out nicely) but the rest just felt.. kind of flat.

David said...

Played all of the SH games, including Koudelka on the PS1 which I personally think is a great game. I agree with you about FTNW, I really struggled to connect with the characters and the story just did not engage at all. I'm currently re-playing Covenant via emulator and having a blast, it definitely retains the fun-factor even when you're a gamer familiar with today's 'next-gen' systems as I am.

Real shame that FTNW was the best they could do to finish up what was a fantastic RPG series. Maybe it would of been better just ending it at Covenant after all.