When the subject of Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) comes up, I’m usually the odd one out in the room. Despite being a committed fan of the genre, even I have to admit that there are a few tropes that do get old after a while.
Random encounters? Ugh.
Turn-based combat? Sigh.
Stereotypical angsty male and delicate-flower female leads? Really? Still?
Shadow Hearts is a game that includes all of these things to some degree (that last one is a bit hazy, but I’ll get to that), but includes enough interesting mechanics and story beats to set it apart from its contemporaries. It tends to get overlooked, because as a fairly niche early PS2 title, it’s a bit difficult to find. It’s definitely worth a play if you can get your hands on it, though.
Before you even get to the battle mechanics in Shadow Hearts, you are dropped into the world, which already draws a bold line between itself and many other JRPGs. Rather than taking place in a vaguely medieval, non-specific fantasy realm, you, Yuri Hyuga, are on the Trans-Siberian railroad somewhere in China in 1913 as the game opens.
This is not to say that there aren’t fantastic elements strewn liberally throughout the game. There are warlocks, and half-vampires, and a girl who beats things up by hitting them with Bibles. It’s a pretty significant step away from your normal large-eyed anime children cavorting in fields until someone shows up to tell them it’s time to save the world, though.
I said that I’d get around to talking about the inherent stereotypes the main characters display, so here it is: yes, Yuri is still kind of an angst-ridden troubled youth with more belts and zippers on his clothing than he strictly needs. He’s got some pretty good reasons to be that way, though. His mother was killed by zombies when he was a little kid, he periodically gets attacked by the Grim Reaper, and he can fuse with demons. That last part is particularly important.
Yuri’s father, as you learn throughout the game, shared his powers, which Yuri unlocks as he progresses. Both are Harmonixers, meaning that they can fuse with different types of demons to beat the crap out of enemies. You can fight as normal Yuri, but why would you want to? Particularly when you get to the point where the more powerful demons can be unlocked, some of his fusions are seriously cool.
The other main character of the game is Alice Elliot, the aforementioned Bible-whacker. She generally tends to be a bit more problematic for me, as she doesn’t do a whole lot to break out of the “healer staying on the back line” role assigned to many of the leading ladies in JRPGs. There are other female characters who pick up that slack a bit, though, and the fact that she is an exorcist traveling with a guy who literally joins his body with those of demons does provide an interesting contrast, so I’m willing to overlook that a bit. If you like Aeris, you’ll like Alice.
If a game has an interesting premise, I’m willing to forgive some sub-par gameplay. Likewise, if the mechanics are great, the story doesn’t necessarily have to thrill me every time (hello, Final Fantasy X-2). Thankfully, with Shadow Hearts, I don’t have to make either of those sacrifices, because the gameplay is just as cool and unique as the narrative.
The key feature of the battle (and just about everything else) is the Judgment Ring. Essentially, this is a timing-based minigame that you play each time one of your characters attacks or casts a spell, and it consists of colored segments that must be hit in order for actions to be successful. The type of ring varies depending on the type of attack, but there is generally an option to do more damage or increase a spell’s effect by hitting a smaller critical area on the ring. Of course, if you miss, you will skip your turn completely, so it’s definitely a gamble you have to learn to manage.
There are hit points and magic points just like most other JRPGs, but you will also find sanity points, which drop as characters are hit, causing them to go berserk if all are lost. Some of my very favorite games, like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the GameCube, utilize sanity mechanics, and this is one of the first times I can remember seeing it in action.
You also need to manage your Malice as you battle, which lends another dimension to adventuring. Malice accumulates after each fight, and is basically the hatred of the enemies that you have vanquished collecting into a force that eventually breaks open a hellgate and summons the Grim Reaper. The only way to avoid this is to go to the graveyard in Yuri’s mind and fight monsters made of pure Malice.
Yes, he does have a mind-graveyard. Did I forget to mention that?
I doubt I’ll ever stop playing JRPGs, even if the formula they use does sometimes feel a little stale. I will always have a place on my gaming shelf for the truly great ones, though—the ones that break the mold, perhaps not completely, but enough for me to remember why I love the genre in the first place. Shadow Hearts definitely has one of those places locked down, and I recommend it without reservation.