The lights are on
As I wrote in my Lost RPG Franchises article, the chances of seeing another Shadow Hearts installment are slim-to-none. But every time the series’ December anniversary rolls around (this year is the 11th anniversary), I reminisce about everything it offered role-playing game fans: intriguing, outside-the-box characters, a fun twist on history and its figures, humorous dialogue, and a timing-based battle system that shook things up.
Shadow Hearts never received the recognition it deserved, and I fear its strengths will be forgotten as time goes on. Therefore, I wanted to reflect on why Shadow Hearts was special and delve into the franchise’s history.
What It Was
Shadow Hearts made its way onto the scene in December of 2001; unfortunately it was overlooked due to another high-profile RPG, Final Fantasy X, releasing a week later. For those who gave Shadow Hearts a chance, it stood out by meshing Lovecraftian-inspired horror with alternate historical events, settings, and figures. Its sequel, Covenant, hit store shelves in 2004, upping the humor and wacky antics while still retaining a serious, emotionally-driven story. It stands as the best offering of the series. The first two installments followed the charismatic yet brash Yuri Hyuga, whose sarcasm became his trademark.
For its third entry, however, developer Nautilus felt it was time for a new cast. From The New World debuted in 2006, and while the lack of Yuri as a lead caused some growing pains, the comedic heart and soul remained alive. The third iteration also moved the setting away from World War I Europe and thrust players straight into North America during Prohibition, which was surging with gangsters like Al Capone.
The Koudelka Connection
Debate often surfaced over whether or not the PSone title, Koudelka, should be considered a part of the timeline. Various characters from the game make their way into Shadow Hearts, alongside references of Koudelka plot points. The influence is heavy throughout, especially while exploring a darker history, but it’s considered a spiritual predecessor, rather than a part of canon. Koudelka stayed vested in horror, whereas Shadow Hearts ventured in comical directions.
A Love Story
Alice: Yuri… do you regret it? I mean, coming this far.
Yuri: Regret? Haha! What’re you talking about! No way! You know, until I met you, I was living the life of a loser. I’m confident about what I’m doing now. I know that I’m needed. My power of fusion, which I thought was so terrible…is what allows me to protect you. Sometimes, I even think such stupid things like, boy, is this happiness? Ha ha ha! I sound stupid!
Disclaimer: This section contains some spoilers.
The first two entries centered on a love story between Alice and Yuri that would largely define the series. These two strangers, who couldn’t be more different, met at the start of the first tale and their growing adoration helped color the adventure and create an investment in their bond. After all, Alice did sacrifice her soul to save Yuri – it’s the ultimate love story. The romance’s execution not only made the ending of the first game matter, but it drove Covenant’s entire narrative. Here, Nautilus added a new potential love interest for Yuri in Karin, but Yuri’s heart remained with Alice. Still, this love triangle is one of the best – Karin was such a likeable character that you started to root for her, even though a romance with Alice was already established. It spoke volumes that Yuri couldn’t get over Alice’s impact on his life, even with somebody as great as Karin standing beside him. That’s a true soul mate.
Characters have always been integral to defining Shadow Hearts. Not only did the narrative do a marvelous job at building up interpersonal bonds, but it also offered some of the most distinct characters to grace RPGs. Shadow Hearts opened with the memorable anti-hero Yuri Hyuga. He’s the type of guy who speaks his mind – full of sarcasm and wit – but you love him for it. In fact, when you first meet him, he’s introduced as “Rude Hero.” Yuri also delivers the infamous line about the giant cat in Covenant.
The characters really didn’t hit their stride until Covenant, which started a trend of absolutely goofy protagonists contained within a dark tale. And you know what? It worked. They made the ride so much more entertaining while the plight set before them remained strong. Remember Joachim Valentine, the pro-wrestling vampire, and his desire to prove himself in the unforgettable Man Festival? How about Covenant’s take on Princess Anastasia Romanov? She has childlike charm, constantly sticking out her tongue and kicking Joachim when he acts stupid. Still, who could forget her school-girl crush on Kurando?
From The New World kept things interesting with Frank Goldfinger, a regular joe-turned-ninja, calling himself the defender of Justice. Despite the ridiculous costume, he does have some cred – he learned his ninja arts from…Brazil! But Mao gives Frank a run for his money (and also a hard time as a former student) as a talking cat yearning to become a movie star who just can’t get enough booze and incorporates alcohol into fights. Have you seen more creativity and absurdity infused into characters?
These off-the-wall personalities made the journey exciting with every line of dialogue. A big part of what I loved was the unpredictability of what would happen next with these characters; the lack of boundaries was integral to the appeal.
[Next Up: Fun with history and the Judgment Ring's appeal]
Email the author Kimberley Wallace, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.
Never played this.
The original Shadow Hearts was ok. Loved the battle system but the JRPG/Horror theme just didn't do it for me. But I enjoyed the characters enough to try Covenant, and man that's still one of my favorite JRPGS. Great characters, fun combat, decent plot, some trippy monster designs. I did play some of the New World one, but the entirely new cast and time period was jarring, and I never finished it.
Absolutely saddened that we will never get another entry in this series. Picked them up last summer (costly for a PS2 game) and it was worth every penny.
Never heard of it.
Oh, how I loved the first two games! Yuri and Alice were wonderful together and a great video game couple! I loved the Vampires, too. They were always entertaining.
The battle system is what really drew me in, though. I loved the Judgement Ring and how every turn was actually meaningful. Hitting a critical on all three hits from Yuri, or the critical area on a healing spell to save the day was such a rush!
I wish we could have more games in the series.
Hey, it was pretty sweet.
I've heard about Shadow Hearts before, it's on a long list of PS2 JRPGs I need to pick up sometime.
Shadow Hearts is my favorite JRPG of all time. It's a cult hit so most people I've talked to either love it or have never heard of it. It was always over shadowed by Square's offerings at the time. A shame really.
I like the first one the most even though the graphics and battle system were lacking, even for the time. It started as a PS1 game and then made into a PS2 title late in development. The story and music were great though and the CGI cut-scenes (all 4 of them) are still among my favorites to this day. Who knew an electric violin could sound so awesome.
Covenant improved on everything. The story isn't as strong but I like the characters so much, I don't notice. Still a great game but just a little too humorous for my tastes. DO NOT play Covenant until you play the first game. The good ending of Covenant was the first ending I can remember that really got to me. I really like the Karen character and wish she was more appreciated by fans of the series.
You can skip the third game and not miss too much. It's not a bad game, mechanically, and even better in places. It just trades horror for too much humor. The story is lacking and only a few of the characters are interesting. Most just feel out of place.
Shadow Hearts was the first JRPG I liked (if you don't count Parasite Eve). I rented it by accident and bought it a week later. I hated JRPG's until I played these. I own all three and are the only games left of my PS2 collection I haven't traded or given away. If you can find them, give them a shot.
ah... old memories.