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.
It didn't work out with Karin because she became Yuri's mom
Wonderful feature Kim. I do miss Shadow Hearts myself.
I loved the shadow hearts games
From the New World was fantastic. I played it twice, once just recently. I never did have the stones to try out the Technical Ring, and with the Normal Ring I'd have all of my characters with the 50% speed reduction attached. It really sucked when you missed that little sliver of red, leaving 1 HP on an enemy instead of finishing it off.
Covenant was awesome too, but I never beat it. I got to the final boss, was woefully underleveled, and never felt like putting in the hours to level up.
Kim I appreciate you giving such titles dues. I have a lot to learn about RPGs.
I never played the first one, but I loved the second one (I know, I'm doing it wrong), and I'm glad it's getting some recognition on this site. In fact, I think Covenant was the last JRPG I actually liked. I don't know if I grew out of it or if everything else just paled in comparison, but it's probably the former. I'm afraid to replay the game in case it doesn't live up to my memories of it.
I really miss this series. Sure it was dorky at times (Joachim Valentine) it had a pretty interesting story and group of characters. I only played a little of the first and I owned Covenant, but sadly My ps2 ruined two copies of the game and I just never picked it back up :[.
So glad that this little gem of a RPG isn't forgotten!
Shadow Hearts Covenant is and was my favorite RPG of all time. What makes RPGs beautiful to me is the feeling of actually seeing a book, or a story, that you get to control. The story should be entertaining, whether it's humor, drama, etc. SH:C provided all of this and more. It was, for me, the perfect example of what an RPG should be. I miss it, and would buy a PS2 just to play this game again.
I miss this game a lot, I wish I had been able to finish it before I traded it in and even still I wish I hadn't traded it in but when you no longer have a PS2. :( It was so much fun to play, I only played the second one though I had no idea there was a first one until I read your forgotten RPGs article. I believe it was the first RPG I had ever played and I couldn't stop playing it, it was very hard to stop playing that game always trying to see what was going to happen next before it was time to go bed!!
I have all three. In my opinion you can't go wrong with any of them, The Shadow Hearts series is truly the most underrated rpg series i know of. Let us all take 5 seconds to mourn. ;~;
I miss this series, it was amazing and outrageous. The story was good, very dark, but it kept you interested. I also loved the battle system, I have good timing and always felt accomplished when I went a full battle hitting the small yellow slivers of the wheel that would cause massive damage.
I bought Shadow Hearts and FFX at the same time and played Shadow Hearts first. It was a great game.
I always thought this series was compelling and a great example of what defines a great role-playing game. I have yet to experience it but I hope I can in the near future.
I really enjoyed the judgement ring because I was pretty damn good. I also really enjoyed the Berserk system because it was another aspect that made you have too keep track of your battle. I really wish that they would make another. Thanks for a great article.
Great game. One of my favorites of the PS2 era. This article has inspired me to find a copy in a used game store and play it on an emulator...