The opening of “Shadow Hearts: Covenant” begins with
armed German soldiers congregating within the confines of a small
cathedral in the French village of Domremy. The stained glass
depicting the Holy Cross suddenly shatters above them and a winged
demon emerges. It descends upon the screaming soldiers, pouncing
from one kill to the next with feral quickness. In one brief
moment, the demon picks up a soldier and hurls him toward the
church door; all the while, the sorrowful-looking statue of the
Virgin Mary gazes upon the carnage with merciful eyes. The screen
slowly turns white and a young man is standing where the monster
should be. This action-packed prelude to “Shadow
Hearts” isn’t just eye candy; it is a kind of visual
poetry rarely captured in role-playing games.

It is soon revealed that the monster terrorizing Domremy is
really Yuri, the main character of the game. Yuri, is capable of
metamorphosing into a variety of creatures in combat: devils,
elementals and yes, even angels. Set at the beginning of World War
I, Yuri travels all over Europe in an attempt to find a cure for
the powerful curse that has been placed upon his soul. During his
adventures, he is followed by a ragtag team of interesting
characters, including a burnt-out puppeteer and a professional
wrestler that happens to be a vampire.

The battle system is representative of most role-playing games
except with a minor twist. A player’s success in combat is
gauged upon his ability to strike the shaded areas on the
“Judgment Ring.” If the gamer strikes it, he makes
contact. Strike the harder-to-reach areas, the character hits
harder. If the player misses shaded areas completely, then the hero
doesn’t hit the opponent at all for that turn. This approach
to combat gives the game a very steep learning curve. There is also
a combo system in which players can perform chain-attacks; if
completed successfully, then the last character in the combo will
have the opportunity to use “Combo Magic” — a
subset of high-damage offensive spells.

It should come as no surprise that “Shadow Hearts”
utilizes the analog joystick making the controls very similar to
other RPG’s on the market. However, while the game’s
music is adequate and on cue, the soundtrack certainly won’t
achieve record sales. Invariably, the music simply doesn’t
possess the kind of “wow” factor found in the
“Final Fantasy” series and other RPGs.

What holds “Shadow Hearts” back from true greatness
is its casual, lackadaisical approach to storytelling. Often, the
writers seem so preoccupied with making players laugh through the
game’s witty dialogue that the storyline often seems to lack
any sort of depth. For example, in order to improve a particular
character’s weapon, a kind of currency is demanded. He
refuses to do any work until the player finds him foil-covered
cards emblazoned with muscular, scantily-clad men. This kind of
humor becomes distracting when done ad nauseam.

A significant portion of playing time is devoted solely to
solving puzzles. In one part of the game, the player is given a
crash-course on the Russian alphabet for the sole purpose of
solving a rather tedious puzzle. Completing the puzzle correctly
causes the steel gates to be lifted and allowing the gamer entry
into other areas. The problem with this is an aesthetic one: If the
main character has the capability to turn into a winged, 10-foot
demon and can single-handedly bring down an entire airship, why
can’t he simply unhinge the steel gate with a flex of his
power? Again, it seems the writers of “Shadow Hearts”
do not take the art of storytelling and continuity seriously.
Despite its flaws, “Shadow Hearts” triumphs in being an
addictive and visually stunning game.

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

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