Happy New Year. 2021 is finally upon us and it seems to be more of the same. Towards the end of 2020 I finally finished my playthrough of the Shadow Hearts series, including Koudelka. These are a set of PlayStation JRPGs based around Lovecraftian Horror. It was a series that I hadn’t played before so I was looking forward to getting stuck in, especially since it has such a devout following. My first stop would be to play the prequel to the trilogy, Koudelka.
Koudelka – Horrifyingly Wonderful
Set in Wales at the end of the 19th century, Koudelka follows the title character as she is drawn to an old mansion. There she will meet Edward and James and the three of them will set out to find out what is behind the monsters. The game plays more like a tactical RPG, as each battle takes place in a separate grid. Characters have to move into position before attacking but you have to be careful. If an enemy moves past an unconscious character, they can no longer be revived. After each battle, you’ll earn experience points to level up, as well as abilities points depending on what magic or weapons you used. Weapons can break so you have to think carefully about when to use them. As mentioned in Rocky’s Reviews, what makes this game stand out is its theming. The Gothic mansion, horrible underground and ruined church are all very reminiscent of survival horror games like Resident Evil. The comparisons are further enforced by the games tank controls. Something that would become a mainstay in the series is its multiple endings. There are two standard ones and a secret one, so keep an eye out.
I originally approached Koudelka knowing very little about the game. I knew it was a horror RPG and that it had a cult following but everything else was a mystery. At first, I was a little put off by the combat style. I’m not the biggest Tactical RPG fan, preferring traditional JRPGs but I carried on. The decrepit setting intrigued me, as most RPGs are set in fantasy worlds full of light and magic. While this game makes use of magic, it didn’t have the same whimsical effect of Grandia for example. I found the three characters likeable as each had their own conflicting personalities. It’s a good thing too as these are the only characters you’ll encounter for most of the game. The game also had a feature I’d never encountered before, Temporary Saves. These Temporary Saves were activated in certain rooms and you could only save in one slot. There were Permanent Saves but these were few and far between. As I explored the surroundings, I was drawn in more and more to its setting. The monstrous looking enemies, dark environments and the creepy music all kept me hooked. Despite being spread across four discs, the game is short and requires very little grinding. I ended up getting the “good” ending (which is technically the non-canon ending) but I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what Shadow Hearts would bring.
Shadow Hearts – A Giant Change
Shadow Hearts continues with the real world setting of Koudelka. Set just before the events of World War I, the game follows Harmonixer Yuri as he rescues Alice. The two then set out on a journey together to find out what the nefarious Robert Bacon is up to. The game ditches the Tactical RPG nature of Koudleka in favour of a traditional JRPG system. It does add a new unique feature, the Judgement Ring. As you attack, the Judgement Ring pops up and you have to hit certain areas of it to complete your action. This requires timing, especially if you want those critical hits. The game is split into two parts, the first taking place in China and the second in Europe. You are unable to move between the two areas so you have to make sure you have everything done before you advance the story.
To say I was surprised by the changes is a bit of an understatement. I welcomed the new battle system. I felt the Judgement Ring was an excellent device and once you got used to it, it could be devastating. The expanded cast was also a breath of fresh air. This time, there were six characters to choose from. The only thing I was a bit hesitant about was the lighter theme. It still has horror as its main theme but it is not as dark and broody as Koudleka. This is mainly because there are a lot more locations to explore. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any outright creepy dungeons, in fact the first area you come to is proper frightening, it’s just that there are more breaks in between. The game does feature some grinding but it’s nothing too heavy if you want to just finish the main game. I also loved all the bonus dungeons and bosses. They were a fun distraction and never felt laborious. As mentioned above, the game is split into two parts. I actually liked this mainly because of how the narrative unfolded. I thought it just worked really well. I enjoyed this entry but did feel it was starting to wander into JRPG trope area. However, I was not prepared for what Sacnoth would pull off next.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant – A Masterpiece
Set during the events of World War I, Shadow Hearts: Covenant sees Yuri return. This time he’s joined by a whole new cast of characters. Based on the “Bad Ending” from the first Shadow Hearts, Yuri sets out to once again stop an evil force using magic and find a way to heal his wounds (I don’t want to give any spoilers away). The game is set across two discs, breaking up the adventure between Europe and Japan. Unlike the first game, you can go between the two maps once you unlock an airship. The game keeps the Judgement Ring from the original game but adds in Combos, Stellar Charts and Ring Customisation. The game also features even more side-quests to undertake. Some will give more back story to your team, others will reward you with powerful equipment. The game now features four characters in battle but these can be switched in and out at any time unlike the first game.
Covenant really does take the best parts of Shadow Hearts and improves upon them. The new Combo and Ring Customisation took a bit of time for me to get used to but once I had them nailed down, I blew my way past most enemies. With the new team management system, I rarely had to grind. In fact, the only real grinding I did was for Souls to power up my transformations and even this was minuscule. Instead, I set up two teams. One for regular dungeon crawling and another for bosses. This meant I could level up everyone evenly. Also, with the new Stellar system, I had a degree of customisability when it came to battle plans. The one thing that caught me off guard was how cooky it was. The game still has some Lovecraftian elements but it dives head on into its zany side. This zany side can be described in one character – Joachim. Everything about him is bonkers from his weapons to his specials to his side-quest. And yet, it felt like a breath of fresh air. I was a little saddened they took a lighter route in tone as it made the game feel more generic but Joachim really does stand out. The other characters were also memorable from Anastasia (yes, that Anastasia) to Blanca (the real hero). They all came with their own special abilities and junctioned with the new Stellars, none felt like a waste. Then there’s the story. It was a joy to watch it unfold, especially that twist (and what a twist). It’s probably one of the best JRPGs on the PlayStation 2 and I’m sad I missed it first time around. Sadly, what came next wouldn’t quite live up to it.
Shadow Hearts: From The New World – The End of a Series
Gone are Yuri, Karin, Anne and the rest of the crew. This time, the adventure takes place in the Americas. Here we follow Johnny Garland and Shania as they attempt to stop Lady and Killer. The game features a lot of what Shadow Hearts: Covenant brought to the table – Ring Customisation, Stellar Magic and Combos. It also features a gluttony of side-quests to sink your teeth into. Graphically, the character models are the best in the series and the locations look wonderful. Sound wise, the acting and music are a bit hit and miss. The game has some links to the previous entries, mostly in side-characters and items. The game is again split into two parts but its less notable than the first two games as you’ll be going between North and South America quite a bit.
I was excited to play as a whole host of new characters as I felt Yuri’s story had been completed in Shadow Hearts: Covenant. This cast, however, was meh. I liked Shania, Natan and Ricardo but the others never really interested me. It’s a shame because I think Johnny and Hilda could have been interesting. The game fully embraces its wackiness, splitting out the “Joachim” character among its cast. Some may like this but I just found it stale, especially Frank. Combat wise, the game has a good foundation but it feels like it’s trying to over-complicate everything. And that’s my main issue with this game. Rather than keep the simplicity of Stellar Crests and Combos from the second game, it introduces Stellar Charts and Stock. Stellar Charts can only hold a certain amount of Stellar Magic and they need to be upgraded to hold more powerful spells. Stock on the other hand is needed to perform Combos or Double Attacks. I can see what they were trying to do but the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” really stands out here. The game also has a ton of collectables to find, from Snapshots to Ring Fragments to Cat Coins. Ring Fragments were in the previous entry but the other two feel like filler. In order to find Cat Coins, you have to grind certain enemies and you must have Mao in your party. Speaking of grinding, this game is the worst out of the series for it. Souls, money and experience all fell slower than the other games. Souls are required if you want the “Good Ending” but you won’t get an accessory to help until later in the game. Overall, it’s a decent JRPG but such a let down from Covenant.
I did enjoy my time with the series as a whole. With a lot of series like this, I can sometimes become fatigued. This happened when I played Yakuza last year and Final Fantasy a few years ago. Often I would take a short break from the series and play something else. Shadow Hearts was different. I pretty much just played through these one after another. That’s why the Rocky’s Reviews for these were so close together. What did you think of the franchise? What other JRPGs would you recommend that I may have missed?