Should I Buy? – Shadow Hearts Covenant

Er, pft. Maybe? Alright, settle in folks.

Actually, before we get started there are some insights that the guys over to Penny Arcade have on this game:

Covenant is the sequel to the PS2 JRPG Shadow Hearts. It’s not a direct continuation of the original game’s story, thankfully, because that was a rather neat little narrative with no need for expansion.

It does take some of the mythology and concepts from the original game, as well as lead hero Yuri, to create a new tale all of its own. And yeah, it’s longer, there’s more characters, the combat’s expanded and better refined, there’s a decent amount of content outside of the main plot, but it’s a bit too sequel-y.

So the new tale sees German military officer Karen called on by Nicolai of the Catholic Church to help defeat a “demon” that’s been defending a town the German Army’s trying to capture. Turns out, said demon is actually Yuri. Nicolai curses him with the Holy Mistletoe, which seals his godly powers and will slowly kill him. Karen decides Nicolai’s not very nice and abandons her position, family and country to help out Yuri. Who has also made friends with an aging puppeteer with a living doll and an intelligent white wolf who also travel with him. No, they never explain how or why.

Probably my biggest disagreement with this game is its shift in tone. By the time you were half an hour into the first game, you were trapped in a village of demon cats, trying to find items for a magical rituals amongst human remains and it set a pretty consistent thematic through-line for the game. This one abandons a lot of the Cthuloid horror for a mix of kitsch comedy and more traditional world domination plots.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the superhero/overmuscled wrestling vampire guy and the hard gay shopkeeper/tailor twins that follow you everywhere, but the game never has great atmosphere. Which is weird, considering that the first half of the game consists of Grigori Rasputin (yes, that Rasputin) leading an ancient cult and seeking Godly power. This would have been perfect for the old Shadow Hearts aesthetic.

And I say first half, because the second disc basically starts up a whole new plot in Japan that spends a lot of time having a much vaguer connection to the first half than when the original game pulled off the continent switching thing.

Alright, on to gameplay. The Judgement Ring is back, now much more easy to customise and it even comes with a variety of modes to suit beginners or more confident players. Instead of only some guys learning preset spells, now there’s a bunch of Materia-like Crests. These also link into a side challenge where you try to arrange them in a grid based on passages from The Book of Solomon for reduced casting costs which is a neat idea if a lot of trial and consulting GameFAQS.

Each character’s unique skills are now gained through character specific sidequests. It’s a nice mix up, but it’s never made clear when or where the item you need is or when the challenge for it is open. Several times, the thing you need to do appears in a dungeon you’ve just cleared out with no clues. It can be a real Guide Dang It to be looking up a puzzle solution on GameFAQS only to realise you’ve now got to load up a save from two hours ago because you’ve missed out on a Wolf Bout for Blanca.

There’s a new combo system in place, where you make several characters act one after the other to rack up bonus damage. Though this is always the best way to handle a tough enemy, I could only ever be bothered to use it to take down bosses (where the added damage can be really substantial). Unfortunately, enemies can do it too, to devastating effect.

The characters are pretty cool, though it’s almost a shame you can only have four in combat. Do you want another reliable physical fighter that can take another few hits? Well then watch Gepetto try to be your primary healer, buffer and black mage! See how your party disintegrates when the boss takes him out!

That said, it’s not too big a complaint and nowhere near as limiting as the three character parties from the original.

The graphics are better and voice acted cutscenes are now standard, though the acting leaves a fair bit to be desired. Also, Yuri was much more interesting when he was a pervy, apathetic bruiser that only cared about fighting that was evolving into a dim but well meaning hero. Here, he doesn’t have a real character arc.

I don’t really think of this game as negatively as I’ve made it sound. It’s still fun, it’s just a different kind of fun. This is ‘solidly made but unspectacular’ rather than ‘flawed gem’. It’s Aliens to Alien. Same universe, different approach, bigger in scope, but somehow loses something in the transition. Not enough to break the deal, but enough to make you pine the simpler days when the attack animations were ridiculously stilted and there were creepy orphanages involved in unholy experimentations.

A simpler time, yes. A better time? Perhaps. Time for tea? Always. And a toast sandwich too? Oh, you’ve twisted my arm.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mitch Allan
    Dec 04, 2011 @ 20:21:29

    This still sounds like fun, and when I’m in the position to play PS2 games a lot more, will definitely give this one a go after the original Shadow Hearts.
    I’m looking forward to seeing how Yuri develops in game one, so the fact that he’s lost that arc in two is a bit of a shame.
    Thanks for the fab review (more detailed than usual, enjoyed it).


  2. jackcalico
    Dec 04, 2011 @ 20:27:34

    I should give no 1 to Willow next time I see her so you can play it. Ooh, ooh, and the original Ace Attorney! Which is just, ahh.


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