Role-playing games have been a major staple of console gamers since the days of the Super Nintendo console. It became even more popular with the release of the first Playstation which had as one of it’s biggest selling point the Japanese role-playing game Final Fantasy VII. This title from Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) introduced the role-playing game genre to many gamers who grew up on shooters and action titles.
Final Fantasy became synonymous with Japanese RPG, yet there were other rpg titles out there that were just as good if not better. One such title that flew under the radar, but definitely caught the attention of hardcore gamers during the early days of the PS2 was the Japanese rpg Shadow Hearts from Sacnoth. It didn’t have the polish and epic spectacle gamers were used to with the Final Fantasy titles, but it did bring a new take on the time-tested rpg genre. Sacnoth decided to use horror as the theme of it’s title instead of scifi or fantasy and it’s that artistic choice which made Shadow Hearts such a unique title and one still beloved by it’s many fans.
Set in an alternate reality during the early 1900’s, Shadow Hearts follows the adventures of Yuri Hyuga and Alice Elliott as they attempt to solve the mystery of why the latter was being pursued by the historical figure Roger Bacon (who history says wasn’t just a learned Franciscan friar but one of the preeminent philosophers of his time). The game takes Yuri and Alice through several cities in China and Europe and most of them somewhat heightened-versions of their real counterparts, but where mysticism, the supernatural and folklore have become somewhat accepted.
The game doesn’t flinch in portraying not just the horrors of war, but of the shadow world just bubbling beneath the surface that involves demons, vampires, sorcerers and zombies. the main protagonist, Yuri Hyuga, even unlocks greater abilities and powers by absorbing the souls of enemies he has killed and entering a sort of personal “Dream Realm (or Nightmare depending on one’s interpretation) where he must battle personal demons to gain their powers. It’s definitely not something that Final Fantasy players have been exposed to in the past and I think it’s one major reason why the game appealed to some gamers who wanted something new in the Japanese rpg scene that was becoming dominated and homogenized by the styles pushed Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise.
Shadow Hearts had a unique way of doing combat during the game: The Justice Ring.
The Justice Ring combat system was a nice change of pace to the usual turn-based battle system used in most Japanese rpgs. This battle system was still turn-based, but every action outside of defending was affected on how well the player hits his mark on the rotating Justice Ring. This kept the player from just picking an action and seeing what happens, or even worse, just button mashing the attack action to try and win fights. The Justice Ring system kept the player involved throughout the whole battle. Sometimes perfect use of the Justice Ring was a must to fight and succeed against certain bosses and situations.
Shadow Hearts might not have the pedigree of the Final Fantasy series, but it was a nice change of pace from the the typical scifi-fantasy that series re-used over and over to the point that they became a video game trope that was seen by some as a negative rather than a positive. The game itself wasn’t perfect by any means and had more than it’s fair share of glaring flaws. The dialogue was pretty laughable at times though never to the point that it broke the game’s serious and ominous tone. The graphics, for a PS2 title, was very underwhelming especially when compared to the Final Fantasy franchise.
Yet, despite all its warts and flaws, Shadow Hearts remains one of the more unique rpg gaming experience of the early 2000’s and it became popular enough that it would spawn two more sequels that would explore the alternate reality the franchise was based on. I’m all for the scifi and fantasy worlds that most console rpgs have been using as their templates, but once in awhile I’m reminded that rpgs could also have fun in the horror realm and Shadow Hearts helped make that deviation from the norm happen.
On a sidenote, this game also had a great soundtrack from Japanese composer Yoshitaka Hirota