The end of a saga.
After the mixed reviews of the cardinal title Shadow Hearts, developer Sacnoth and publisher Midway joined forces again. This time, Shadow Hearts: Covenant was released to stellar reviews. Fortunately, I can count myself among those who had the opportunity to experience such a terrific RPG.
Picking up some time after the closing of the original Shadow Hearts, Covenant follows the young officer Karin Koenig as she and her German soldiers march through the small town of Domremy with an Inquisitor of the Vatican to oust a demon that has been sighted in the local church. From the battle with the demon – who turns out to be our old friend Yuri – the game catapults the player into a race against the Sapientes Gladio, a cult of powerful sorcerers with the goal of world domination. Along the way, Yuri, Karin, and Gepetto find a large group of companions set on saving the world. The plot shines in Covenant, rewarding the players with rich character development and a cleverly woven narrative. The ending of the game will leave you with emotions unusual in gaming – but in a good way.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant maintains pieces of its predecessor’s horror aspects (particularly in the opening sequences), but it takes more of a backseat position when compared to the rest of the game. The cool horror elements exist, but they’re not as noticeable. The World War I setting remains, which continues to lend to the unique scenery and fun atmosphere – especially when compared to traditional RPGs.
Gameplay runs very similarly to the original Shadow Hearts; it’s your standard turn-based combat with the addition of the fantastic ring system. For those who did not read my Shadow Hearts review or who did not play it, the ring battle system is a very distinctive and enjoyable part of the series. The ring system spins a ticker around a circle, and the object is to hit x in the colored portions of the ring. Depending on the character and equipment, there are generally two or three colored portions within the ring. Successfully hitting these colored areas result in hits or critical hits, meaning extra damage, bigger healing spells, or stronger magical attacks – this all depends, of course, if you can accurately land the ticker within the critical areas of each colored portion. Yuri also maintains the ability to transform into various beings like he could in the original title, although because of the curse placed on him in the opening sequence, he must re-enable himself to do so. In any case, the system is one of the strongest aspects of Shadow Hearts: Covenant‘s gameplay.
Sound within Shadow Hearts: Covenant is adequate. Voice acting is much improved over the original, which isn’t necessarily saying much. The original was so atrocious that Covenant could have thrown just about anything together and still sound better. That said, the cast of voice actors remain legitimate to this day, populated by some of the best active voice actors of present. And, when compared to games of its time (around 2004), Covenant had one of the best casts on PS2. The soundtrack, however, lacks a little magic. Town themes and music played during plot sequences are pretty solid, but the battle music – spun into electronica – doesn’t seem to fit the feel of the game. That said, the music didn’t detract from the experience, and some of the in-game music (excluding battle) set some fairly decent tones.
My biggest criticism of Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which, in retrospect is a minor issue, is that progressing through the world is achieved by moving an arrow on a world map. During that time of the PS2 era, games were ditching manual exploration of the world for traveling simply across a map, and Covenant was no exception. You still theoretically traveled the world even though map travel was brief. You were required to pass through set fields or dungeons to get to the ‘other side’ to progress, so, technically, your first time through was world exploration. In the present, many RPGs are already set this way or in similar fashions, and we usually don’t dock them for what used to be considered a lazy decision.
Looking back at Shadow Hearts: Covenant, I remember a game that was extremely fun, interesting, and emotionally engaging. Returning and new characters alike brought to life the exposition, creating a world that appeared to be very believable. While the horror elements of the first game were sublimely present, the overall tone shifted from horrific to a much darker setting. And for me, that worked a hundredfold. Luckily, a used copy of Shadow Hearts: Covenant looks to be available for $30 or less, where a brand new copy can be found for $80 on Amazon. If there is a game that I recommend on the PS2, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a top contender.