Shadow Hearts: Covenant

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was assassinated by Slavic anarchists, beginning the First World War. As the war begins, the Imperial German Army sends one of its officers, Karin Koenig, to the French village Domremy, where a monster is rumored to live. Indeed, a monster does dwell here, slaughtering Karin’s patrol, although she survives and sees it revert to human form. Thus begins Shadow Hearts: Covenant, developed by Nautilus (a reformed Sacnoth, which developed the original Shadow Hearts), which proves to be a solid sequel.

Like in the first game, all commands of Covenant’s battle system utilize the Judgment Ring, which features wide hit areas and narrow strike areas allowing for normal or increased effectiveness of each command depending upon where the Ring arrow is when the player presses one of the face buttons. Judgment Rings for normal attacks can have up to five hit/strike areas, with Attack Boosts increasing a character’s number of attacks. Normal attacks are also sundry, and can allow a character to knock down an enemy, send it into the air, send it flying across the field, or just hit it normally.

All but two characters, moreover, can equip Crests allowing them to cast magic, with Dominance Capacity Points dictating how many a character can equip. Each character also has unique abilities gained and enhanced through special means, such as Karin’s Sword Arts abilities. In battle, moreover, characters can move next to one another to perform a combo attack of up to four characters. If three of the four characters have successfully executed their abilities in the combo, then the fourth character can cast powerful Combo Magic to finish the assault. Combos, however, can juggle enemies around in the air, and players must consider their elevation before selecting abilities to further the combo, or otherwise the combo will break.

As with the first game, combat is easily one of Covenant’s high points, with battles being fairly quick and enjoyable, even if the game is a little easy overall (I only got a Game Over screen once, against the last boss). Granted, some sidequests can be a bit more challenging than the main quest, and in the end, the only real shortcoming of the battle system is the presence of abilities based on a character’s location but the lack of any means to move them to specific spots on the battlefield (characters only move near enemies when they perform normal attacks).

The interface is mostly spotless, with easily-navigable menus and easy shopping, where players ultimately gain the ability to get purchase discounts through Judgment Rings. An improvement over the first game is that obtaining a certain level of discount (up to 50%), only requires one Judgment Ring this time, and that players can buy and sell different types of items simultaneously significantly eases up shopping. The spacing of save points, where players can use tents to fully recover HP and MP, is hardly problematic, as well, and finding out how to advance the game is a non-issue at best. There are some minor issues with Crest management, but otherwise, gameplay outside of battle shouldn’t give players many problems.

Typically, creativity declines with each subsequent installment of an RPG series, although Covenant in many ways shatters this mold, featuring a number of unique tweaks to combat such as the ability to use items to widen strike and hit areas of each character’s Judgment Ring, Crests, combos, some interesting sidequests, a unique cast of characters, and so forth, that help it feel fresh.

The story is also another main draw to the game, picking up where the first game left off and decently weaving it with world history while introducing an interesting cast of characters, with some returning from the first game. There are some pretty decent twists and a nice dash of comic relief, though it can be easy at times to lose track of the plot, and the ending will definitely leave many players confused. Still, the story, setting, and characters are reasonable enough draw to the game.

The aurals, though, are perhaps the weakest part of the game. The soundtrack isn’t as strong as the first game’s, with few standout tracks, although many cutscenes are fully voice-acted, with the voicework hardly being offensive. One main problem, however, is that the spoken dialogue is often inconsistent with the subtitle dialogue, although both largely convey the same ideas. Overall, though, the music certainly won’t drive you to go out and buy the soundtrack, though the voicework is definitely above average.

The visuals, though, are definitely a step above those from the first game. The sequel makes the leap to full 3-D, with plentiful diverse environments and realistic character models, alongside full-blown FMVs. The texturing of the environments does seem somewhat rushed at times, and hair does occasionally seep through characters’ clothes, but otherwise, the graphics are more or less top-notch for the Playstation 2.

Finally, playing time, depending upon the player’s decision whether or not to embark upon the many sidequests, can range somewhere from forty to sixty hours, more if the player takes advantage of a New Game+. Overall, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a solid sequel, very well building upon its predecessor’s mechanisms and featuring enjoyable gameplay and above-average presentation. It’s sure to satisfy series fans, and, since it’s perhaps the crown jewel of the Shadow Hearts franchise, maybe newcomers to the series, as well.

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