It’s 1913 and World War is approaching.
You are on a train travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
You’re trying to rescue a girl you’ve never met.
Your arm was just cut off by monsters controlled by a sinister man in a top hat.
You’re here because you’re following the instructions of the voice in your head.
This is Shadow Hearts.
I have had a frankly obsessive fascination with this game. I heard a lot about and finally one summer with a lot of time to kill – I watched the entire game on YouTube. Since then, I found a much better place to enjoy the game, and did so a second time.
The reason I find Shadow Hearts so interesting is because it is set in our world at an interesting point in our history, with our historical figures and our locales.
Yet, it’s still a madcap JRPG filled with magic, monsters and a lot of the usual tropes and clichés.
Summary – You need to read kethryveris’ Let’s Play Shadow Hearts: Because the Voice In My Head Told Me To
It’s a top quality Let’s Play. No ridiculous in-character prose, just funny and occasionally insightful commentary around well put together and clearly-presented screenshots and text. (it’d be perfect if there was a bit more consideration for referencing continuity – the reader might not remember that one guy from 50 updates ago) Extra credit to kethryveris because I robbed all these screenshots from that LP.
(If you’d like more reasons about why you should bother, or if you just want to look at some pretty pictures take a look below.)
An RPG set in the “real” world is a great thing in itself. (the terrific Parasite Eve is the closest approximation I can think of – I haven’t played that either)
But to have it set during a period of history that I’m fairly certain no other game has ever been set in is something else altogether.
I just think it’s brilliant to be in real-world cities, rendered century-old, and explore them in traditional RPG fashion. Talking to NPCs, shopping, sidequests, etc.
The first half of the game takes place across a stretch of Asia, and the second half takes place all over Europe, including good ol’ Britain. From Shanghai to Wales.
The whole thing has a vaguely educational quality as well. I’d never heard of Rouen before I watched/read Shadow Hearts.
As well as places, the story brings in historical figures and politics. The story doesn’t directly concern the events of the time period, but the political background and lead up to the first World War all add a unique and considerable texture to the game.
(one of your party members is the freaking Mata Hari – in the form of a stylish, trenchcoated, anachronistic and female James Bond)
Independant from the historical and real world perspective, the story itself is quite interesting. I’d rate it as a pretty good RPG fable overall.
Unfortunately it does have a lot of problems. The villain, for example, is stopped from being sympathetic and brilliant by the fact he’s just a complete prick for no real reason. The story is also guilty of almost every RPG cliché you can find on TV Tropes, while simultaneously managing to bring considerable originality to the table.
The pace is all over the place and constantly falls back into side diversions, particularly in the second half.
On the other hand the characters you can have in the party are great. From the aforementioned Margerete (the Mata Hari) to the flamboyant vampire to the kooky old man to the somehow-interesting damsel-in-distress-white-mage.
But the spotlight is on the main character – Yuri. He’s got the depressing past and life of your average JRPG hero. But he’s no kind of emo.
Yuri has his dark side and his literal demons to confront, but is constantly full of attitude and mouthy desire to kick ass. It’s all in an ultimately likable (as opposed to ’90s cartoon mascot) kind of way. His unique character also has some of the more refreshing ideas in the game like his simplistic goals and the idea of a hero who just follows the voice in his head.
The gameplay follows a curious formula. It’s mostly linear, occasionally branching for optional dungeons and sidequests. But the end of the game presents you with a Chrono Trigger-esque bevy of character-related sidequests.
The pre-rendered backgrounds (you know, those magical, custom made 2D backdrops that made Resident Evil and allowed Grim Fandango and the Playstation Final Fantasies to age so gracefully) are gorgeous. Despite the battles and character models arguably looking like a late PS1 game (SH is on the PS2), the whole game drips with atmosphere.
The atmosphere in the game is mostly dark and survival-horror-esque. The way magic, monsters and’ malice’ function are often about suspense and strangeness. Sequences with bathroom mirrors, shapeshifting, mysterious voices, a mental asylum, a place known as the “doll house”, etc.
The general horror vibe is to be expected when Shadow Hearts is technically a sequel to Koudelka. An intriguing, but flawed Playstation game which was more survival horror than RPG.
Though at the same time the game manages to have a pretty big tongue-in-cheek comedic side to it. Yuri’s mouthing off, Margerete’s anachronisms, and plenty of other little oddities.
The music isn’t anything special. With the exception of the brilliant track Alice.
It loses the pre-rendered backgrounds and a lot of the dark atmosphere with them. On the other hand it’s funnier, but the plot goes absolutely mental. The characters are kind of terrible as well. (except Joachim the gay vampire/wrestler/amateur superhero – I am making nothing up)
It is worth noting that the sequel has more worldly exploration of the WWI-era, from Russia to Southampton. So it’s still somewhat curious.
Oh, random trivia: Both games were translated by Jeremy Blaustein, who translated the original Metal Gear Solid. (I think he also did Silent Hill 2)
I have no idea why the games are called Shadow Hearts. They are most definitely not Kingdom Hearts’ goth brother.
Anyway, there’s more about why it’s worth getting to know about this game, but I don’t want to spoil anything and I’m all ranted out. The point is if you haven’t already, if you can’t or if you don’t want to PLAY Shadow Hearts – then you must read it.
(I’d also less enthusiastically suggest reading kethryveris’ ongoing Shadow Hearts: Covenant LP at the Something Awful forums. I’ve been stalking that thread for mooooonths. The LP is written just as well, but the game is not as good.)