Getting old sucks. There are obvious reasons to hate aging, like that whole death thing, but another ghastly side-effect is rarely mentioned due to its untold hideousness. I speak of outgrowing your favorite game franchises.
The PC offers some comfort to aging role-playing gamers with edgier material and titles intended for high-school graduates, but many of my friends, myself included, have been dying for any of our favorite console games to follow us into jaded post-pubescence. With every subsequent Final Fantasy title, we pray that there will be some difference, some sign of maturation, but instead we get more of the same refried Chocobo crap. I was beginning to think I would never enjoy a Final Fantasy game again.
And then I played Midway's Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and there was much rejoicing.
A sequel to 2002's mediocre Shadow Hearts, Covenant manages to address many of its predecessor's issues while preserving the self-conscious yet raunchy humor that made the original unique. Though the Shadow Hearts games aren't made by Square and don't actually have anything to do with the Final Fantasy characters or universe, Covenant looks, sounds, and plays just like a Final Fantasy game, from the random battles to the random airships.
While Covenant's story is typical in a coming-of-age, existentialist Japanese sort of way, it's set in a not-so-typical turn of the 20th century Europe and Japan during the first World War. Although your characters never really encounter the war, it's cool to run around France and hear Wales referred to as a place of strange magic and demons.
But don't for a minute think this is a serious plot dealing with war and peace, as Covenant is in practice a brilliant, filthy spoof of classic RPG conventions. For instance, you collect gay porn for a queer tailor so he'll make naughty outfits for your dirty puppeteer's sexy little doll, Cornelia. Even crazier is the fact that you can view each article of suggestive smut. Even crazier than that is the way the puppeteer's doll sticks her derriere in the air after winning a battle. Depending on what she's wearing, this ranges from mildly disturbing to laugh-out-loud disturbing to "awkward silence" disturbing. The sleaziest outfit is called "Dark Queen," and you actually steal it from under the bed of a leather-clad dominatrix named Veronica, who has the largest breasts in a video game, ever.
But Veronica's breasts aren't just big for the sake of capitalizing on teenage boob lust; they're part of the satire. Veronica is the stereotypical "woman with huge knockers," like Lulu in Final Fantasy X. There's also the annoying little girl, the hulking but stupid fighter guy, the shallow sage and an animal that is smarter than everyone else combined. Where the Final Fantasy games have become slaves to these conventions, Covenant makes fun of them all and turns out better for it.
What truly sets Covenant's gameplay apart from every other turn-based Japanese RPG, though, is the feared Judgment Ring. Whenever you issue a command to attack, use an item, or cast a spell, you'll have to spin the ring. This pops up next to the acting character, and a little dial that looks like the seconds hand on a clock begins to travel around the face of the ring. In order to successfully act, you must press X whenever the dial is within one of the highlighted areas. In some cases, each highlighted zone ends in a small, red sliver, and nailing it in these areas results in a more powerful action.
Every character has a unique ring, each of which is highly customizable. If you aren't feeling terribly dexterous, you can set your characters' rings to auto-ring, causing Covenant to play like any turn-based RPG. You also have Normal, Practice, Gamble, and Technical settings for varying levels of difficulty. You can even acquire items that will affect your ring's dial speed, hit-zone size, and added status effects such as paralysis and slow. For a game with huge dungeons and billions of random battles, the ability to change-up the combat experience is as essential as switching between Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper.
The ring isn't just for fighting - it's also great for shopping. As you spend more money, you'll gain something like shopping points. If you gain enough, you'll acquire skill as a shopper and be able to try for discounts and mark-ups. In order to receive a given discount or mark-up, you'll have to tap X as a dial moves through three high-lighted zones, just like in the battles. It's like Wheel of Fortune, but Vanna White is a swishy Frenchman named Pierre, and you're spinning for weaponry instead of cash.
To go with its Judgment Ring and ridiculous spoofy antics, Covenant is filled with a myriad of neat features. Our favorite was the ability to switch between parties on the fly. You can only use four characters in any given battle, but late in the game you have a dozen to choose from. So, you can set up three different parties and then switch between them any time with the L1 and L2 buttons. This feature makes it much easier to evenly distribute the XP and is also good for adding variety to the game's numerous battles. By the way, you'll need it.
No existentialist, Japanese RPG would be complete without an evil force hell-bent on ruining everyone's life forever, and in Covenant's case this evil force is a triumvirate composed of random battles, no map, and tiny zones. Covenant has some humongous dungeons, yet was made on budget technology. As a result, only a small portion of each dungeon can be rendered at any given time, leading to some excessive load screens as you wander about. Plus, most of these dungeon portions look exactly alike, making it quite easy to get lost.
To make matters worse, random battles constantly pop up as you wander aimlessly through the dungeons. By the time the battle ends, you will have completely forgotten where you were going. A regular map or the ability to avoid random battles would have been a life saver. Instead, your interest in playing will probably dwindle after your 600th random battle in a row.
When you finally do make it out of whatever dungeon you've been stuck in, you'll have to sit through at least a fifteen minute cut-scene. While the characters are compelling and the humor is unique, Covenant's pacing can be off. After a long dungeon crawl and a half-hour cut-scene, you'll probably be ready for bed, even if it's three in the afternoon.
With such long lulls in the action, you might like to head off in another direction and raise some giant chickens or herd cats for awhile. Unfortunately, Covenant is linear to a fault and has very few side-quests to choose from. While there is one little treasure hunting quest and a map-game known as Solomon's Key, the former just throws you into dungeons you've already beaten and the latter is a huge pain in the ass. Instead of multiple avenues to explore at any given time, there is generally only one thing to do: crawl through the next dungeon.
Fortunately, some of the dungeons look awesome and feature excellent music. At one point, you have to travel to an island in search of a flower for some benefactor, and you enter a palace of blown-glass. The entire dungeon looks like the inside of a crystal ball and the music fits the scene. This is especially impressive because Covenant's engine isn't particularly powerful. Enemies are usually blocky and pixilated, and at times the game looks very three years ago. Props to Nautilus for making some excellent visuals out of a weak engine, but next time, how about just making a better engine to begin with?
Covenant also features some good voice talent. All the major characters (except for Princess Anastasia) sound fine. Credit also has to go to the well-written dialogue and excellent comedic timing of director Matsuzo Mashida. It's tough to sound like a pro when you're supposed to put all your heart and soul into lines like "If the gaea energies converge, the spirit forces will consume the earth." Of course.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a pretty rare RPG, one that pokes fun at conventions while serving up a good combat system. It's funny, bizarre and, at times, downright filthy, precisely the kinds of things I look for in my Japanese games. Unfortunately, it's got other things I'm not so crazy about, like few sub-quests, constant random battles and excessive loading. But if you like your games sexy, this might be the perfect match.