A brave old world.
Last year, Shadow Hearts: Covenant
blew our minds by delivering a Playstation 2 role-playing game that wasn't
suitable for children. Covenant
wasn't just naughty - it was refreshing in the way it toyed with and broke typical RPG conventions. Where other RPGs feature the same character archetypes (the chaste girl, the bad girl, the silly old man, the irritating hero), Covenant
featured a dirty puppet who dressed in fetish gear made by a queer tailor in exchange for gay porn. Now that's
our kind of funky.
With that in mind, we couldn't wait to see what taboo waters Nautilus would tread in Shadow Hearts: From the New World, but to our dismay, the latest entry in the Shadow Hearts series pulls a Final Fantasy by having a new cast of characters run through what feels like the same exact game. It's still a quirky, fun RPG with a really strange cast, but it suffers from the same host of problems that marred last year's adventure. Don't believe the title - this game is old world.
Old and weird, that is. The primary romantic relationship features a skinny, crazy-haired teen named Johnny opposite a very mature blonde bombshell named Shania. It's almost impossible to imagine a relationship between these two, and the absurd promise of seeing one blossom is strong enough to keep you playing. The insane supporting cast doesn't hurt, either, including in its ranks a drunk, fat, talking ninja mafioso she-cat with a man's voice, her confusing and eccentric sidekick Frank (who turns random objects, like stop signs and marlins, into swords), a vampire who either gets fat, skinny, or turns into a pink bat depending on the caloric content of her victims, and a pretty-boy mariachi…to name just a few.
The story that binds these freaks together is difficult to explain even twenty hours into the game. The setting is 1930s America, but that has more to do with the odd, peripheral characters (you meet Al Capone and battle monsters with H.P. Lovecraft) than the actual plot. As far as we can tell, a cyborg is spreading malice around the country, and in its wake tons of strange monsters are popping up. The cyborg, it turns out, is being used by a creepy professor in his bid for evil godhood. You have to clean up the monster mess and kill the diabolical didact before he destroys the world.
It's the same core story we played through in Covenant, and you play it in much the same way: you go to a town, talk to people with funny names like "Perky Betty" and "Short-Tempered Tom," do favors for leads that will put you on the trail of the evil professor, buy herbs from queer leather fetishists, and ultimately dungeon crawl until you meet and beat some huge monster. Then you rinse and repeat for roughly forty hours.
Even within this pattern, there's some irritating repetition. When people ask you to do favors, you generally have to go back through an area you just explored and talk to everyone a second time. Quests should lead you to new areas, not force you to retread old ones. The same could be said of sequels.
At least the game isn't entirely linear, featuring an open map with lots of side-quests (basically one for each character). The kung-fu cat, for example, gets coins for dispatching enemies a certain way and can use those to fund his Kung-Fu movie. If you get enough coins, you'll battle a movie villain as the cat, and then learn a cool new power. Every character has something like this, and their quests lead to lots of boss battles apart from the main story line.
In Covenant, dungeons were especially problematic because there was no map – you'd take a wrong turn and have to go through three random battles before you got back on the right track. This problem has been solved in From the New World as you now have an extremely helpful map showing a dungeon's layout, doors and save points.
But that doesn't make the random battles you do encounter any less tedious. Every dungeon is thick with these unavoidable, archaic irritants, but thin on monster types; most only feature three. After a couple hours and twenty identical fights, it's easy to get into autopilot mode. The game is liberally sprinkled with save points, but it's easy to get into a lull where you aren't saving all the time – after all, nothing you're coming up against is even getting the chance to attack.
Until, that is, you run into a boss. Aside from the wacky characters, the insane boss fights are the best part of the game. They're long, hard, tense and ultimately rewarding as long as you're prepared for them. But since you have to trudge through random fights to get there, it's easy to enter a boss fight woefully unprepared. A save calamity can terminally injure your interest in this game.
Though to be fair, the nifty judgment ring and beefed up combat system make it plenty interesting. Every time you attack, a blue line moves around a dial; press X when the blue line is in a hit zone and you'll likely deal damage. You can customize the speed at which the line moves, the size of the zones, and even the number of zones. This ring system is also used when shopping (hit the zones and you get a discount) and an in-game lottery (hit a zone for a prize). Still, it would have been nice to see From the New World take the ring system in interesting new directions, especially considering the changes that were made instead.
The new 'Stock' system basically acts like a limit break meter for each character, but instead of busting special moves, a full Stock meter lets you bust combos, while a twice-full Stock meter lets you bust double combos. As long as you don't screw up the timing, everyone in your party gets to attack, making combos a great means of quickly blowing through random battles.
However, the new attack height system leads to some weird combo problems. Every attack applies to high, medium or low zones. Every enemy, in turn, is vulnerable in one or more of these zones. If you throw a high attack and the enemy is only vulnerable low, you miss. It seems simple enough: if an enemy is floating a low attack will miss, and if it's crawling a high attack will miss.
Things get trickier, though, when one attack in a combo unexpectedly knocks an enemy into the air and the next attack misses because it was directed at the ground, which the enemy previously occupied, breaking the combo. Attempting to decipher where an enemy will go through the esoteric symbols in the attack selection menu is probably possible, but not intuitive. As a result, combos are easier to botch and harder to understand here than they were in Covenant.
The same goes for the new spell system. For a character to cast a spell, that spell has to be affixed to a stellar chart, basically a collection of several different spell slots, and the chart must be equipped to the character. What's interesting is that every slot on every stellar chart is highly customizable. For the right price, you can lower the mana cost of any spell placed in a given slot, increase its effect, increase the level (potency) of spells the slot can hold, or change the slot's nature (healing, support or damage). The result is one of the most customizable magic systems we've ever seen, even if it's somewhat inelegant and unintuitive.
Aside from lots of weird charts and symbols, From the New World looks fine. The graphics are mostly mediocre, except when Shania uses one of her special powers. Then a high-quality cut scene of her magically shedding all her clothes kicks in, and that's kinda hot the first two hundred times you see it. But after that, you tend to stop using her powers because you can't skip the animations, which only make the random encounters last longer. The music is always interesting, but not always good. The sound effects are completely forgettable, and the voice acting is fine, if quite rare.
And so is Shadow Hearts: From the New World. While it doesn't take the series into any new frontiers, either in terms of naughty content or gameplay, it's still one of the most unusual and entertaining RPGs on the PS2 market. It's not a whole new world, but it is a fairly cool one.