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Review – Shadow Hearts: From the New World

The third and latest installment in the critically acclaimed role-playing game series, SHADOW HEARTS: From the New World takes place in the United States during the Great Depression. The Story Begins as Johnny Garland, a young 16-year old detective who lost his father, sister and his memory in an accident, accepts an investigation to track down a criminal suspect who has escaped from custody. As he closes in on the suspect, Johnny witnesses a supernatural occurrence – a huge monster appears from a green light known as a “window” and swallows up the criminal. Apparently, a series of horrific incidents similar to this have been plaguing cities across the nation. Johnny’s female counterpart is 21-year-old bounty hunter Shania, a Native American who is searching for these mysterious windows, determined to close them using her spiritual powers. Together, they travel across North and South America and are joined by a colorful cast of characters.

The box art for this game is fairly misleading. Despite her minimalist approach to clothing, the distraught Native American princess in the arms of Johnny Blue-Eyes is a much more capable fighter and interesting character than he is. She wields twin tomahawks, can fuse with the spirits of ancient totemic deities, and is hell-bent on taking revenge for her slaughtered village; he has a pocket knife and a can-do attitude. But, because this is a JRPG from the PS2 era, the feather-haired teenage male must cradle a vulnerable, highly sexualized female. It’s the rules.

Once past the silly cover, however, one finds some unexpected surprises that lift this game out of the sea of tropes common to JRPGs from this period. Yes, some of the old standbys are still there (random battles, turn-based combat, status ailments, lolitas), but there are enough surprises to keep things interesting. For one, the cast of party members is absolutely bonkers. In most PS2-era JRPGs, the characters fall within a fairly narrow band of personality types: broody badass, plucky youth, naive girl-woman, etc. This game has a few (see Johnny Blue-Eyes), but the others more than make up for the cliches. What do a mobster mariachi guitarist, a chubby vampiress, a delusional German ninja, and a drunken kung-fu master who is also a giant anthropomorphic cat have in common? If you answered, “They all chew on the edges of my fever dreams,” then you must have been one of the developers responsible for this title. Still, for all the nonsequiturs involved, the batshit party gives a lot of personality to the story.

Really, they would bring a lot of personality to any event.

Another refreshing deviation from the norm is the setting. No pre-industrial castles, steampunk cities, or reimaginings of historic Japan for this title; the party is planted square in the middle of Prohibition-era New York and traipses all around the Western hemisphere on the trail of world-destroying antagonists Lady and Killer. Awkward names, I know, but they sort of make sense in context. Actually, “Lady and Killer” might not be a bad title for a book. Anyway, hopping from the Grand Canyon and Roswell to Chichen Itza and various Pacific islands makes immersion in the world easy.

The battle system, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. It is simple and straightforward, which is nice, but it also carries some flaws inherent to the Shadow Hearts series. The biggest, shiniest pimple on its face is the sanity point system. Each character has a sanity meter that drains as they are attacked by enemies. Once it hits zero, the character goes berserk, randomly selecting abilities and targets until they are killed or some sanity is restored to them via spells or items. Thus, one must waste valuable combat turns making sure the characters don’t snap and self-immolate. Had the sanity system any grounding in the story, it might be more tolerable; lacking that, it’s just an irritating chore.

Some of the boss battles are also absurdly cheap. I’m all for a tough round of fisticuffs; it gives me cause to satisfy my inner grind whore. What I don’t appreciate is a boss with an automatic IWIN button unless you’ve geared specifically against it. This sort of thing doesn’t happen until late in the game, but it still happens. One boss has a “petrify all” spell that is in no way announced, meaning you will most certainly lose your first attempt unless your party just happens to be wearing the anti-petrify trinket. Another’s regular melee attack has a fairly good chance of an instant KO. Very few (certainly no more than half a dozen) enemies in the game have this ability, so protecting against it seems useless. Then you fight this boss, spend half an hour trying to compensate for his cheap move, and end up redoing the fight anyway.

Bastard still got what was coming to him. Curvy Hilda takes no prisoners.

Overall, though, the game is fun, funny, and endearing. Fans of Okage: the Shadow King should certainly give this title a shot. The main quest isn’t too long, either, so you’re not signing up for a Xenosaga-esque commitment by picking it up.

 

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