Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PS2)

World War I. A German soldier named Karin Koenig has been sent to a small church in Domremy to take care of a demon. The demon demolishes her forces but inexplicably leaves her alive. When Nicolas “Nicolai” Conrad, a priest, tries to exorcize the demon, the beast turns into a young man. But the exorcism does succeed in placing that man, Yuri, under a curse. And Nicolai has dark secrets of his own. Teaming up with Yuri and a small band of others, Karin pursues a cure for Yuri and an end to the evil forces gathering in the world.

The story is incredible. The only reason I can see for its relative anonymity is that FFX and FFX-2 were both released within days of SH and SH:C. The people who wrote SH:C realized something I think the Final Fantasies are starting to lose: it’s ALL about story. The characters are quirky, believable, definitely unique, from the vampire wanna-be pro wrestler to a white wolf that wants nothing more than a little girl to spoil him again to everybody else. The plot is complicated, and unlike every Final Fantasy I’ve played, discards the notion of a main villain. The people Yuri fights aren’t always his enemies . . . and when you’ve beaten the last boss there’s no sense of “he FINALLY died!” as with bosses like Sephiroth or Sin. The story is, however, a great deal more mature than the Final Fantasies, which may turn some of you off. I happen to like the willingness to deal with tough issues, such as Yuri’s inability to cure himself of the curse he receives at the beginning of the game and Karin’s doomed romance. She can’t help falling in love (which is pretty obvious from the intro clip), but Yuri can’t forget the one woman he did love, who died at the end of the previous game. Given that, neither of the endings are really good or bad (although the “good” one would probably mean a lot more if I had played the first game).

It isn’t quite all that depressing, though. The series has a really strange sense of humor, which worked well to balance out the really dark stuff. Joachim has a habit of picking up random junk to use as his weapons, which really horrifies Kurando when he steals a clay idol that’s been guarding their village for centuries. There’s a particular weapon called the Dark Tower, which looks like a little skyscraper, and is described as having lots of little people inside scrambling to meet their deadlines, which makes them really ferocious.

Sidequests are one area I want to completely finish, because they tend to reveal a lot more about the characters that you’d otherwise miss. The quest for Yuri’s ultimate fusion, for example, forces him to confront his memories of his father. On the other hand, the sidequests ARE optional. If you’d rather just finish the game as fast as you can, go ahead. There’s no need for ultimate weapons, armor, or accessories in order to beat the final boss.

Gameplay was nice. The battle system was more than just button-mashing, which made even routine battles a little challenging, but it wasn’t so far into the action side that spells and strategy suffered. In a very nice change of pace, I found myself always completely ready to handle the bosses without needing to go back and train. The fights might’ve been a little tough, but simply walking around completing the tasks to get through the dungeon was always enough to prepare the team for the battle to come. The shops give you a card that you can use to get discounts on items, although if you can’t seem to hit the ring you can always buy things full price. One area that annoyed me was the complete lack of inns. Tents are really expensive at the beginning of the game, and it’s rare that the game will automatically heal you after a major boss. Not that money was a huge problem. Once I stopped trying to equip all eight of them with everything, it got a lot more doable, and by the end of the game I had so much money I didn’t know where to spend it all.

The best part of the gameplay, though, is the fusion system. Yuri can single-handedly take whatever role is needed, as he gains fusions which specialize in tanking, healing, etc. You also have a great deal of choice in how to unlock those fusions (especially the ultimate forms) which means it’s easy to prioritize the most useful ones. Other characters use crests to equip spells. Although characters like Gepetto who are meant to be mages have a higher limit, spells can be swapped onto any character with the room. So you’re not stuck using a particular character just for a particular ability, although the special abilities are unique to each character.

A few of the nice features are a library that lets you view every monster you’ve ever fought (complete, if you’ve snapshotted them, with detailed information about their stats, item drops, and immunities), and all the major characters you encounter. There’s also a nice Help section with information on nearly everything in case you forgot the tutorials or need a refresher.

So are there any downsides? Not much within the game itself, that’s for sure. You’ll have a hard time finding the second game, and a much harder time finding the first. The third has nothing to do with Yuri and is more of a loose sequel. As someone who played only the second game, it makes sense, but would probably be a lot richer if I’d played through the first one as well.

(After I originally wrote this review, I did play the first game, and it does make more sense now, but there isn’t much gained except an appreciation for who Alice is as why Yuri is so in love with her.)

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