February 19th 2015

More than a decade ago, just when we had bought a new PlayStation 2, we - that is my girlfriend Auri and I - were looking for games to play, and in Auri's hometown there weren't any big game stores that you'd expect from other cities. Instead, we paid a visit to a little electronics shop that featured a small section dedicated to games. There were the usual hits like Final Fantasy X, Tekken Tag Tournament and various sports games. Auri picked up a game that looked like this:

I basically said, "Why would you want to play this? It looks like crap."
She insisted on buying it, saying she had a good feeling about it.
Turns out, she was right. Shadow Hearts was amazing and keeps inspiring me to this day. Though I wouldn't realize that until a few hours into the game.

The first time we booted it up, I was confused. The game used 2D pre-rendered backgrounds, something I thought I'd never see again on the PS2, since, you know, it was the future and all. 2D backgrounds were so 1999.
Also, the game's initial battle surroundings looked kind of blocky, unfinished; I was used to Final Fantasy IX battles at this point, so my expectations were kind of high. The music drove me crazy with that annoying eerie MIDI voice.

However, I slowly started to notice the little details. The protagonist was able to transform into monsters with special powers, which was kind of like summoning creatures in Final Fantasy. Turns out, he's a total bad-ass, but still had troubles handling it all. The girl in his party whacked monsters with her book, which was hilarious.
The story was creepy, engaging and still didn't take itself too seriously. All in all, the game grew on me. But I discovered more that would make me fall in love with it.

The Judgement Ring

Usually, in RPGs you select an attack and the hero strikes the enemies, and in most games there's a hit chance, which means the computer rolls a die for you and if you miss, you miss. Not in Shadow Hearts!

The Judgement Ring gave you control over your luck and turned it into a skill-based mini-game. When you chose an action, the judgement ring would appear in a variety of forms. In the image above, you can see three yellow hitzones. The green line moves clock-wise (starting north) like a radar, and you press X whenever the green line is within the hitzones. Each hitzone you hit results in your character kicking the enemy with a combo (in this case up to three times). If you miss a zone, the combo gets only executed the amount of zones you hit. If you want to take a higher risk, you can try and hit the red edges, which would turn your attacks into critical hits. High risk, high reward! (Here's a perfect judgement ring run from Shadow Hearts 2.)

But that's not all. The Judgement Ring was used for all kinds of things, like opening chests and pushing buttons. It could be adjusted with equipment items, for example changing the speed of the green line or the size of the strike areas. Not only do you level up your character, but you yourself get better at hitting things the further you are in the game.

The Music

At first, as I described above, it freaked me out with its MIDI voices, but then I noticed, hey, the soundtrack's actually not that bad, in fact it's pretty damn good and catchy! It certainly fit the mood of the story.

The Protagonist's Transformation

This may seem like a really small thing, but it had a huge impact on me. You might have already seen it, but in the early stages of the game, when Yuri transforms he cries out in pain, holding his hands against his head. Look what he does near the end of the game.

Bad-ass! Imagine an MMORPG; you get a spell at level 1 with a really wild casting animation. Wouldn't it be better, if at level 50 you'd cast those lower level spells with just a snap of your fingers? And at level 100 you'd just casually wave a hand?

The Enemies

The monster designs were something entirely else too. I mean, look at these adorable abominations. Don't you want to hug them?

The Totally Serious Ghost Story

Close your eyes and hear for yourself.

Shadow Hearts 2

Shadow Hearts was one of the most charming game's I've ever played. The good news is that Shadow Hearts 2 was even better in almost every way (the music was still pretty good.) The bad news is that Shadow Hearts 3 was crap and the company got dissolved.

Oh well.