The Playstation 2 library is filled with obscure video games. In many ways it is one of the last major bastions for new IP if you think about it. Sure, we see new games and series all the time on consoles and on the PC, but the Playstation 2 was famous for not only growing its own franchises, but providing a massive library of unique games to play in the interim.
After all, it is a system with a massive 2000 plus game list. So, picking one for our retro review is just a roll of the dice in this case. Thankfully, that roll has shined on something favorable, as we focus on an underrated role-playing game, Shadow Hearts: Covenant.
Developed by the Japanese company Nautilus and published by Midway in 2004, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is sort of a gameplay chimera, incorporating turn-based role-playing mechanics with an “action” slant—a trait rarely seen in video games even to this day. What do I mean by this? Well, the core fighting mechanics utilize the “Judgement Ring” system that has players time their attacks on a spinning ring to connect against enemies. Similar to the timing attacks seen in the Paper Mario series, or more recently Double Fines Costume Quest, the point of the Judgement Ring is to time your attacks—for some characters up to five in one rotation—to maximize damage against enemies.
In practice, this simple mechanic makes the turn-based battles more involved. This is important historically, as by 2004, RPGs with turn-based mechanics were seen as anachronistic. Shadow Hearts: Covenant adding this wrinkle to their mechanics gives players more agency. To add to the complexity of the system, the Judgement Ring in Covenant comes in numerous forms for players, effectively creating difficulty levels based on skill. Combos, magic crests, and even a rudimentary physics system called “Hit Classes” add more layers to combat to grant a strategic element to the Judgement Ring, all of this customizing the ring to the needs of your parties effectiveness.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant is also the rare sequel to an RPG to have direct ties to the previous game. Continuing the story of Yuri, a fighter who can transform into different demon forms who saves the life of Karin Koenig, a German Army Lieutenant who is tasked to going to Domreny France in the early days of World War I. Together, the two, along with a growing party of allies, travel across War-Torn Europe to fight against a group known as Sapientes Gladio, a cult hell bent on world domination.
The story of Covenant is actually quite good, with a themes regarding religion, life, death and politics underpinning the personal narrative seen throughout the story. We also get a number of twists and turns in the title to keep players on their toes for the ride, although some of these twists are often telegraphed to the player—especially if you played the first Shadow Hearts title. In fact, the game’s best ending is a direct reference to the first title in the series, making Covenant a game that can lose its emotional impact if players have not played the first title. Of course, there is enough content in Covenant where that may not be a problem for many, but it is a noticeable distinction from other sequels at the time.
There are also other problems with Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which is the overall game and sound design. While the combat system is top notch, the rest of the game suffers from questionable design choices—fixed camera angles and environment puzzles ala Resident Evil (although rendered in full 3-D), high random encounter rates, and a lot of expositional cutscenes, at least in the early goings of the game, to explain what is going on are some of the major nitpicks players have to contend with. Covenant has a decent pace to its narrative, especially in the second half of the title, but the time it takes to get there is often too slow and plodding. The game is also terribly linear, although that was a staple for most of the RPGs on consoles at the time, so those expecting a choice of which road to take will be sorely disappointed.
Sound design, however, is one of the weaker elements of the game. Shadow Hearts: Covenant features some decent music and ambiance sounds, but some sound effects come off as very generic chimes and rings, which do distract from the music at times. Voice acting, however, is entirely hit or miss—some well-known actors such as Kari Wahlgren and Richard Epcar are well done. Others, especially the voice of Yuri himself, are either too bombastic or too flat to be taken seriously. Mediocre voice acting is a hallmark of Playstation 2 games, but in 2016 it’s hard not to notice when even talented voice actors are doing a poor job in an otherwise good game.
There really is not much else to say about Shadow Hearts: Covenant. As a standalone game it works like a charm—a deep and engrossing RPG with a strong cast of characters, a dark setting, and strong gameplay. The Judgement Ring is what sets the Shadow Hearts series apart from other turn-based RPGs, which in turn helps it stand out from other titles on the system. As the continuation of the Shadow Hearts series, however, Covenant works even better as a game and a narrative—a rare feat that few modern games can even achieve.
In truth, to get maximum enjoyment out of Covenant, playing the first game in the series is almost a must, but if you had a choice between the two, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a solid RPG that is able to stand on its own despite the ties to the original title. Many of the negatives may seem like nitpicks as well, but they do bog down the experience a bit, which in turn make Shadow Hearts: Covenant feel old compared to contemporary RPGs.
Of course, that is to be expected when looking back at older titles; after all, not every game ages well. Thankfully Shadow Hearts: Covenant is still a good game, one that anyone who owns a Playstation 2 or has a passing interest in role-playing games should definitely pick up and play sometime.
Despite showing its age in some parts of its design, the combat and storytelling seen in Shadow Hearts: Covenant continue to shine.