If your main criteria for playing a role playing game (RPG) on the PlayStation is that it should have the words 'final' and 'fantasy' somewhere in the title, then you're missing out on some top notch games. The latest RPG to hit PS2, Shadow Hearts Covenant, is an excellent example of the genre, and deserves to find a wide audience within role playing aficionados.
The storyline of Shadow Hearts Covenant is typical RPG fodder - humanity is in peril and it's up to you and your small band of heroes to stop it. Set at the start of World War I, the game takes players through a mix of real and fictional locations in Europe and Asia on a quest to stop an evil secret society (are they anything other than evil?) from taking over the world. You'll have the ability to control a quirky cast of characters, including the demon morphing Yuri, puppeteer Gepetto and hyper-intelligent wolf Blanca.
What Shadow Hearts Covenant has over other RPGs is a healthy sense of humour and a tendency to poke fun at itself on occasions. It's not laugh out loud funny like The Bard's Tale, but its sly character humour and irreverent enemies (like a giant toad and kitten, for example) can't help but bring a smile to your face. And let's face it, any game which has a vampire turned pro wrestler turned superhero as one of the main characters deserves some applause.
But that's not to say that Shadow Hearts Covenant is all rainbows and lollipops. The plot does become quite serious and dark at times - couple this with its humour and you've got a game that has an extremely balanced tone overall.
If you've played any RPG during the last decade, then you'd be instantly familiar with the overall game mechanics of Shadow Hearts Covenant. Players travel through fixed camera environments in the game, interacting with other non-player characters and objects via the X button. Players always move around in small teams made up of several characters, although you'll only see one on screen at a time (that is, until a fight starts). Enemy battles randomly occur as you travel through these environments, with the screen 'breaking' in a shattered glass effect to signify that your party is under attack.
Battles are turn based, and pits your team of up to four characters against numerous enemies. As with any standard RPG, players select what they want their character to do (attack, use magic, defend, retreat and more), but where standard RPGs carry out the commands automatically, Shadow Hearts Covenant makes players use the Judgement Ring - perhaps the game's most interesting feature.
The Judgement Ring is a circle with several highlighted coloured zones and a rotating dial. When executing an attack, players need to press X as the rotating dial passes the coloured zones to make a successful strike. Miss the zones and your attack isn't carried out.
The Judgement Ring adds a welcome level of skill to the game, as your reflexes need to be honed to ensure your characters are making the best attacks. Characters often have more than one coloured zone for multiple attacks within the same turn - but if you miss the first one your entire offense is shelved. The Judgement Ring's coloured zones also have a thin sliver of red at their edges - stop the dial at this exact point and your attack damage is increased. And it's not only during battles that the Judgement Ring is utilised. It pops up when you want to use some items, and even in shops when you want to negotiate a discount. Don't worry if you're timing challenged, however - you can set the ring to automatically hit the sweet spots, although this will deal out less damage.
As with any RPG, there are literally hundreds of items to find and collect throughout the game. Some are your basic weapons or armour upgrades, but there are plenty of others that will help you customise the gameplay to suit your needs (probably the most helpful are items which can expand the coloured zones in the Judgement Ring, increasing your chances of a successful attack).
Graphics in Shadow Hearts Covenant aren't outstanding, but they're solid and convey the game's unique blend of turn of the century design and fantasy elements rather well. The voice acting is passable, and the game's music is remarkably catchy, even after repeated hearings.
If you're a fan of the Final Fantasy games but have steered away from other RPGs for a fear of lack of quality, then you're missing out on a great experience with Shadow Hearts Covenant. It's certainly not breaking any new ground, but it does its job admirably and is an overall solid role playing experience.
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