Frank Goldfinger is a ninja. Not a regular ninja, you see, but a middle-aged American who learned the ways of ninjitsu from a village hidden in the jungles of Brazil. He wears a gigantic, unwieldy oni mask on his chest and ridiculous fishnet sleeves. He talks in a goofy gaijin accent, substituting English words like "me" and "you" for the normal "watashi" and "anata". He obtains new weapons by finding random objects (cacti, signposts, gigantic fish) and sticking a hilt in them, wielding his unfound blade with oblivious, childlike abandon. He also has a partner named Britney. She’s blonde, and is also a ninja.
Shadow Hearts: From the New World is weird. Really weird. But if you’re one of those folks who are tired of the boring clichés that tend to permeate the RPG genre, it’s also one of the most refreshing games released in a long, long time.
The previous Shadow Hearts games took place in Europe amidst World War I. As the title suggest, Shadow Hearts: From the New World takes place in the Americas, about fifteen years after its predecessors.
The hero this time is Johhny Garland, a 16-year old orphan who has recently set up a detective agency in New York City. As the story begins, he’s on a job when he gets attacked by a strange monster that appears from an otherworldly portal. Before being unceremoniously devoured, he is rescued by Shania, an Indian princess who has been hunting down these demons with her stately partner, Natan. The group joins forces to uncover the mystery of these monstrosities, all of which seem to be related to the mysterious appearance of a blue haired girl named Lady. During the course of their adventure, they’ll rescue Al Capone from Alcatraz, visit a jazz bar in Chicago, get kidnapped by The Pirates of the Caribbean, rescue some "aliens" from Roswell and explore many, many South American ruins. Along the way, you’ll also meet several traveling companions – other than Frank the Ninja, there’s Mao, a gigantic cat who’s a mob boss by day and movie star by night; Hilda, a gothic lolita vampire with a weight complex; and Ricardo, a guitar wielding marachi player who appears to have stepped out of a Robert Rodriguez flick. The writers clearly threw all sanity to the dogs, because anyone remotely familiar with American history will be able to point out fallacies and anachronisms, but that’s really part of the zany, madcap fun.
If all of this sounds like a great departure from the previous Shadow Hearts games – well, it kind of is. While this is the third in the series, you’ll notice that there’s no "three" in the title, which almost suggests that the developers meant this to be a side-story. The previous games had a goofy sense of humor that teetered between "serious" and "absurd" at a moment’s notice (anyone who’s played Shadow Hearts Covenant will relate the many subquests regarding the collection of gay porn), but From the New World crosses the "ridiculous" line with even more regularity. Indeed, many of the horror aspects have also been toned down – while its predecessors were both rated "CERO 15" in Japan (and given M ratings by the ESRB in America), this is one is rated "CERO 12", so the game is definitely less visceral. However, the game doesn’t keep up the goofy pace forever – once the main characters are assembled, the jaunt across the United States turns into a belabored excavation of puzzle-filled South American and Pacific ruins. While the plot turns significantly darker here, it also loses much of the imagination that makes the first part of the journey so memorable – what’s more interesting, exploring a Las Vegas casino full of 20s era mobsters or hitting switches in a dank cave?
Still, as boring as the dungeon crawls are later in the game, at least some of them look gorgeous. While the graphics engine is the same as Shadow Hearts Covenant (plus an optional jaggy filter), the designs of some of these places are amazing. From a replication of Times Square to the Grand Canyon to the green fields of Machu Pichu, there are some tremendously gorgeous landscapes. The characters models all look excellent too, especially the battle animations. Despite the goofy nature of some of the characters, the enemies still maintain much the hideous, Lovecraftian influence of the other titles.
Which brings us to the true crux of any great RPG – the battle system. The hallmark of the Shadow Hearts game has been the Judgment Ring, a timing based system to determines how powerful your attacks will be, if you hit at all. While initially off-putting to conservative RPG purists who prefer their fights to be strictly menu-based, it does make combat far more involving. The combo system from Covenant has returned, allowing party members to juggle foes for massive damage, although you can now also perform Double attacks with a single character. Amidst all of this are customizable magic spells for each character (using little maps called "Stellar Charts") and a whole slew unique special moves for each character.
Since the game looks and plays much like Covenant, you can except some recurring archetypes – Hilda can turn into a bat, much like Joachim, and Shania can shapeshift into various demons with her Fusion ability, much like Yuri, although this time the transformations are accompanied by a clothes-shedding magical girl/striptease transformation. The numerous subquests to find all of the abilities and weapons for each of the characters fleshes out what is otherwise a relatively short game.
While the battle system is not only engrossing but allows for quite a bit of strategy, but there are times where it doesn’t feel particularly fair. You see, the enemies can use the same Double and Combo attacks as you can – so if you end up getting surrounded by a group of foes at the beginning of battle, be prepared to take major damage before you can even act. The other downside to having an in-depth is battle system is the fact that they tend to be relatively long affairs, as the average fight lasts around two minutes. These random battles are perhaps the only tired RPG staple that Shadow Hearts hasn’t outgrown, but they aren’t overwhelmingly numerous, and can usually be escaped with ease. Your characters level up quickly too, so overall the game feels very balanced without getting too irritating.
The music is a little disappointing, ranging from a few mediocre light jazz pieces to some boring tribal elevator music. The exceptions are the excellent intro theme and the first battle song, which actually uses the Shadow Hearts trademark wailing voices to excellent effect. Unfortunately, about when the plot starts to lose steam is also when the battle music changes to something far more banal.
Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 5
While the game is (mostly) straightforward, the heavy amount of text requires some working knowledge of Japanese. Which is especially useful is picking out the one object that protects you from "petrify" status. I figured that out the hard way. Still, much of the humor comes across without having advanced knowledge.
Nothing definite has been said. As of this current writing, the rumors point to an unknown publisher bringing the title in America. No word on who, although it won’t be Midway, the American publisher of the previous games.
Update: A new company formed with a bunch of Square-Enix excutives, XSeed Games is going to localize Shadow Hearts: From the New World. Expect it to come in 2006.
+ Pros: Incredibly colorful cast, hilarious story, an excellent battle system and a thoroughly unique setting
- Cons: Story drops off halfway through, battles are occasionally annoying
Overall: If there’s any group that may potentially be disappointed by From the New World, it’s Shadow Hearts fans. While there are some connections and references to the previous games, players may end up not liking the new direction of the series. It’s also lacking the presence of Yuri, who was one of the coolest RPG protagonists in recent memory. But if you let yourself free of any previous conceptions – and can forgive some uneven storytelling – you’ll find From the New World to be one of the most unique, engrossing, and well designed RPGs of this generation.
Written by Kurt Kalata.
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