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Sunday, December 31, 2023

Shadow Hearts: From the New World

The third (and tragically last) Shadow Hearts game changes up the setting to to a new locale - America - and stars an almost entirely new cast in a story only tangentially connected to the originals.  But does it prove to be a worthy sendoff for a short-lived franchise, or should it just have stayed in the old world?

The third game to bear the Shadow Hearts moniker and the fourth in the series counting Koudelka, though technically it's a spinoff; a Shadow Hearts 3 was planned (which would have been a prequel telling the story of Jinpachiro Hyuga, Yuri's father), though it was unfortunately canceled when Nautilus was dissolved in 2007 by its parent company Aruze.  From the New World debuted in the US the same year, making it something of a eulogy for the series, as well another popular JRPG franchise that unfortunately never got an HD entry.

From the New World bears many gameplay similarities to the second game, with a cast of outlandish characters and accompanying side-quests to power up their unique abilities. Characters can also chain attacks together in battle and form Combos, dealing extra damage the more hits they land in an unbroken chain, and most characters can use a pool of common spells via the use of add-ons - Stellar Charts in this game's case.  Thus, while there is a fair bit of character customization, each character also gets their own unique mechanics and abilities to utilize; again, not dissimilar to Final Fantasy VI.  The series trademark Sanity Points return too; should your sanity drop to 0 or less, that character will go berserk and start attacking allies and enemies at random and will miss out on any experience gained from that fight, unless you restore it before the battle ends.  This can be particularly annoying early on, as many of your characters (even your main one) have very low SP at the start of the game, so you have to be sure to make every turn of theirs count.

But while many of these elements are still recognizable from 2, things do change up a fair bit.  A new mechanic called "Stock" is added, with attacks and taking damage gradually filling a character's bar up to a maximum of two levels.  Once you have at least one level, you can choose to spend one to start a combo chain (with everyone else who joins in having to spend one as well), or use a Double action, effectively getting two moves per turn, though you cannot do the same action more than once per turn.  Spending two Stock bars even allows you to combine both a Double and a Combo in the same turn, so you can chain up to eight actions together and rack up heavy damage.  Thankfully a UI improvement is also introduced - attacks now have lit indicators show the range(s) in which they hit (high, low or mid-range), and if an enemy you're targeting with the currently-selected attack is suboptimal or likely to miss entirely, their name will be highlighted in red, so you can back up and pick a better option without wasting MP.

The Crest Magic system from Shadow Hearts Covenant is also discarded in favor of a new one, utilizing Stellar Charts.  Each character can equip only one at a time, and each comes pre-loaded with a set number of slots and spells.  However, by visiting Bugen the Engraver, one can pay money to customize these slots and add new "Stellars" to them, granting access to new and more powerful spells.  Slots come in three basic types for Offensive, Restorative and Support magic, one of the six elements - fire, water, earth, wind, light and darkness - and four levels of power.  One can also change any elemental slot to a generic colorless slot that accepts any element, though this is much a more expensive option.  One can further add an "Effect Up" augmentation to a given slot to get more mileage out of offensive spells, or decrease MP cost of a spells in that slot by up to 50%, both at further cost.

The jokey tone of Covenant is played up even further here, both in its story scenes and in the characters' respective combat mechanics.  One of your first recruits is "Frank", a self-proclaimed ninja with an unidentifiable accent trained in Brazil who wields all manner of bizarre objects as oversized swords; not dissimilar to Joachim from Covenant picking up random objects to use in battle, always accompanied with dramatic speeches.  The requisite Valentine family member is a self-proclaimed superhero, changing form based on how many Calories she consumes; while in Slim form her physical attributes drop while her magic gets stronger, and in "Curvy" form things go the opposite direction.  Shania has a familiar mechanic in her Sanity-consuming monster morphing, though the designs and animations are more over-the-top than ever and extremely fanservicey; more than a little reminiscent of Bayonetta, though this game predates it by several years.  Johnny wields several gadgets in battle and is something of an amalgam of other characters; a cell-phone to summon help, a camera to snap pictures and analyze enemy stats (which then take the form of trading cards as part of a larger sidequest), and eventually gains some monster morphing abilities of his own.  It's all the weirdness and creativity of the series transplanted to a kitschy and exaggerated 1930s America, and it's pretty glorious to behold if you're into that sort of thing.  It is considerably scaled down from the previous game though - understandable since it's technically a spinoff title, but if you're used to the more leisurely pace of Covenant and the original Shadow Hearts it can be a bit jarring.

Shadow Hearts: From the New World definitely feels like a spinoff game - smaller in scale in almost every respect, and as a result it tries to cram more into that smaller space with mixed results.  Combat is slower and tends to drag after a while, particularly late in the game when virtually every enemy inflicts status effects and chains together long, damaging combos if you aren't scrupulously depleting their Stock every time they build it up.  Sidequests feel more than a bit filler-y (particularly Mao's, which requires an awful lot of tedious item farming) and even with all of that, you'll likely have to come through again in New Game Plus to see everything.  The lackluster villains and lack of character development in comparison to previous games feels like a pretty big omission too.  The end result is a game that feels like it needed a bit more time to cook - time they unfortunately didn't have as they were closed down not long after its release.  It's a shame the series ends on such a bittersweet note, though, as I think Nautilus had the stuff to become a big name in the RPG field had they had a chance to prove themselves some more.

Developer: Nautilus
Publisher: Aruze, Xseed Games, Ghostlight
Released: 2005, 2007
Platforms: PlayStation 2
Recommended Version: N/A