A long, lonely summer provided ample opportunity for Lou Widdop to play Shadow Hearts. The rich storyline, detailed characters and immersive gameplay captivated her attention, inspired her own creativity and shaped her preferred genre of games for years to come.
My favourite game to this day is still Shadow Hearts, yet not a single one of my friends has heard of it.
It’s hard to condense what I believe to be a masterpiece into one short paragraph. By the time I’ve explained the enthralling yet complex storyline, the unique judgement-ring element and the in-depth elemental weakness system, eyes have glazed over and I’m left disappointed that nobody can imagine a game better than one of the Final Fantasy titles.
Unfortunately, Midway Games made one fatal error with Shadow Hearts that guaranteed it would never reach critical acclaim: they released it precisely one week before Final Fantasy X, which led to it being eclipsed by Square Enix’s frenetic marketing efforts.
But, in my humble opinion, Shadow Hearts wipes the floor with Final Fantasy X.
I was introduced to Shadow Hearts by my uncle, who’s a passionate gamer himself. He’d already kickstarted my interest in gaming as a child.
I’d have nightmares and struggled to get to sleep a lot, so when it was late and my parents had gone to bed, I’d hide on the upstairs landing, peek through the crack in his bedroom door and marvel at whatever game he was playing at the time.
The journey begins
Fast-forward a few years and it was the six-week summer holiday break, my family didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t have a lot of friends. The days stretched on and between myself, my uncle and sister, we’d already obtained all of the gems and eggs in Spyro: Year of the Dragon and retrieved all of the time crystals in TimeSplitters 2. Eventually, my uncle introduced us to Shadow Hearts. We started at the very beginning of the game, watched several intense cutscenes and experienced our first-ever RPG combat.
Like most RPG games, Shadow Hearts centres around Yuri Hyuga, a somewhat angsty main character (though thankfully less so than Squall from FFVIII). It follows his search for the origins of a mysterious voice in his head, as well as his own place in the world. At the same time, Yuri helps the love of his life uncover the secrets behind her father’s death, as well as her own powers.
In that one summer, I condensed a lifetime of experience into roughly 40 hours of gameplay. From the comfort of my living room I travelled around Asia and Europe exploring the deepest, darkest depths of Shanghai and Rouen. I learned about the fundamentals of Taoist and Ayurvedic beliefs as well as brushing up on a variety of mythologies. I met a supernatural teenager, an international spy, a centuries-old vampire, a Chinese sage and a Christian exorcist.
Most of all, the game inspired me creatively. As a teenager who hoped to one day become a writer, this one RPG game provided me with an endless source of ideas. I churned out a 40-page manuscript that was riddled with errors but was the product of hours and hours of creative writing.
Love at first sight?
The Final Fantasy saga is worthy of its praise and numerous awards, but Shadow Hearts will hold a special place in my heart because it was the first RPG I played. While it may have given me nightmares, insomnia and several headaches, I still don’t regret picking it up that summer. In fact, I’m thankful I played it.
What if my first RPG had been an absolute mess? I can’t recall an RPG that I’ve ever completely loathed, but I could have started with something like the Etrian Odyssey games, which I still maintain are ridiculously difficult and would have undoubtedly melted my poor high-schooler brain.
Luckily for me, that wasn’t the case. A lot of RPG fans maintain that the sequel Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the superior game, but there’s something so special about your first RPG game. That, and the lack of combo attacks and rage-inducing Solomon Key trials actually made the first game much easier for a young mind like mine.
The story of the first game sucked me in straight away. I’d grown up surrounded by fantasy-lovers but nothing could quite have prepared me for a mashup of mythology and mystery set in an alternate history. As a young teenager, fancy graphics and complex gaming mechanisms didn’t mean as much to me; I was just blown away by the detailed characters and the combat style.
From the very first cutscene, the story opened with a grisly murder and a missing young adult, and I also got to the action pretty quickly, battling my first Wind Shears and getting my head kicked in from a scripted battle.
Like most people of my age, I was fascinated with the concept of magic, so imagine my delight at being able to command six different classes of abilities and crawling through mystical ruins in search of ancient artefacts and stolen Vatican books. I was in my element!
With my uncle’s steady guidance, we battled our way through misguided villains and devious monsters until finally, in a cataclysmic battle unlike any other, we defeated God itself and saved the entire planet from being wiped out. After weeks of playing the game (my mum getting plenty of free time), we’d finally beaten it and I remember my uncle announcing to myself and my sister that we’d finally “clocked it”.
As the six-week holidays drew to a close, I found other games to sink my teeth into, namely Fable: The Lost Chapter and Kingdom Hearts. Both were very good games, but didn’t quite hold a candle to my first completed game. I couldn’t help it; I wanted more.
Round two, fight!
A few years later, my sister and I sat cross-legged in the living room as we took turns in opening Christmas presents. We hadn’t even realised that a sequel had been released so imagine our delight when we opened Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Within weeks, I’d sunk several hours into it, but my sister, disappointed that one of the main characters wasn’t present in the sequel, didn’t seem as entranced this time round.
Needless to say, though there were some differences (and I really dislike change), I persevered, until I reached the dreaded Hallway of Mirrors. As a teenager, I didn’t have access to the internet at home so I’d not used a walkthrough, and I’d managed to get myself so hopelessly entangled within this déjà-vu-inducing dungeon that I eventually conceded and admitted defeat. My save remained untouched for years and my PlayStation 2 gathered dust.
Eventually, I spotted the third instalment Shadow Hearts: From The New World, and for a time I played it to death. Yet this third outing, much to my dismay, almost felt like a different game entirely. The two main characters made no appearance, it was based in America and not Europe, and the story seemed to have deviated from the canon storyline.
Like many other fans, I was left disappointed (though I will say I have since played this game and enjoyed it enough to complete it since then), so I hung up my PlayStation 2 pad and didn’t play any of the games for quite a few years.
A new generation of gamers
My love of gaming never faded, despite me taking a break from my PS2. I did keep an eye out for new games in stores but all the local independent game stores near me were closing down. As Sony and Microsoft churned out their shiniest new offerings, the PS2 was replaced with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and as a teenager that couldn’t afford either, I found myself running out of games.
Even when my uncle gave my sister an Xbox 360, I always left game stores feeling disappointed. My uncle delved into the Assassin’s Creed series, which just didn’t appeal to me, as well as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which was far too open-world for my liking.
For a platform and RPG lover like myself, it seemed that the gaming market had forgotten about us. I genuinely struggled to find games that I enjoyed on home consoles anymore so I became a handheld gamer, feeding my gaming addiction with a steady diet of Nintendo cartridges.
Nothing quite compared to the RPG I’d vividly remember years after playing. Luckily,when I met my partner Simon in college, I learned that he also loved RPG games. I was overjoyed.
Yet another playthrough
Simon introduced me to Final Fantasy VIII, which is definitely up there in my top three favourite games and since the turn-based combat was nostalgic and the GFs were akin to the fusions in Shadow Hearts, I made a pact with him: I’d play Final Fantasy VII with him, if he gave Shadow Hearts a try.
He remained true to his word and as I took the orange and white disk out of its case, I felt an eerie sense of homecoming. Using a walkthrough this time, I guided him through the game ensuring that we unlocked every fusion, completed every side-quest and achieved the “good ending” to boot.
We enjoyed it so much that we did it all again, finally completing the second game that I’d been unable to beat on my own all those years ago. This time, we consulted the internet to avoid getting lost in the Hallway of Mirrors, and when we saw the final ending of the second game (which ties back into the first), I had a lump in my throat and my heart ached. It felt like a huge chapter of my life had ended, but another was beginning, filled with possibilities.
Unlocking a new genre of games
Unfortunately, Simon didn’t enjoy Shadow Hearts: From the New World so I did have to complete that one on my own. But once he’d figured out what kind of games I liked, he introduced me to so many new titles that I fell in love with.
Thanks to him, I’ve been fortunate enough to find that I also enjoy the hack and slash dungeon crawler genre as well. Together we’ve battled so many foes and have completed numerous titles as a duo. We’re each other’s player two!
The funny thing is, even though I’ve discovered so many new games from Persona 5 to Divinity: Original Sin, I still maintain that Shadow Hearts is (and always will be) the best game I’ve ever played. I’m even unashamed to say that I have the soundtrack downloaded onto my iPod and I’m still listening to it today!
Not only that, but how many people can claim that one game shaped their gamer journey, inspired them to pursue a career in writing, and allowed them to forge a bond with another so strong that we’re still together seven years later?
New game plus plus plus
Fast forward to 2018 and sadly it really does seem that the Shadow Hearts trilogy is well and truly dead (though I’d absolutely LOVE a HD remaster), leaving behind a devoted fanbase and a sea of mixed reviews.
In fact, one IGN review that slammed Shadow Hearts made me react so strongly that I revisited the game once more just to see if I still enjoyed it as much as the first time. I absolutely loved it! Though the graphics may not match the ultra-high-definition ones that our pampered eyes may be used to now, I still think that we should applaud something that dared to be different.
Even now, Shadow Hearts still plays well. The eerie soundtracks and mottled monsters sound and look even better on a flat-screen TV, and the story is just as rich and exciting to me now as it was back then.
So, sorry/not sorry Mr IGN, but I must disrespectfully disagree. Whether it’s the romantic relationship between the two main characters that still tugs on my heartstrings, or it’s the fist-pumping feeling I get when I perfect the judgement ring, I’ll always herald Shadow Hearts as my favourite RPG game, and it’s a title that deserves so much more recognition than it received. It’s a game I’ll always treasure, because it’s shaped me into the JRPG gamer I pride myself on being today.
- Fantastic storyline that intertwines magic and mythology with historical events
- Strong characterisation that will leave you thinking long after the game’s completion
- Fantastic soundtrack featuring some truly stellar compositions
- A unique judgement ring system adding an element of skill to traditional turn-based combat
- A mild torture cutscene halfway through the game, including mild sexual references, may make some players feel a little uncomfortable
- Multiple endings mean two playthroughs are required
- You may need to rely on a walkthrough to ensure you nail every side quest and achieve the ‘good ending’, which can be an utter pain
The ever-popular Final Fantasy series may have propelled role-playing games to popularity, but there’s a reason why Shadow Hearts has a devoted fanbase. Though it may have been eclipsed by the release of Final Fantasy X, I’m yet to stumble across a game that blends turn-based role-playing elements with mythology, fantasy and history in the same way; any self-professed RPG fan must at least give it a try.