To this day, Shadow Hearts: Covenant remains one of the most underrated role-playing games of its time. As the sequel to Shadow Hearts, this excellent marriage of story and gameplay is technically the third title in the series.
Not only did SH:C drastically improve on the gameplay of its predecessors it provides one of the most engrossing, funny, heart-wrenching and unique RPG experiences on the PlayStation 2. This iteration helped the series as a whole come into its own.
Though, fair warning, it will take you forever and a day to beat…
An epic in every sense of the word, Shadow Hearts: Covenant featured more than 60 hours of gameplay and is filled with cutscenes that, while occasionally long-winded, are never cramped too close together as to diminish the value of the experience – and every moment is worth it.
Also, props must be given to what is possibly the most evocative and ambient overworld music of all time.
Summarizing such a lengthy story is a bit difficult, but the Shadow Hearts series takes place in a unique time period for games – World War I.
By the time SH:C rolls around, it’s 1915 and Europe is being torn apart. The game’s protagonist is a female German lieutenant named Lieutenant Karin Koenig, who is initially tasked with leading an assault against a French village instrumental in preventing the German Army’s advancement. Her battalion struck down by the village’s guardian, a hideous demon, Karin finds herself spared and begins questioning the entity’s peculiar act of mercy. From this point on, Karin soon realizes she may be fighting for the wrong team, and forces that once looked dark and sinister may actually be angels in disguise.
From there the game takes the player down a log flume of historically inspired twists and turns. Slowly we are introduced to a multi-national motley crew of misfits, including Princess Anastasia Romanov herself, who have all fallen victim to the dark conspiracy surrounding the motives behind WWI. Real-life historical figures from out of history intermingle with demons of myth, ultimately providing a perfect metaphor for the atrocities of war.
What’s interesting from a cultural standpoint, is that this Japanese developed title is very critical of Japan’s war hunger at the time, as well its culpability in Russo-Japanese conflicts. But this is a game with a lot of villains, and all of them represent both sides of the conflict that had a personal hand in World War I and its tertiary conflicts.
As far as gameplay is concerned, it’s hard to compare this game with that of its predecessor, aside from the turn-based action. Characters don’t sit and attack enemies in chorus-line formation like most RPGs. Instead, everyone on-screen changes position based on attacks, making the field incredibly dynamic.
Though the judgment ring system from Shadow Hearts reprises its role, there was more complexity and nuance to its functionality, with upgrades and items that will cause it to work differently. There was also the addition of chain bonuses for linking special attacks together.
Even normal physical attacks has different options: standard, hard hit, high angle and knock down, which either hurt or help your efforts depending on the weight of the opponent. There is also a customizable magic-learning system similar to the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X.
If there’s anything to criticize in terms of the story, it’s that by game’s end there is no singular “big bad.” And though I won’t spoil it, by the end of the game the player will come to understand that those most effected by the sorrow that results in the aftermath of conflict can sometimes fall pray to a deeper darkness than the most manipulative of megalomaniacs.
Quite frankly, there are few RPGs on the PS2 that have aged as well as this one. If you’re looking for a game that puts an interesting twist on history while providing many hours of enjoyment, you should give Shadow Hearts: Covenant a try.