For many video games series the challenge is for the developers to create something new and innovative whilst retaining the core gameplay that the series fans have been longing for since the last instalment. Often this means an entirely new plot is developed with similar but tweaked gameplay. Long running series like Final Fantasy and Call of Duty drift along with varying levels of difference but following the baseline rules of their core gameplay. Over time these little tweaks and additions, and sometimes a complete genre shift, evolve a series into something quite a bit different from its predecessors.
Shadow Hearts is a trilogy of games that has become something of a cult classic taking more than a little inspiration from Lovecraftian literature. Unlike the above examples Shadow Hearts takes pride in its direct sequel nature using cameos, references and reappearing characters to firmly link each title together. Its origins, however, begins with a very different game: Koudelka. Released on the original Playstation in 2000, the game is a blend of a traditional RPG with survival Horror elements.
The game follows Koudelka Iasant, the game’s namesake, as she arrives at Nemeton Monastery in Wales to discover the place crawling with occult creatures and evil spirits. Unlike most RPGs the game has a very dark tone including vengeful ghosts, walking patchwork corpses, murderous caretakers and a ritual fuelled by hundreds of dismembered sacrifices (All, of course, built upon an old prison that brutally tortured its inmates.). On the RPG side of things Koudelka features a standard level up system, with the player making stat distribution choices, basic puzzle solving utilising a variety of inexplicably collected key items and those infamous random encounters. The survival horror element is not completely forgotten though as the entire game takes place within the haunted grounds of the empty monastery and NPCs, which are few and far between are confined to cutscenes creating a lonely atmosphere. With no shops to be seen, weapon breakages, limited ammunition and infrequent healing spaces the survival aspect of the game is clear. A downside to the game is the slow pace of its battles. Grid-based combat makes positioning an additional tactical consideration but at a high cost to speed of gameplay.
So there we have our original title, a twisted and dark RPG with strong character development across a small, misfit cast; namely a gypsy, a poet and a bishop.
In 2001, and on the Playstation 2, came the first of the official trilogy to be released: Shadow Hearts. In this game Yuri Hyuga is sent on a quest by the mysterious voice in his head to protect the heroine Alice and ultimately protect the world from destruction by the villain. Discarding almost completely any notion of survival horror the game does retain the occult themes and dark fantasy genre of its predecessor. Somewhat unique among RPGs the game is set in the real world, albeit a real world in which every creepy and evil mythological creature is out to get you. As an RPG the game takes up the mantle of its genre defining ancestors with turn-based combat (no grid), NPCs and shops, sidequests galore and level-ups. The roaming around of a creepy monastery is traded out in favour of the more traditional RPG journey across multiple locales and for this game the group of misfits becomes larger and more diverse, a ‘It’s a Small World’ cultural collection. Both Koudelka and Roger Bacon return for this instalment in significant roles while the influence of and references to the previous game are strong and frequent including a return trip to the now collapsed ruins of Nemeton Monastery. The game includes some unique elements all of its own such as the judgement ring, a kind of quick time style task that dictates the success of every action in battle and quite a few out of battle, as well as the probably H.P. Lovecraft inspired sanity points system in which characters are driven insane, and berserk, during protracted fights against the many abyssal horrors they face.
2004 saw the release of the sequel, Shadow Hearts Covenant. Several characters make cameo appearances and fill more significant returning roles. Being a direct sequel the game features Yuri Hyuga as the returning main character, once again on a quest to stop the world from destruction via various occult dangers. Most elements of gameplay remain the same for this instalment retaining its dark and serious plotline though the locations themselves are generally less dark and grim in appearance and conception. The characters are once again a diverse group though this time the term misfit has a more literal meaning, the group includes the lost princess Anastasia and a superhero, wrestler, vampire. Whilst the previous game was far from devoid of comedy, often dipping into slapstick and perverted old man territory, the sequel plays the comedy angle up more including a curry themed wrestling club and colourful, almost supervillain-esque designs. Gameplay wise little has changed apart from refinements to the returning judgement ring and sanity point systems. Battles feature open roaming, though positioning is out of the player’s direct control, and a series of hit area specifics that allow for combos and combo magic. The playable characters once again have their own unique skills and abilities whilst spells, via crests, are much more customizable and usable by, almost, everyone.
Shadow Hearts: From The New World was the last of the series to be produced and took a departure from the story of the first two games of the trilogy leaving Yuri behind and focusing on new characters Johnny and Shania, though it remains connected through various little links and cameos. Building upon the trend in Covenant, From The New World delves even further into slapstick and downright silly comedy creating a much more light hearted, and often literally brighter, game world. The adventuring gang of misfits is now wholly weird and wonderful, featuring a Brazilian ninja and his master a giant talking cat and master of drunk fu. The plot is still technically dark but lacks the occult grimness of its predecessors and the battle system remains largely the same with some tweaks in the combo system and new reasoning behind the use and distribution of magical powers, now in the form of stellar charts.
The series as a whole has done well to remain connected and does a fascinating job of creating a fantastical history in which real-life characters like Roger Bacon are revealed to have been involved in mysterious and magical occurrences. The dark quality of the games’ stories remains throughout but is diluted and traded with comedy as the series progresses and the horror aspect is almost completely gone by the final edition. Meanwhile the core gameplay is left largely alone (ignoring the complete change from Koudelka to Shadow Hearts) only to be improved upon with each instalment.