Okay, So

Thing 1 I’ve learned from the video-game-review part of this blog: playing video games* kind of takes forever when I’m also trying to write and work and have a life. (Not to mention driving lessons, which hopefully will be coming to an end soon; relatedly, the concept of “parallel parking” can and should bite me. As can the state of Massachusetts, for putting it on the damn road test.) Not that I’m going to stop the reviews, mind, but they’ll probably come in bite-sized chunks.

The first chunk of Shadow Hearts will also be…okay, here’s the thing. I had taken notes on this, playing with my notebook by my side and everything like Responsible Viewer Girl. And then I kind of maybe sort of lost my notebook. (I also plot out both novels and D&D campaigns in said notebook, and do so with a blithe disregard of note-taking structure. Odds are, there’s someone in eastern MA reading a little purple notebook which says “…and then some sex…” on one page and “DEMOGORGON! DEMOGORGON for EVERYONE! ALSO OWLBEARS! FROM THE SKY!” on the next.)

So this is going to be what I remember of the first part of Shadow Hearts. I should have decent recall, since this is the second time I’ve played it. Spoilers, of course.

Right. Shadow Hearts is this frankly bizarre game that’s vaguely in the style of a JRPG but which a) gives you something to actually do during combat due to timed hits and all that, b) is set in something resembling the real world around 1913, only with magic and Lovecraftian monstrosities, and c) has no Internet flakejobs claiming to be married to any of its main characters. As far as I know.

The romance plot in this one, at least in the beginning, is not that unusual. (Later in this game–and then in the next two games–it gets, as Derrida would say, CRACKTACULAR.) Worldly sarcastic warrior guy teams up with prim and naive healer chick, both denying feelings whilst facing great danger. Very anime; very much the reason why I don’t like a lot of anime, at least on the surface. (Prim/clingy/jealous/naive main female characters are almost an instant “meh, no” for me where entertainment is concerned. Just so my biases are out there.)

Surprisingly enough, though, I don’t actually hate Alice. (Who’s called “Pandora” in my game, for reasons that escape me and probably have to do with spectator input.) I don’t love her as much as I do later female characters–she’s kind of a Significant Healer type*, to use the language of tabletop/LARP, and often a damsel in distress–but she’s reasonably plucky, and her attitude to Yuri’s advances is less “how dare you insult my incomparable purity” and more “ugh, stop hitting on me, especially while we’re in the forest that wants to kill us,” which, fair enough. And the historical setting helps somewhat with the innocence thing. Also, it’s hard to dislike a girl who hits things with giant books.

Yuri is Spiky Haired Occasionally Brooding Smartass Guy, as happens a lot with JRPG heroes. It’s not a type I dislike, though some of his smartassitude doesn’t translate particularly well, and comes across as more obnoxious/zany. Again, though, he doesn’t grate on my nerves like other JRPG heroes do–CECIL, oh my GOD–and his moments of Occasional Brooding tie into one of the neater bits of the game.

To wit: shapechanging with the power of EMO.

Here’s the deal. There are these six elements: the standard Western four plus light and darkness. Just about everyone is affiliated with one of them. (Non-elemental people exist, generally either for Vast Metaphysical Reasons or to screw with you.) When Yuri kills a monster, he takes that monster’s soul, or at least the elemental wackiness subset of it. Once he gets enough souls in a particular element, he can fight a big freaky-looking elemental monster and, if he wins, take that monster’s form in other fights.

Taking some intangible quality from your defeated enemy is a concept with some legs to it. (Although generally not actual legs. More hearts ‘n’ brains.) It appears in a lot of mythology, from the old eating-a-lion’s-heart-gives-you-courage deal***to the legend of Sigurd and Fafnir to, um, Nethack. Pre-Hitman-games-industry standards necessitate a certain amount of abstraction here, which also makes sense given that Yuri’s going for elemental essence rather than any particular eyeball-or-liver-associated virtue.

So far, so good. The problem is that devouring souls for power has, shockingly enough, a few drawbacks. Chief among these is that the things whose souls Yuri devours are not happy about the whole arrangement. By taking on their power, he also leaves himself open to their rage, or, as the game has it, “Malice”. This builds up throughout the game: if you let it reach maximum, every fight will have a random chance to include an additional, uber-tough opponent in the form of “the thing you most fear”. Or the thing Yuri most fears. (A guy in a fox mask. Or, rather, his dad in a kitsune mask, which, to Western-raised me, does not translate over very well on a gut level: even though I know the mythology, “guy with fox face” does not conjure up primal fears so much as it does unpleasant corners of the Internet. Oh well.) Alternatively, you can pre-emptively fight a less powerful monster and bleed off Malice.

Where, you might be wondering, does Yuri go for these pre-emptive fights? And where does he go to fight the giant elemental monsters? It’s 1913 Europe; surely there aren’t offices for this kind of thing.

No. No, there are not.

To access new powers, or to keep the hatred of his enemies from taking tangible form, Yuri visits…

A graveyard.

In his soul.

This might be the best mechanic ever. Although, for maximum effect, I think Yuri would need to accompany someone whose deal was to help people and collect their subsequent good feelings until he or she could access new powers in an internal rainbow-filled meadow. By cuddling the Fluffy Guardian Puppies, clearly.

I would spend actual money on this game. For the record.

*My attempt at a non-sexist version of Girlfriend Healer. It’s true that non-gamer boyfriends tend not to tag along to games in the first place, and to play big fighty guys when they do–and I blame society for the discrepancy, oh yes–but I might as well make the attempt to be gender-neutral.
**The IG term for this is “Harmonixer”, which I prefer to ignore, because…Harmonixer.
***Sir James Frazer cites a reversal, where the Dyaks of NW Borneo apparently didn’t like their warriors to eat deer because it would make them timid: not sure how accurate he is on the culture, but it’s an interesting myth.