The Shadow Hearts series has been steadily gathering notice in the realm of console role-playing games, due in large part to its great gameplay, bizarre occult-laced narrative set in the world of the early 1900s, and consistently crazy characters and humor. Shadow Hearts: From the New World brings all those series staples to the Depression-era Americas, with some new twists. While some of the changes seem to pile on unnecessary complexity, the basic Shadow Hearts formula still provides a great time for RPG aficionados.
Prohibition. The Great Depression. Demons spilling out of magical portals. You covered all this in American History class, right?
Johnny Garland is a fresh-faced 16-year-old living in New York City, with a plucky nature and an adventurous spirit. After the tragic deaths of his father and sister, he eschews taking up the helm of the family business and instead turns to his own enterprise--a detective agency. Most of the jobs are disappointingly small, until a mysterious professor from Boston arrives on his doorstep, needing to track down a certain man. It's a routine-enough venture to locate the suspect, until a portal opens directly behind him, disgorging a demon who promptly murders Johnny's screaming assignment. Oops. Now that reality's gone a little haywire, the young man sets off on a journey to uncover the truth behind the professor's strange experiments, behind the acts of some serial murderers, and behind his own clouded past.
Much like in previous Shadow Hearts games, the host of characters that come to Johnny's aid form the most bewildering RPG menagerie ever assembled. The most "normal" of the set is probably Shania, the voluptuous young woman from the Gavoy tribe who has the power to commune with and assume the form of powerful spirits. The assortment of other characters includes her Gavoy tribesman Natan, who is a master of "gun-fu," which is equal parts martial arts and firearms; Frank, a flamboyant American ninja who learned his arts in a remote fortress in the Amazon; Hilda, a vampire whose combat abilities depend on the number of calories she's ingested; and more. When you include the cat who's a master of drunken-style combat and the enigmatic Ricardo, the cast itself is enough to send your head spinning. Throw in the cheery homosexual duo who follow you around the world to offer you a chance to buy supplies, and consider that you do things like bust Al Capone out of Alcatraz, and you know you're in for a good time. The storyline remains compelling (if insane) throughout, and when it's not, there's always the combat to fall back on.
The judgment ring is the basis for the combat system, but a number of other aspects of the game--everything from earning item discounts, to playing lottery minigames, to using items in battle--involve the ring. Each time you select an action in combat, a disc appears with a sweeping line traveling around it and colored segments, and the idea is to hit the X button while the line is passing through the segments. Do so, and your action will be successful. If you miss segments, you can lose some melee hits or even fail your intended move altogether. While you can set the ring to auto-hit the correct areas, you lose some of the bonuses. Many of the melee hit rings have "strike" areas--slim red slices on the very edge of attack segments. If you hit these, your attacks will be more powerful. Likewise, much of the magic in the game has a gradient effect, so the further into the colored section you click, the more powerful your spell will be.
The judgment ring lets reflexes matter as you guide your moves to maximum power and efficiency.
There's also the fact that mastering and properly taking advantage of the judgment ring is extremely gratifying. With practice, you'll hardly ever flub your moves, and you'll soon find the correct cadence to hit a given character's strike zones efficiently, even pulling off multicharacter combo strings with ease. If you're still having trouble, you can locate upgrades in the game to change a character's ring, making the colored zones larger or the strike zones larger and so forth. The interactive combat is always interesting to play with and makes even the random battles easy to stomach.