Thankfully, for the most part Shadow Hearts
is not a letdown. While many RPGers will find themselves frustrated by the Ring of Judgment, I found it a delightful change of pace for the dry button-pushing of almost every other RPG out there, and there's something about the actual experience of playing Shadow Hearts
that engrossed me.
The storyline starts off fairly freshly--there's a mysterious girl being abducted for unknown purposes, the dashing hero appears to save her, and some major badass comes in to try to take her away again. Now it's up to you--Yuri--to protect her from The Evil Surrounding You. Moreso than the actual story, the setting is absolutely fantastic, a warped version of modern-day where magic and technology live side-by-side. It's like stepping into a scary version of Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality books. Despite this, the game maintains a sense of humour not often found in the genre, especially in the scarier games. It's as if the game never takes itself completely seriously. I wish that a few of the treatments--homosexuality in particular--were handled a little more adroitely, but nonetheless it's a refreshing experience to play a semi-satirical horror RPG.
Yuri is something of a special case. (Aren't all heroes?) His particular peculiarity is the fact that he's a Harmonixer, able to turn into various spirit beings and wreak much havoc on enemies. The different creatures that he can transform into are all element-based, and enemies all have elemental alignments, so strategic execution of Harmonixing abilities is required for a successful experience.
Indeed, battles in Shadow Hearts are quite different from standard RPG battles. Along with the requisite special abilities of everyone (spells, Harmonixing, whatever), the game makes use of the Ring of Judgment. The ring is, well, a ring, with a sweeping bar that's reminiscent of old radar displays. Every weapon, spell and item in the game has one or more 'hot zones' in which you're supposed to tap the X button as the arm sweeps. Miss, and the spell doesn't work or the item isn't used or the attack doesn't happen. Different spells and weapons have different strike zones, so it's not just a matter of memorizing the timings; in addition, most of the skills have a 'perfect' zone that's just past the normal one, which is harder to hit but lets you do more damage/heal more health/whatever.
I can see how the addition of the Judgment Ring would piss off a lot of RPGers. After all, the games aren't supposed to be games of timing, but of strategy. However, I think that it adds spice into a genre that is too often 'attack-attack-heal-attack,' and even if it does frustrate me at times I'm never frustrated because the game cheated; it's because I didn't hit it right. I like that.
Along with the Judgment Ring, there's a lovely new set of 'points', Sanity Points. You lose one Sanity per turn, and if a character ever drops to zero, they go Berzerk and gain no experience for the battle. This gives an added tension to every encounter, especially boss battles; you'll want to complete them as quickly as possible, and items that give back SP are necessary to keep your team from going completely crazy.
Another intriguing idea, although somewhat less solid on the execution, is the Graveyard. As you fight enemies, you generate Malice. Generate too much Malice, and you become hounded by, well, Death; the fights are arduous, and it's just a Bad Idea to be fighting Death. So to relieve the Malice you have to go into the Graveyard, a world inside of Yuri's head. There you fight incarnations of that Evil; defeating them nets you no experience, but it eases the Malice. It's a neat idea, but it ends up distracting from the core gameplay more than it should have, and ends up being an annoyance.
The game is long, and complex, and should satisfy any RPGer. Characterization is sometimes a little weak, but nonetheless the various folk who join your party are much more original than most of the RPG fodder nowadays.