Don't judge Shadow Hearts: Covenant by the first 30 minutes, because if you do you are going to be missing out on a surprisingly good RPG. The first part of the game is made up of about 90% boring cinema sequences and 10% frustrating gameplay, which definitely isn't a good way to start. You are then thrust into a battle and have to learn how to use the game's less than intuitive judgment ring system after only a quickie tutorial. By the time I got through the first few battles I was ready to call it quits because the game was too chatty and boring and frustrating. I am a professional, though, so I continued on. After a few hours, my opinion had changed. The story is wonderful, the characters are great, and the battle system is actually addictive and fun once you get the hang of it. If you stick with it, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a well put together RPG that is thoroughly enjoyable and fills the void between Square Enix RPGs quite nicely.
The story takes place in a Europe that is rapidly approaching World War I. The main character is a German woman named Karin Koenig and she eventually meets up with the protagonist of the first Shadow Hearts, Yuri Hyuga. They learn of an evil secret society called Sapientes Gladio and together they set out to discover what the group is planning and to also rid Yuri of a curse that was placed on him by a Sapientes Gladio hitman called Nicholai. The story is rather complex and very compelling. Covenant is full of demons and dark mysticism that is a welcome change from the worlds that RPGs typically feature. The characters you meet are wonderfully strange and twisted as well, which makes you want to keep playing just to see what is coming up next. Examples of how strange and quirky this game is can be found in how Yuri narrates parts of the story with poorly drawn stick figures and one of the bosses you'll face is a giant fluffy pink kitten. The story is very dark, but it is broken up by lots of humorous moments and an overall very weird and twisted feel. It all comes together exceptionally well and provides an RPG experience like no other.
Combat in Shadow Hearts: Covenant is governed by the judgment ring. Whether you are attacking, casting a spell, or even using an item, a judgment ring will appear. There are colored pieces on the ring and you have to stop a rotating pointer on the different areas on the ring to launch the attack as well as determine the attack power. If you screw up and miss the areas you have to hit, your turn is wasted and you don't get to do anything. Getting the timing right for the judgment ring is tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it trying to get extra bonuses and more powerful attacks is surprisingly fun and rather addictive. It is like gambling on every turn, but you have complete control and you are only as good or bad as your timing. Each character has differently sized areas on their ring and the pointer will travel at different speeds for each character, so the gameplay always proves to be challenging. You can also use items to change the size and speed of characters' rings and pointers as well.
You can also form combos by linking characters' attacks together. Combos begin by using the combo command to move your characters next to each other. You then select an attack and a judgment ring appears as normal. If you succeed, a combo ring will appear and if your timing is right the ring will jump to the next character and you have to complete the rings again for that character. If you can link four characters together the fourth character will launch an incredibly powerful combo magic attack. If, however, you screw up at any point in the combo, the move is over and any characters left in the combo chain lose their turn. The whole combo system is even more of a gamble than the normal judgment ring because you have to weigh the difficulty of actually executing a combo against the powerful attacks that you could potentially unleash. Do you do a combo now and kill a boss for good or do you play it safe and possibly die from the enemy's next attack because you couldn't do enough damage? Strategy such as this plays a huge role in Shadow Hearts: Covenant and it makes the game a whole lot of fun.
Outside of combat, the game plays pretty much like any other RPG. Battles are either random or happen due to scripted events. I know I'm not alone when I say this, but random battles need to go away and never come back. They are only mildly annoying in Shadow Hearts: Covenant, though, since you aren't battling every five steps like in some other games. Everything else is just what you would expect. You explore in the wilderness and then come to towns to heal up and buy items. Something interesting is that the judgment ring can play a role in item shopping if you want it to. You can attempt to earn discounted prices at shops or to increase the price of items you are trying to sell. You don't have to do this, but it makes the game a little bit more interesting.
Graphically, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is pretty easy on the eyes. The characters are very detailed and have lots of style and personality. The environments you'll explore which include parts of Europe and Japan, look simply stunning and are filled with lots of detail. The story is told through CG cutscenes that, of course, look fantastic.
The sound is also very well done. There is a lot of voice work in the game, and almost all of it sounds great. The actors managed to capture the serious, yet deliciously strange feel of the story perfectly. Sound effects for magic spells and the rest of combat also sound very good. Best of all in the audio department, though, is the music. The main theme is memorable and even the battle music that you'll hear over and over again is good enough that it never becomes annoying.
If you are looking for a new RPG to sink your teeth into, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a great choice. The judgment ring on which combat is centered isn't the easiest thing to learn and there are a lot of long cinema sequences, but it is absolutely worth it to press on and get deep into the game because the story and characters are great and the gameplay is satisfying and addictive and fun when you get the hang of it. The game also looks and sounds great as well. Fans of the original Shadow Hearts will absolutely love Covenant, and even if you haven't played Shadow Hearts before, this game works just fine on its own. The game takes around 35+ hours to beat and is on two discs, so there is a lot to do and see here. I highly recommend Shadow Hearts: Covenant for at least a rental, but there is a lot of gameplay here and it is good enough that it is worth a purchase.