['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the work of Sacnoth/Nautilus, creators of the Shadow Hearts series.]

Koudelka

koudelka.jpgShadow Heart’s developer Sacnoth got its start in 1997 when a group of Squaresoft employees split off to form their own studio. Headed by Hiroki Kikuta, the music composer for the Secret of Mana series, Sacnoth had an ambitious goal of reinventing RPGs and moving them beyond stale genre conventions. Their first effort was Koudelka for the Playstation, published by SNK for America in 1999.

The game opens with a movie of a lonely rider crossing a darkened moor. A haunting viola strain plays as the empty landscape is scoured by wind and rain. The cloaked rider eventually arrives at the crumbling ruins of an abandoned monastery that is right out of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. The opening FMV sets a tone so perfect, so drenched in atmosphere and mystery, that the ensuing game play comes as an abrupt shock, falling far short of one’s initial expectations.

On the surface, Koudelka looked like an ornately rendered survival horror game, a sort of gothic Resident Evil, except with turn-based combat and lots of RPG style stat management. Set in 19th century Wales, Koudelka’s narrative was literate, with mature characters voiced by some excellent acting talent. Unfortunately, two steps into the game you were faced with a combat system that was so wrong that it completely undermined everything else that the developer got right. A typical engagement could take up to ten minutes to complete, with probably half of that time just maneuvering your character into a position to fight. Once combat was done, the encounter rate was so high that after taking two more steps you were in it again. A full description of how not fun Koudelka was could take up an entire essay so let me just emphasize that the game was tedious in the extreme.

And yet, there was something about Koudelka that made it difficult to dismiss as just another crap game. Yes it was bad, but it was tragically bad in way that hinted at the possibility of greatness. Masochists may want to seek it out, but please don’t pay more than $25.

Faselei!

faselei.jpgSacnoth also developed a mech strategy game for the Neo Geo Pocket Color that had the unfortunate luck of being released just as SNK was going bankrupt in 2000. Barely making it on to the UK market before SNK pulled its inventory from the shelves, Faselei! never saw a US release. However, in 2003 the Neo Geo Pocket Color was rereleased in America as a value priced package called Pocket Color Arcade that included a varying selection of six games, one of which was the English version of Faselei!. The Pocket plus six games package seems to be gone now but loose Faselei! cartridges can be easily acquired for around $15. I imagine that a boxed UK version must sell for significantly more although I could not find one.

Shadow Hearts

shadow_hearts.jpgAfter the collapse of SNK, the pachinko and casino game manufacturer Aruze Entertainment acquired Sacnoth and Hiroki Kikuta left the company. Leadership passed to Matsuzo Itakura and Sacnoth began work on a Playstation 2 follow-up to Koudelka called Shadow Hearts. Released in the US in 2001 by Midway, Shadow Hearts was an improvement over its predecessor in every way.

While not a direct sequel, the story of Shadow Hearts was related to Koudelka and shared characters and settings. Taking place in China and Europe shortly before World War One, Shadow Hearts told a story of powerful warlocks summoning godlike entities from beyond time and space in an effort to control the world with only a spirited band of ragtag adventurers to stand in the way. The fast paced game swung wildly between the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and the exuberant goofiness of Big Trouble in Little China. Although Shadow Hearts could not be read as a history lesson, its 20th century setting and awareness of history was a refreshing change for RPGs. The game’s acknowledgment of Imperial Japan’s abuses in China was also notable, particularly coming from a Japanese developer.

Graphically, the game was attractive without being showy, using three dimensional polygon characters and moving them around lavishly rendered two dimensional backgrounds. Character designs by Miyako Kato were large, vibrant and well animated. Adding to the game’s feverish spook house mood were some extremely surreal monsters to fight against. During combat, the special effects were vivid bursts of light and color. The soundtrack by Yoshitaka Hirota and Yasunori Mitsuda was excellent, sometimes rocking and sometimes delicate, but never boring.

Looking at it over someone’s shoulder, Shadow Hearts might have appeared to be a pretty standard issue RPG. However, with controller in hand, it was quickly apparent that something fresh and exciting was going on. First and foremost Shadow Hearts was a game to be played; something that many other RPGs forget. It is in play that this game really shines.

The Judgment Ring

judgement_ring.jpgAll three of the Shadow Hearts games feature a game mechanic called the Judgment Ring that comes into play during the turn based combat but extends to other areas of the game as well. Any action that you may take, such as striking an enemy, casting a spell, or using an item requires a spin of the Judgment Ring. This involves making a series of timed button presses as a cursor swings quickly around the ring like the hand of a clock. The speed of the cursor can vary as well as the number and spacing of the button presses. As your technique improves it is possible to effect more favorable outcomes by hitting the button at precise moments. This simple mechanic creates a situation in which even the most minor interaction requires attention and skill.

Combat is no longer the drudge work that many RPGs make it out to be, instead becoming a fast paced and exciting challenge. Although the Shadow Hearts games are not overly difficult, the Judgment Ring brings an element of risk to every encounter. If your mind wanders during combat and you begin to fumble, a low level monster can easily eat your lunch. Even the frequently dry book keeping tasks of purchasing items and upgrading equipment are enlivened by the Judgment Ring as you angle for discounts and prizes. Nailing a perfect swing on the Judgment Ring brings a great feeling of satisfaction, knowing that you have succeeded because of skill, rather than luck.

Although out-of-print, Shadow Hearts was relatively easy to find but lately that has changed. Now online appears to be the best place to search for it with auctions closing around $40 and sometimes as high as $60.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

sh_covenant.jpgSacnoth changed its name to Nautilus for the next game in the Shadow Hearts series. Titled Shadow Hearts: Covenant, the game was released by Midway in 2004 for America. In Covenant the supernatural action moved forward, taking place in Europe during World War One, with the mad monk Rasputin playing the villain. The game’s visuals were given an overhaul, moving to a fully real-time 3D presentation, but the core game play remained intact with the Judgment Ring continuing to bring pulse-quickening thrills.

Covenant is also out-of-print but still easy to find at about $25.

Shadow Hearts From the New World

sh_new_world.jpgIn 2006, XSEED Games published Nautilus’ third Shadow Hearts game for America called Shadow Hearts From the New World. Set in 1929 North America, New World features a bizarre cast of characters, including a bowling ninja, a drunken feline movie star, and a vampire who crash lands a flying saucer in Roswell. Enthusiastically silly, New World is a brightly lit vacation from the series’ dark undercurrent that seems to take nothing too serious except having fun. Once more, the Judgment Ring provides a solid foundation of game play.

Shadow Hearts From the New World is still available new for $38.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]