Sigh... you can't help but expect any RPG on PS2 without the words 'final' and 'fantasy' in the title to achieve nothing more than the status of 'also ran'.
This was the case with the first game in this series, which scored a rather pallid 60%, despite being developed by a group of ex-Square Enix employees. Covenant, however, has restored our faith and proved it possible to make a great RPG that isn't a me-too Final Fantasy clone.
The storyline picks up a year after the first game, with protagonist Yuri being cursed by a secret society. Cue a jaunt around the world with odd companions (puppeteer with creepy little girl puppet, pro-wrestling superhero who can transform into a bat, and so on) to find a cure.
It all seems rather typical RPG fare, but the big difference is that the Shadow Hearts games aren't set on some cutesy alien world, but on Earth, and, in the case of Covenant, after the start of the First World War. The realistically grubby backdrops work brilliantly.
Covenant brings back the first game's turn-based battle system but don't panic, the return and improvement of the Judgement Ring makes it the most engaging battle system you could wish for. The Judgement Ring is a dial on which you make timed hits, the accuracy of which decides the success of your battle moves. The battles are exciting and as your timing with the ring improves until you're making perfect hits regularly, you feel a genuine sense of achievement.
Throughout the game, the dark plot is punctured with some genuinely funny scripting, with Yuri defying the typical naive, po-faced main character role with sarcastic, dark humour. There are, of course, dungeons, puzzles and side quests exactly where you would expect them to be, yet it's not the similarities but the differences in tone, style and battling that are Covenant's strengths.
Clocking in at 50 hours, Shadow Hearts Covenant is a large gulp of fresh air for RPG fans and proves that such games don't have to be cardboard cut out versions of FF to be successful.