Ah, Shadow Hearts, my beloved series. You had me enthralled since your beginnings in Koudelka, and I’ve followed you ever since. I can look past your flaws--embracing inaccurate histories and bastardized religions, all the while reinforcingstereotypes across the board. I mean, it’s not your job to keep a perfect record of the past or explain religion to me. It’s the crazy settings, darkly humorous stories, and disturbing monsters that attract me to you. Most of all, it’s the harmonixers (humans that fuse their souls with those of demons) that keep me coming back again and again.
Thus far, we have met five harmonixers in the three Shadow Hearts games: Yuri Hyuga and his father Ben, Kurando Inugami and his mother Saki, and Shania. As the games progress, the fusion monsters become less “scary” and more “cool,” ultimately falling into the “sexy” category with Shania in Shadow Hearts: From the New World. Let's take a closer look at Yuri's evolution first.
When Yuri uses his “Fusion” skill, the results are often frightening. The first Shadow Hearts in particular contained some intimidating fusion monsters, ranging from the horrible Lobo to the grotesque Czernobog. When we see him again Shadow Hearts: Covenant, however, he has left the “scary” realm and transitioned into “cool.” That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing--Veneficium can still kick just as much ass as Egil!--but the aesthetics of the monsters are worth noting. Where Sandalphon is a frightening bug-like creature, Miserati is purely deific.
Over time, I feel that the Shadow Hearts games have become progressively more and more openly sexual (but let’s not fool ourselves--the first thing Yuri thinks about when he rescues Alice is essentially rape). When the game designers realized Yuri's fanbase, the already gorgeous pscyho got a slight makeover for the sake of Shadow Hearts: Covenant. I’m not complaining! It’s perfectly fine for characters in games to be attractive. It’s part of many games' escapist appeal; however, it does become a problem when the character’s representation is exploitative.
As is often the case, however, when a video game designer decides to create a female character, we end up with women like Shania. She's easily the strongest character in your party, and her active pursuit for revenge at any cost makes her an aggressive go-getter. But damn, those shorts would make Yuna from Final Fantasy X-2 blush. And that skimpy top? Woo!
Impractical wardrobe decisions aside, Shania is subjected to one of the most awkward transformations scenes I've ever seen. Nothing on the subject is more divergent than the manner in which Yuri and Shania transform. Until Yuri gains confidence in himself late in the game, he begins his fusions by clutching his head, stumbling and screaming in pain and fear. Shania, on the other hand… well… her clothes fall off.
Now, what the hell was that? Were those sparkly shoujo lights and colors? Did I have to see her boobs separate as her top falls off? Why did I get so dangerously close to her nether regions? ... More importantly, why doesn’t Yuri transform by floating around in barely-underwear after dropping his pants!?
One thing the game designers did well was having Ta Tanka scream like a madwoman after the awkward strip tease. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be in her way! Her fighting style with this form isn’t exactly pretty, either. All of that is irrelevant, though, when comparing her to her analog in Yuri, Gaudion (and the same things can be said for Thunderbird and Libertis, as well as La Sirene and Venificium!). I mean, Yuri isn’t even recognizable as human in this form! From her exposed breasts to her high heeled shoes, Shania is not only humanoid, but also an alluring earth/bull goddess! Her pretty face remains virtually the same, as well. She should be fighting the forces of evil, not seducing the players. In terms of design, it's as though the need for her to be sexy supercedes the need for her to be strong and intimidating. At least she has bulky forearms.
Let's compare the "ultimate forms" of the two protagonists. Here they seem to be on equal footing.
One might argue that while Yuri's Dark Seraphim fusion is totally naked, Shania's Tirawa fusion is at least wearing armor. They're both definitely bad asses, but I'd say that Tirawa still suffers from more sexing-up than Dark Seraphim. Her armor, while preventing complete nakedness, is effectively useless (I guess she's safe as long as no one tries to kick her in the shins or stab her nipples.). The armor is an accessory to her body and exploits her nudity. One might argue that Dark Seraphim's tattoos serve a similar purpose, but the neuter character model has little to offer the viewer. Tirawa's perky breasts are pointed right at my eyes, though, and I don't even look for that kind of thing!
In the end, we face two problems because of these fusion monsters. With the exception of Yuri's androgynous Miserati and Kurando's feminine Tsukiyomi, all of the male fusions are hypermasculine, frightening beasts that are coming to beat you to a pulp, suggesting that their power is wild and something to be feared. The female fusions are still going to beat you to a pulp, but they’re going to do you first.
Again, there's no problem with being attractive. I wouldn't want to play a game where all the characters were ugly. I see enough ugly people in my everyday life. It's this notion that female characters must always remain pretty--whether they're dying or fighting--that needs to be changed. It's a shame that Shania's fusions didn't reflect her dark intentions and obsession with revenge. I hope to see another female harmonixer in future installments to the Shadow Hearts series--perhaps she'll possess fusions that actually embody the souls of demons instead of merely granting her a costume change.
Oh, and in the process of putting this article together, I stumbled across this lovely Shadow Hearts gem. No, it has nothing to do with anything, but it’s campy as hell.