Back when I first had my very own PS2 at around age 13, Shadow Hearts: From the New World (SH) was one of the games that I bought along with it. Having experienced a few popular and fun RPGs (Final Fantasy, Dynasty Warriors), I had several preconceived notions of how they’re like. When I first played Shadow Hearts, I was introduced to one of their main game mechanics: the Judgement Ring. I hated it, mainly because I kept missing all the time and after hours of sheer frustration, I stopped playing the game.
A few years later, I loaded the game up and tried it again. This time, however, I absolutely loved it. The game was impressionable in many other aspects such as story, character design, etc, but the highlight of the game was the Judgement Ring mechanic.
The Judgement Ring
A detailed explanation of the judgement ring can be found here. Whenever a character attacks, a circular disk will appear with a meter that begins rotating around the center. Some parts of the disk will be highlighted and the player has to push a button when the meter is on the highlighted area to perform a successful attack. Here’s a video link illustrating the system.
The judgement ring is highly flexible in design. Hence, it is easy to change its components depending on what it is used for.
The main usage of the judgement ring is for character attacks of all kinds. For physical attacks, the number of hit areas reflects the personality of the character. To illustrate this, one of the game characters, Natan, wields two pistols. When he attacks, the judgement ring displays two hit areas that are close to each other. The positioning and number of hit areas mirror his attack style: two quick successive shots. Missing either or both of the hit areas respectively translates to Natan missing the first, second or both shots.
The ring can also reflect the nature of attacks. For spell casting, there is a green hit area followed by the standard orange area(s). The green hit area represents the spell cast and the blue areas represent the spell actually hitting the opponent. Missing the first hit area represents and unsuccessful spell cast and naturally causes the spell to fail. Many games do not consciously highlight the casting component of spell attack. Seeing this mechanic emphasized in the judgement ring was a refreshing change.
Status effects affect the judgement ring as well. Party members can be afflicted with statuses such as a fast ring or the blind ring. These status effects make it more difficult to strike the hit areas. Blind ring, for example, means that all hit areas are hidden and the player has to guess where they are. In the case of a blind ring, a player who memorized the position of the attack areas can still strike the hit areas even if they’re invisible. Contrary to many games where debuffs absolutely negate the player’s strength, the player is given the opportunity to overcome them in Shadow Hearts and feel satisfied.
Combat aside, the judgement ring is adaptable and pops up in other game moments. It appeared and gave me a try for a discount as I was shopping, it offered additional bonuses when powering up my abilities and it was also the main mechanic for several mini-games.
At the start, seeing this mechanic can be odd as it is an interface most players are not used to, myself included. After getting used to it, however, I was able to appreciate how one single interface can echo and reinforce the game not only in terms of combat but also, the story, gameplay and the characters themselves.
The judgement ring by itself already has many exciting elements. Spinning the judgement ring resembles gambling at the roulette table. The player is initially rewarded by a variable ratio schedule. The unskilled player is unsure if he will succeed.
As the player becomes more skillful and accurate at hitting the larger orange areas, narrow red strike areas at the end of each orange area provide an additional challenge. Hitting the red areas provides additional rewards such as critical hits and thus provides substantial motivation for veteran players. Due to its position at small width, attempting to strike at red areas increases the risk of missing the attack completely. This high-risk factor adds further excitement to these moments.
There are rare items that cause the meter to spin up to unlimited times with increasing speed as long as the player does not miss a hit area. These rare moments generally cause a spike in excitement level as the character’s attacks hits are directly dependent on how successful the player is on consecutive hits in the ring. From my personal experience, performing these attacks puts me in a trance. The gradual increase in rotational speed of the meter makes it more challenging and exciting the longer this maneuver goes on. Seeing how I enabled the character to unleash a flurry of attacks is also hugely satisfying.
The judgement ring is able to create manageable goals that players of different skill levels can focus on by offering the hard-to-hit red strike areas on top the orange ones. Since their performance directly relates to in-game results, players obtain immediate feedback on their performance and can easily learn how to time their presses better. Furthermore, varying the parameters of the judgement ring mechanic via items or debuffs is a clever way of implementing new challenges that prevent the mechanic from being too repetitive.
Shadow Hearts offers multiple judgement ring modes. For players frustrated with the default judgement ring, there is the auto mode that automatically strikes the hit areas. For players who prefer a riskier style, there’s the gamble mode that aggregates all the hit areas to a small one. Having these modes grants accessibility to more player types. Players who absolutely hate having to strike the judgement ring each attack can still enjoy the game without having to do so.
Shadow Hearts showed me how a single well-designed interface can enrich the game in multiple areas. I certainly appreciate its elegance and will definitely consider this element when designing future games.