Back when Sony first announced the PlayStation 3 there was one game in the snippet of tech demos that stood out for me. That title was known as Heavenly Sword. Being an avid fan of action titles such as God of War and Ninja Gaiden watching this trailer filled me with hope of finally being able to play a game that mimicked the insane aerial combat found on classic Honk Kong flicks set to a gorgeous graphical backdrop. The promise of tons of onscreen foes and deep and engaging combat were more than enough to transcend this game to one of my most wanted titles for the console. Now more than two years later I have finally got to put my grubby hands all over Nariko and her new game. While the game does get off to a plodding start it ramps up quickly ending in one incredible finale that is a must play for all fans of the action genre.
Heavenly Sword is the type of game that was destined to fail long before it dropped on retail shelves. Numerous comparisons to Sony’s other “God” of the genre would undoubtedly put expectations to unreachable levels. While the final game is not quite on the same plane as the aforementioned title it does manage to upstage it on some levels. For instance the presentation of the story is light years beyond any other game currently on the market. The team at Ninja Theory has went above and beyond the call of duty by delivering the most realistic facial animations and acting performances ever captured in interactive entertainment; even surpassing the highly regarded Half-Life 2.
The story itself is well done, if not a bit derivative and predictable. You play the role of Nariko, an outcast who was destined at birth to fulfill the prophecy of the Heavenly Sword. At the very beginning of the game you are dropped into a large scale battle and eventually fall to the swarms of enemies and the curse of the sword. The rest of the game is one giant flashback that leads up to this massive skirmish, which certainly doesn’t help all of the God of War references. Throughout your journey you will come across a collection of the most eccentric villains this side of a Kojima game and even assume the role of your creepy Bjork-like sister known as Kai in side missions that nicely break up the pace of monotonous hack and slash.
It is no secret that Heavenly Sword is an action game. In fact outside of a few mundane door puzzles this game is a non-stop thrill ride with little room for breathing. Thankfully the combat system manages to work on two levels, one for skilled players willing to dedicate their time to learning its nuances and button mashers simply looking for quick, mindless fun. Nariko has three separate stances for combat, once you acquire the Heavenly Sword. The default stance is called Speed and it delivers a normal amount of damage to standard enemy types. The second is called Ranged and it is useful against multiple enemies and archers, the downside is that you cannot block attacks in ranged. The final one is called Power and while it is slower than the two other stances, it does deliver a much heavier amount of damage and is crucial against certain enemies.
Switching between stances is as simple as holding down the L1 or R1 buttons. You can also string together attacks between stances discovering new combos. The cool part about the combat system in general is that for each consecutive attack you fill up a meter that over time unlocks new combos and eventually artwork and other bonus goodies found in the game. This will also net you access to special attacks that can be accessed by pressing the circle button when the meter is full. These stylish attacks are well worth the investment and add a visual flare to the game that is reminiscent of classic over-the-top action flicks. You can also counter attacks with the triangle button. Enemies will dash at you with different colored trails and if you are in that stance (i.e. blue is speed, orange is power, and red is unblockable) you can tap triangle at the exact moment you block to perform a reversal.
The biggest problem with the combat is that for everything it does well it still feels loose and shallow. Direct hits onto enemies don’t portray that sense of pain that other games in the genre deliver. Whether that is because of the gameplay or a lack of rumble is debatable, but you do notice that the combat can feel a bit underwhelming at times. It is also frustrating when you are surrounded by enemies and cannot see your character as countering becomes nigh impossible. I really wish the developers would have opted for a user-controlled system. The implementations of Sixaxis are also a hit and miss. The aftertouch effect used for steering items and bodies after you throw them is excellent, but having to waggle the controller for air attacks and recoveries takes a lot of getting used to. Thankfully you have the option of turning these off in the options screen, but I really feel that developers are finally discovering what does and does not work with motion control.
Probably the biggest and most exciting surprise about the game is how you take control of Nariko’s sister Kai in quite a few of the missions. Her dynamic is entirely different than Nariko and they add a great compliment to a game that without them would have gotten far too tedious far too quickly. Kai’s levels usually consist of you moving from point A to point B and taking down guards with your crossbow. Steering arrows in slow motion with the Sixaxis is one of the most satisfying experiences I have had on the console so far. Learning that you can steer the arrows through fire and into a barrel of fireworks opens up so many possibilities and keeps the action fresh. Add these the sections of the game where Nariko takes over rocket launchers and cannons and you have a well paced game that manages to break the monotony found in most titles of this type.
Like I mentioned earlier Heavenly Sword’s greatest asset is by far its presentation. You have heard time and time again just how powerful the PS3 really is, and until now you have yet to see any evidence of that. Well Heavenly Sword really shows off what this system can do with easily the most impressive facial animations ever conceived in a game. Levels are bursting at the seams with subtle details and the draw distance on any given stage is so incredible you have to see it to believe. The performances delivered by the virtual actors are also worth noting. Being headlined by Andy Serkis, most famous for his roles as Gollum in the LOTR trilogy and Kong in of course King Kong, as King Bohan HS has the look and atmosphere of a huge Hollywood blockbuster, which is of course further complemented by the superior voice acting and incredibly detailed characters.
The biggest thing holding Heavenly Sword from being the blockbuster that Sony hoped it would be is a lack of replay. The core experience can be finished in less than six hours, and outside of a few bonus videos and artwork there isn’t much here to keep you coming back. The developers have stated that if the game sells well they may bring some DLC to the table, but one has to wonder if more arenas and more enemies will really bring gamers back to this one after finishing it. As it stands HS may be the best rental game you play all year, and that does not bode well for a sequel.
It is extremely hard not to recommend playing this game, it is however hard to recommend buying it. At sixty bucks for fewer than six hours of gameplay Heavenly Sword probably costs more per hour than most gamers make. If you have a PS3 and love the action genre then you should not miss this incredible experience, unfortunately it is hard to recommend shelling out sixty bucks for such a short experience. This is not the game that is going to sell PS3 systems, but that does not mean it isn’t really damn good.