Destructoid review: Heavenly Sword

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For a game that started life as a PC title bound for next-gen consoles — the Xbox 360 among them — Heavenly Sword has come a long way. The game’s developer, Ninja Theory (formerly Just Add Monsters of Kung-Fu Chaos “fame”), had gone through a number of publishers before finally making a home with Sony Computer Entertainment, and the PlayStation 3. 

Originally described as “Ninja Gaiden meets Half-Life,” the title was once labeled “too ambitious” by one of the game’s previous publishers. Some four years after its 2003 reveal, Heavenly Sword has finally seen the light of day, and — in some people’s eyes — came with a huge responsibility: To prove the viability of the PlayStation 3.

With Sony openly acknowledging the lack of original, high-profile titles, Heavenly Sword‘s stunning visuals and high-impact gameplay has surely turned some heads. But is it a stepping-stone title that can finally put the PS3 on some gamers’ radar, or is a repetitive God of War-clone that never truly reaches its full potential?

Heavenly Sword (PS3)
Developed by Ninja Theory
Released September 12, 2007

Heavenly Sword follows the tale of the fiery-haired warrior, Nariko, and her quest to protect her clan against the power-hungry madness of King Bohan. When Bohan and his massive army strike, Nariko fights alongside her family and clansmen, and is ultimately defeated in battle. As her father and clan are taken captive, Nariko is forced to protect (and ultimately wield) the “Heavenly Sword,” a blade known through prophecy to corrupt men with its mysterious power.

The game begins with its ending — the title’s first (but not last) parallel to God of War. The game opens with the player controlling Nariko, cursed blade in hand, slaughtering hundreds of Bohan’s soldiers, as the blade slowly (and visibly) begins to take over her body. It’s in these moments that Nariko begins to regret her mistake to wield the “Heavenly Sword,” and the game truly begins as it flashes back to recount the events that led up to this fateful moment. Told over the series of five days, the game is broken up into easily-digestible chunks of levels. As the story plays out, the days go by, and Nariko gets closer and closer to the battle that opens the game.

From the start, Heavenly Sword plays itself as an over-the-top hack-and-slash title, with its countless on-screen enemies, and what begins as endless button mashing. The game introduces a number of gameplay mechanics early on, including the three-stance fighting system. Players can switch between the three styles on the fly by simply pressing and holding a button to activate the different stances — Speed Stance, Range Stance, and Power Stance. Each has its own strength and weakness, and the game attempts to force the player to use them all for various situations.
The default stance is the Speed Stance, with Nariko quickly wielding two blades. The Range Stance is what gets everyone onto the God of War comparisons — attacks are made with two chained blades, much in the same manner as the blades wielded by God of War‘s Kratos. The Power Stance is where the Sword truly shines; gripped with two hands, its slow and deliberate attacks are the most powerful in the game.

The different stances also play an essential role in the game’s defensive system; Heavenly Sword has no guard button — holding no button will cause Nariko to guard. The catch here is that different attacks will require a different stance to successfully guard. If there’s a blue glow when an enemy attacks, for example, this is the cue that the default Speed Stance is required for a guard, and no button should be held. An orange attack is the signal to quickly change to the Power Stance, as that’s the only stance that will result in a successful guard. Red attacks are unblockable, and this is another place where God of War rears its head; like Kratos, Nariko can be made to roll by using the SIXAXIS’ right thumb stick.

Battles become button-mashing at its finest; combat is fun and flashy, emphasized by the game’s “Super Style” attacks, which result in cinematic-style finishers. But while all of these different stances sound like they could deepen the experience, you’ll quickly realize that they’re not all entirely necessary. Sure, Nariko has a number of flashy combos at her disposal (and more are unlocked throughout gameplay ), but becoming familiar with them isn’t key to success.

Besides a few of the game’s key “block breaker” combos, you can successfully make your way through the game’s endless armies (and boss battles) by essentially mashing buttons. Unlike God of War, which had a wide variety of combos that found different uses for various situations and enemies, there’s no real need for memorizing any particular combo. Effectively, they all seem to be the same.
The game does make interesting use of the SIXAXIS controller with its projectile weapons mechanic, known as “AfterTouch.” When activated, you’re able to both aim and direct projectile objects by tilting the controller in any direction. This can be used by Nariko in a number of ways — she can pick up and throw objects (or corpses), or she can fire cannons in certain parts of the game. In some of the game’s areas, you control Nariko’s creepy, Bjork-like sister, Kai. Since Kai is weak in one-on-one (or one-on-fifty) combat, she relies heavily on her bow and arrow. The Kai portions of the game are significantly different than the Nariko battle sections, and depending on your mastery of the game’s “AfterTouch” controls, can be a chore.

While this is one of the more interesting uses of the SIXAXIS, at times it can be a frustrating experience. Because the game is relying on the wild assumption that objects thrown in one direction can be directed to go up, down, or make complete turns, projectiles don’t have a real-life weight to them. The motion controls can either feel too sensitive, or not sensitive enough, depending on any given situation. Tilting the controller a bit to the left might cause an object to veer sharply in that direction; other times, tilting it forward will cause that same object to hardly move. In missions where Kai or Nariko must nail a set number of targets as a clock ticks down to “Game Over,” these inconsistencies can turn into profanities. Experience teaches the nuances of the “AfterTouch,” though, and nailing enemies in the face in slow motion can become a fun and gratifying experience … if you’re patient enough.
One thing that should go without saying is that Heavenly Sword is one of the finest-looking games on the PlayStation 3. Gorgeous, detailed environments come to life in high-definition, with a varied color palette that pops off the screen. The quality of facial animation is the best seen to date in any videogame (including Valve’s impressive Half-Life 2). The result is delivery of a narrative in a way in which many games fall flat. When characters speak and react to one another, the subtle and realistic facial movements connect with you on an emotional level like few titles do. Tied together with the game’s impressive voice cast (skillfully spearheaded by actor Andy Serkis, among others), an otherwise mediocre tale comes to life as an epic and engaging journey.

But even visually, the game is not without its faults. In many ways, Heavenly Sword seems to push the PS3’s Cell processor to its limit, and there are a few areas where the game’s frame rate suffers, although it’s certainly nothing “game breaking.” The game fits an extraordinary number of characters on screen at once, and in some ways this is one of the game’s biggest weaknesses when it comes to maintaining interesting and consistent visuals. It appears that in focusing energy on the game’s main characters, the bit players have suffered. This wouldn’t have been an issue if you didn’t (quite literally) end up mowing down thousands of carbon copied enemies throughout the course of the game. As the game nears its conclusion, you realize that if you’ve seen one enemy, you’ve seen them all.The game also nears its end both quickly and easily. Although there are a few “tricky” (yet obvious, and sometimes cliched) boss battles that stand between you and the game’s 10+ hours of gameplay, there’s no real challenge to be had. Even on the game’s most difficult levels, the button-mashing techniques you learn early on will serve you well enough to move through the game’s story.

For a PlayStation 3 owner, there’s still nothing else like Heavenly Sword, both in terms of the game’s style and visuals. It doesn’t necessarily justify an entire console like some had hoped it would. It is an impressive visual feat, backed by enough fun and style to give it a place in any PlayStation 3 owner’s library. If anything, it’ll show off that new high-def television you purchased far more than that Talladega Nights Blu-ray disc ever could.

Score: 8.0
Verdict: Buy it!

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Nick Chester
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