Heavenly Sword has amazing graphics, deep game play, a great story, and is currently one of the best showpieces of what Sony’s hardware is capable of.
Unfortunately, despite developer Ninja Theory’s five year development cycle, the game is so short (between 6-8 hours long) some gamers will feel that Heavenly Sword doesn’t warrant the $60 price tag.
While often compared to God of War (largely because the game’s protagonist, Nariko, occasionally uses the game’s namesake in ways that are visually similar to Kratos’ Blades of Chaos,) Heavenly Sword’s game play actually has a lot more in common with timing-based action games like Ninja Gaiden. You can’t just mash buttons and expect to succeed, and Heavenly Sword is a far more deep and deliberate affair than the early God of War comparisons could have lead you to believe.
Even though Nariko is always outnumbered, Heavenly Sword gives you a wide variety of options for cutting swaths through Bohan’s evil minions
One of Heavenly Sword’s main strengths is that it gives players a lot of choices when deciding how they want to kill the seemingly endless stream of combatants the game will throw at them. There are 3 combat stances that can easily be switched on the fly, and finding the right stance for a given situation is crucial to both defense and offense. Players are required to alternate between Speed stance for basic attacks, Power stance for slower, harder hitting moves, and Range stance for deflecting incoming arrows and keeping large groups of enemies at bay. Enemies will similarly attack from 3 different postures which are indicated by a flash of color just before they strike. Blue strikes can be blocked or countered by staying in the default Speed stance, Orange strikes require Nariko to switch to the Power posture, and Red attacks are unblockable and must be avoided by rolling out of the way with a quick flick of the right analog stick. Although initially it can be challenging to switch into the correct stance at a moment’s notice, as players progress through Heavenly Sword, the color coding system quickly becomes second nature.
As mentioned earlier, the game rewards precision timing. Reversals typically kill enemies instantly. As long as Nariko is in the correct posture, taping the triangle button immediately after being attacked will cue a nifty animation sequence in which Nariko cinematically dispatches her attacker with brutal grace. In addition, landing combos and performing reversals fills up a 3 tiered SuperStyle meter, allowing Nariko to perform one of 9 spectacular fatal moves (3 per stance) with a press of the circle button. The more the meter is charged, the more surrounding enemies will perish as Nariko unleashes her flamboyant death-blow. The game also includes a liberal amount of quick-time-events (called Hero Moments), but thankfully if you screw up a particular sequence the game lets you simply try again rather than being forced to reload from your last checkpoint. The reversals, SuperStyle moves, and Hero Moments are wonderfully realized displays of over the top cinematic action, and their inclusion helps Heavenly Sword instill players with the sensation that they are staring in an epic martial arts movie as the camera dramatically pans out.
But the combos and reversals don’t encompass everything this game has to offer from a game play perspective. In short, Heavenly Sword capitalizes on the Sixaxis’ tilt functionality better than the lion’s share of PS3 titles to date. Tilt is used for knockdown recovery (after being knocked in the air by an enemy attack players shake the controller immediately and Nariko performs a special reversal), for aerial combos (hit a baddie in the air, and launch Nariko skyward by jerking the controller up as she continues the pummeling in the clouds), and after-touch (the ability to guide projectiles by tilting the Sixaxis.) It’s not the first time a developer has decided to include the tilt feature in a PS3 game, but it is one of the few times where the feature feels like it really adds something to the experience while helping differentiate Heavenly Sword from the current crop of action titles. Although players will also have the option to use the tilt feature to control camera panning by moving the controller left or right, I found it preferable to instead delegate that infrequent task to the L2 and R2 buttons. Thankfully, all Sixaxis functions can be reassigned to a more traditional tilt-free control setting, but it’s really nice to see that most of them add enough to the experience to leave them enabled.
Whether watching cut scenes or playing the game, Heavenly Sword is a cinematic experience from start to finish.
As if there weren’t already enough combat options available in Heavenly Sword, players also will enjoy the opportunity to play as the Nariko’s catlike friend and sidekick Kai from time to time (maybe 20% of the game.) Kai, the childlike (and possibly schizophrenic) archer provides comic relief and another set of game play elements for players to tackle. Although she’s unable to dish out any melee damage when confronted directly, Kai is able to shoot an unlimited amount of arrows. Pressing the square button allows Kai to glide past foes and temporarily stun them with acrobatic defensive maneuvers every bit as stylish as Nariko’s combat. Kai makes little jokes as she shucks and jives through the crowds of enemies and shoots arrows into their noggins from afar, and it’s hard to come away from her segments without a smile on your face.
Visually, Heavenly Sword is an outstanding achievement. The characters are so detailed that watching the game’s numerous cut scenes is like experiencing a Hollywood action movie. Visible pores, wrinkles, skin translucency, and numerous other little details give the models a polished look that successfully bypasses the uncanny valley altogether. Much of this realism is due to the fact that special effects giant WETA was able harness the talents of the amazing cast, which was headed by acclaimed motion capture actor Andy Serkis. The end result is some of the slickest looking animation ever seen in gaming, and players will find themselves revisiting the unlocked cut scenes from the options menu simply to marvel at their beauty long after they have beaten the game.
In addition to Ninja Theory and WETA’s technical prestidigitation, Heavenly Sword boast a marvelous story that is well paced and jam packed with emotional resonance. The story begins at the game’s final climactic battle culminating with our heroine’s death as she contends with thousands of soldiers led by the evil King Bohan. Bohan, it seems, wishes to claim the sword as a trophy of his supremacy throughout the land, and Nariko belongs to the clan who has for generations been responsible from preventing the sword from falling into evil hands. During this initial sequence, we learn that the Heavenly Sword was never meant to be used by mortals, and its ability to imbue supernatural strength and agility comes at a heavy price to the user. Whoever wields it begins gradually dying as they harness its power, and the remainder of the game is the 5 days leading up to Nariko’s certain demise as she faces against Bohan’s forces. It’s not that the story itself is particularly remarkable, it’s that the quality of acting, art direction, and technical mastery every step of the way all coalesce into an end product that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Heavenly Sword’s eccentric bosses are quirky in the same spirit as the bosses found in the Metal Gear games
Great care was taken to ensure that Heavenly Sword would feel like a movie. Nariko will occasionally soliloquize as she traverses the gorgeous environments, adding depth and purpose to her character. There are also 24-style moments occurring in-game during which the character can see points of interest in one pane while engaging in a furious battle in another. And much like a blockbuster action movie the action often jumps between Kai and Nariko during the course of a single fight, which ramps up the tension and allows the player to experience things from different perspectives. The term ‘interactive movie’ is thrown around a lot in video games these days, but with Heavenly Sword, the words actually ring true. Heavenly Sword’s cinematic nature is a major part of its identity and raises the bar for interactive fiction.
Heavenly Sword’s length isn’t its only problem, though. There are frame rate problems during some of the cut scenes and while playing through some of the larger in game battles. Occasionally it seemed as though the audio and video even got a bit out of sync, which detracted from the otherwise sterling presentation of the game. Furthermore, there aren’t very many types of enemies in Heavenly Sword. Aside from the boss battles, Nariko and Kai will basically face off against the same half dozen enemy variants over and over again throughout the course of the game. Nevertheless, when you are fighting a couple thousand enemies on a vast battlefield, it’s easy to cut the developers some slack and not mind if they all look and act fairly similar.
At the end of the day, beating Heavenly Sword feels a lot like finishing a fine meal at a gourmet restaurant: the colorful presentation, quality ingredients, delectable flavors are all superb, but the tiny portion means that you may leave a bit hungry despite the hefty bill. So while the average person eats more hamburgers than steaks for practical reasons, every now and then (say, 9 months into a consoles life-cycle) it’s nice to spoil yourself with a fine cut of meat. Then again, you can’t exactly rent a steak, so only gamers who are aware of the quality over quantity philosophy that defines Heavenly Sword should drop $60 on this short but sweet action title. It’s easily the best action game on the system, but just as Nariko must die in order to wield the Heavenly Sword, this game comes at a heavy price.