Heavenly Sword Review
It was only earlier this year that Sony released God of War II, giving PS2 gamers the chance to jump into the blades of Kratos and get revenge against the gods that cursed him. And seeming to want to reproduce that success, Sony-backed developer Ninja Theory's Heavenly Sword - first seen in playable form back at E3 in 2006 on the PS3, before the console was released - is finally here, and it's living up to most of the hype.
Heavenly Sword is all about Nariko, a young woman and a tough warrior in her clan, one of the few clans left in a mystical land that the evil King Bohan hasn't assimilated into his army. These slightly zealous people protect a weapon called the Heavenly Sword which, according to prophecy, can be wielded only by a person sent from Heaven itself down to set their land right again. Nariko's mother died during childbirth and her clan (and even her own father) believe that her "cursed" birth screwed up the prophecy. She's seen by her people as an affront to their religion, but her father raised her to be a warrior anyway. When Bohan comes after their clan to take the Heavenly Sword for himself, Nariko and her people are scattered to the winds as her father puts her in charge of protecting their sacred weapon. But Nariko gets separated from the rest of the clan, cornered and put in an impossible predicament. In a desperate bid she decides to wield the Heavenly Sword herself...
All of this happens in the first 20 or so minutes of the game, and you'll be playing as both Nariko and the strange teenage girl Kai as they fight to keep the Heavenly Sword out of Bohan's grasp. In doing so, you'll get to use three weapon styles: Speed, Power, and Ranged. The Ranged attacks might look a little bit too similar to Kratos' Blades of Chaos which are fired out with a chain keeping them attached, but really here you'll be mostly fighting with the other styles. And you'll get plenty of combos here, most of which have a bit more of a kung fu and acrobatic style than what Kratos had. You'll also find that this game is much less gory, with its Teen rating and lack of blood.
But what this game lacks in gore, it makes up for in powerful animations with satisfying-sounding hits. Even then, this isn't the best part of the game: it's during the superbly-animated cutscenes where the game really shines. Many of the cutscenes are done inside the game engine, and all were motion captured by WETA, the studio that was responsible for the CG effects in the Lord of the Rings movies. And all of the game's cutscenes have been overseen by Andy Serkis, the incredible actor who portrayed Gollum in the LOTR movies - and here in Heavenly Sword he plays (and voices) the bad guy, King Bohan. If you enjoyed LOTR, it should then come as no surprise to you that some of the best acting in this game comes from Serkis, who is so lively and has such excellent facial expressions that it pretty much shames all video game motion capture yet (both from the technical side and from the artistic). The other characters, like Kai, Shen, and Nariko, are all excellent as well, but it's Serkis' Bohan that really makes this game's story shine. Even though he's not the main character, he totally steals the show.
And the story is an important part here, as it's a great tale of revenge along with a pretty nasty twist on the usual good guy prophecy. It's hard to talk this side up any more without spoiling it, but I found Heavenly Sword's story to be on par with the one in the first God of War. But yes, this is still a pure action game and most of the time you spend with the controller in your hands will involve wrecking thugs and swinging the Heavenly Sword around, but the developers have done a great job with pacing and switching up the action. That's mostly done by having you take control of Kai, who is an excellent sharpshooter with her strange revolver-chamber crossbow that can fire out bolts at a really good clip.
At the heart of this system is the ability to "aftertouch" your projectiles after releasing them, but the one thing I had to do fairly early into the game was turn off the PS3's SIXAXIS motion controls where you tilt the controller to fine-tune your shot. It feels so unnatural and it simply forces you to play with your hands holding the controller in a really awkward position for you to actually use it, and it really pulled me out of the game. Call me a curmudgeon, but I love plenty of Wii games and even after twenty minutes of trying it, being a "reviewer", attempting to get used to it so I could come into this article and say that it's really not that bad, I'm here to say that yes, it really is that bad. Do yourself a favor and as soon as you get to the first part where you have to aim, hit Start and turn off the motion controls. It lets you use the left analog stick and it's much, much easier (and more fun) to play it like this.
Speaking of controls, you'll find that the combat system here is a little different than you might expect. Normal attacks are unleashed by pressing the Square and Triangle buttons. Hold the L1 button for the Ranged style, and your swords fly out, attached to chains, to hit in a larger arc. You can't do much damage by just mashing these buttons, but you can start up some sick aerial combos that really look impressive and are really the main reason to even try the Ranged stance. Hold L2, and Nariko goes into a Power stance where you can unleash large, slower attacks.
Your stances are used for more than just attacking, though, as Heavenly Sword has no block button. Instead, you'll automatically block incoming attacks if you're not already swinging and your current stance matches the attack that's coming in. Each stance has a different colored shimmer effect associated with it, so you'll need to quickly switch stances if you want to keep yourself from getting hit. From there, your block can lead to a counterattack if you press the Triangle button at just the right time. On top of this, some scenes in the game, both during boss fights and during the more acrobatic moments, have you do some of those button-press puzzles that God of War made popular. What I like about these ones is that there are branching outcomes based on how you do; even if you miss some or hit a button a split second too late, you can still make it through, sometimes with a less-positive result. This adds a little bit to these scenes and makes them more interesting if you get stuck having to do them a few times over.
While the impressive graphics in Heavenly Sword certainly flex the power of the PS3, it's the work done with the motion-captured, real-life actors that give this game much of its charm. Sure, hundreds of soldiers can be shown on-screen at once along with some really wonderful views and great action, but a single character switching emotions from a hysterical laugh to a hate-filled glare is also just as vivid - if not more so - and the voice work is top-notch as well. Extreme close-ups of the main characters are common, and you'll see some of the most detailed faces ever seen in a game. There are a few downsides to the visuals in Heavenly Sword, however. First, Nariko's strangely fluid locks of bright-red hair animate really awkwardly. I'll admit that hair is an incredibly hard thing for a game to model and no game has done it as well as this one, but it still looks very unrealistic compared to everything else; there's a reason most video game females have short-cropped locks or ponytails that hardly move. It was an admirable try, but I think game developers should wait a while for graphics technology to improve before trying to do hair like Nariko's again.
The frame rate is just a tad on the low side for me, but I can excuse it considering the genre where super-fast frame rates aren't necessary, and the level of detail that the PS3 is pushing out during the heavy action certainly makes it easier to forgive. And sure, this game is totally linear and winds up being a bit short, but what we do get is a blast and adds up to quite an epic experience. Even then, you can still surely get your money's worth out of Heavenly Sword if you're into refining your skills at blocking, combos, air attacks, and switching up strategies for different types of foes. An unlock system is in place to reward you for stringing consecutive hits without taking damage yourself, rewarding you with new combos, bigger attacks, and special features like Making Of videos and artwork. It's not incredibly grand, but it's still pretty damn good stuff. Finally, Hell difficulty can be unlocked by beating the game the first time, and in it you'll have to get much faster, more accurate, and highly technical with your block-breakers and counterattacks if you want to survive.
Ninja Theory and Sony have done an admirable job making a game in the style of God of War without turning it into a shameless clone, but the guys at WETA really brought Heavenly Sword to life. The action is great, too, and those who play and replay these kind of games to master them will be happy with what they get: chapter and segment selection, ratings based on your performance in a given level, many unique combo opportunities, a super-hard difficulty level, and unlockable perks all based on fighting skill. If there's one thing I really have to complain about, it's that this game will feel short for those who will only likely play through it one time. But other than that, this is an excellent action title with an engaging story, massively detailed characters with a real human quality to them, and plenty of ass-kicking to go around.