Heavenly Sword review
Short yet theatrical slasher
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
One thing that needs to be established is that when the PS3 first came out, it wasn't the system that it became as the years go by. It was known as the system with no games. Now, back then, that made a lot of sense, because there wasn't much on the system to justify $599, except Motorstorm and Resistance: Fall Of Man. Even a year later, there wasn't much to tide gamers over in the form of exclusives, and as a result, Heavenly Sword wept silently, wishing it was on the Xbox 360, just so that it could show the world its power. Now, with increased awareness of the PS3 and how good of a system it really is, plus the reduced prices of older PS3 titles, I felt the need to go through this and raise awareness of this game, for it may have been an overlooked exclusive, but a closer look tells me otherwise. I know that I'll be sent a lot of hate mail, but I honestly don't see what's so good about this game.
Nariko is one of those members of her clan... you know, the "we probably shouldn't talk about that" member, and this is because she is the wielder of the Heavenly Sword, despite the prophecy stating that a man worthy of the sword will wield it in the final hours of battle. The game starts with Nariko succumbing to its powers, killing her during an epic battle, because the Heavenly Sword is so powerful, that it drains the power of its wielder. As a result, the game is told through a series of flashbacks - from the day she first used the sword to fend off the evil King Bohan and his army, to the day of her death.
It's impossible to find any faults in the storyline. The writing is like that of an expert linguist, in which no word ever feels out of place, nor does any line ever seem like filler. Every piece of dialogue is as important as the rest, and it's no more obvious than in the fact that each line is expertly delivered by some of the best voice acting ever encountered in a video game. Seriously, King Bohan sets the bar for crazy villains in video games - I know movies have the Joker and Hannibal Lector, but do video games? Unfortunately not. His over the top voice acting enhances his devilish and surprisingly upbeat personality, and you know you got a good character on your hands when the expectation for movie-quality villains is exceeded tenfold! In fact, every character, from Nariko, to her friend Kai, to Bohan's generals, and even to characters that don't get many speaking lines, manages to stick out with lifelike personalities, backed up by excellent voice acting. The characterization, in other words, effectively draws you into the storyline, and with how well written it is, you can't help but really invest your time into it!
Heavenly Sword plays like a typical hack and slash. What you'll have to do is slice and dice your enemies while keeping yourself alive. You'll be able to use three different stances - speed, range and power. Speed allows for speedy attacks; power allows for slow yet powerful attacks; and range lets you cover a lot of ground around you. The way that it's set up is so that random button mashing ends up hindering your progress, as opposed to helping. Like with, say, Ninja Gaiden, Heavenly Sword requires a more intricate approach, knowing exactly what to do with each stance, and as certain attacks are only blockable in certain stances, paying attention to enemy attacks and the color they may end up glowing around them is a necessity. Add in some instant death counterattacks that require split second reactions in order to actually pull them off, and you got yourself quite a robust combat engine that can manage to give the enemies hell!
Unfortunately, one cannot deny that the gameplay is far from perfect. I'll start by mentioning that any moment where the SIXAXIS is used is plain ridiculous. From Kai's arrows to the segments where Nariko fires from a large cannonball shooter, you'll have to use the SIXAXIS to get a more precise aim that somehow manages to defy the laws of physics. As Nariko, you'll mostly use it to stop wheeled catapults, and you have to hit at the exact marks, or you won't do anything to it. Sometimes, you'll also need to throw some shields, and using trigonometry, you'll hit an object that'll direct the shield more towards the switch - the only problem is that the angle has to be pretty damn precise, or it won't hit the switch - the way it handles is just frustrating, to say the least. Then you head to Kai's segments, and I have to say, her segments go from cool to monotonous fairly quickly. As she cannot use physical attacks... for reasons I have yet to figure out, usage of the bow and SIXAXIS is practically a requirement in order to kill soldiers, and if you're not able to get used to the way you're meant to hold the controller to use SIXAXIS motion control correctly, you'll end up finding these segments frustrating, but if you can, the worst you'll get is monotony.
Another annoyance are these damn quick time events. These often occur in boss battles during moments that always find a way to catch your eyes, making it a bit tricky to keep track of what button to press. Ironically, these become distractions from the actual fight, because you're too busy trying to press buttons, because if you screw it up, the boss will heal itself back up, and you'll have to repeat the process. Oh, and diagonal directions that need to be input by the d-pad? No thanks. Too many times, is it easy to press one or the other direction instead of diagonally, and if this was on the Xbox 360, this would be a nightmare due to that circle they call a d-pad.
There's also a distinct lack of camera control. Now, where I don't mind this in the more enclosed areas, the open fields just BEG for it, and yet, they're denied such a thing. Typically, you'd want to pay attention to all sides, not just the one that is up ahead. Due to the lack of control, there are bits and pieces that are obscured, hidden by architecture, and most of the time, it's either an enemy, or an important item, which begs the question - why no camera control? Oh, and wouldn't it have killed them to let Nariko... oh, I don't know, JUMP!? Sheesh, I thought it was common practice to let our action heroes and heroines jump!
You know what the icing on the cake is? The short length - 6 hours, tops. This may sound good because there are no moments of filler within the story and if it went on for any longer, it'd potentially wreck the pacing, but let's be honest - that one playthrough is the only one that'll be done. There is absolutely no incentive to play a second time. Sure, there's a harder difficulty mode to go through after the first playthrough, but it doesn't really mean anything, and that's because the gameplay will feel extremely boring. You've already gone through this, and you honestly don't care because the gameplay ends up being about as interesting as a wet paper towel. Despite there being a fairly robust combat engine, there isn't a lot to unlock, unless you're into watching a couple of interviews and looking at a bunch of artwork...
The presentation is astounding! I've already mentioned the voice acting and how it not only emphasizes the personalities of each character, but also manages to bring it all to life! The soundtrack manages to add a staggering amount of depth to each cutscene, as well as make each battle seem more epic. You honestly can't play this game without the soundtrack (so it becomes disheartening during dead silent moments) because it just enhances the mood so well!
As far as the visuals go, they look incredible. Each location have this hand painted look and feel to them, and the colors used throughout manage to bring the entire world to life! I thought that the way some of the exchanges of dialogue were presented looked very effective - basically, it's split screen, with the talker in one box, and gameplay in the other. It doesn't wreck the flow of play, and it still allows for some dialogue to be exchanged! Yes, there are also some more "traditional" cutscenes, and they've very well presented with some slick animation and excellent looking surroundings with maybe a few framerate stutters here and there, but the other way is more interesting, mostly because most games don't use that method.
Heavenly Sword is definitely recommendable. It has a very short lifespan and the segments utilizing quick time events and the SIXAXIS are a pain in the ass, but everything else, from the combat engine to the presentation and storyline, are excellent! It's only about 20 bucks, so if you're a PS3 owner who missed out on this exclusive either due to a high price for a short game, or because you just missed it, go and find yourself a copy right now.
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