Heavenly Sword is sometimes referred to as the new God of War game on the PS3, since they share the same genre and revolve around beating up monsters. Developer Ninja Theory invested a great deal of time and money into Heavenly Sword and it has been in development since 2003. Somewhere in between it made a switch from the Xbox to the Playstation 3. Not many games have such high production values as Heavenly Sword, but did the switch and the long development time work out well?
Heavenly Sword revolves around the struggle of Nariko and her people to escape the evil hands of king Bohan, who is after a precious artifact called The Heavenly Sword. It is believed that this sword was built in heaven and it’s destined to be wielded by a powerful deity. Nariko’s father Shen is the current protector of the sword but eventually it comes into Nariko’s possession. When Bohan manages to capture Shen and a large portion of the clan, Nariko decides to wield the sword to protect herself and her brethren. It was believed that the sword would drain the life of any mortal that would use the sword, thus ending Nariko’s life sooner. Just when a gigantic battle is about to go down, Nariko feels her power fading away and she loses control and falls down on the battlefield.
Above’s story is explained early on in the game via both in-game cutscenes and pre-rendered cutscenes using the game’s engine. Nariko’s adventure starts off five days before these events and to find out what happens to Nariko, you’ll have to work your way through a series of chapters. In between missions, the story is given a bit more depth and the relationship between Nariko and her father as well as the twisted family of king Bohan is explained more thoroughly. Dramatic director for the game Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, also took the role of king Bohan upon himself and managed to create characters that sound extremely convincing. There is absolutely no doubt about the astonishing quality of the voice acting and animations being used to bring the characters to life. Motion capture techniques were used to capture all character animations and lip movement precisely so they could be converted into the game. When combined with the interesting but not really mind-boggling story, it’s one of the strong points for this game.
In order to progress through all the levels, a lot of enemies stand in your way that have to be eliminated. Ninja Theory took an interesting route with the combat system and is somewhat different to what’s normally being used in this type of games. The player has two different attack buttons at his disposal: the square and triangle button, where the latter also functions as a counter attack. With these two buttons, a variety of simplistic combos can be formed. Luckily there’s a little more depth to the system than just this as there are three different stances in which combos can be formed. By default the speed stance is active, but there’s also Power and Range stance which can deal weak ranged damage or slow but deadly trauma respectively. Selecting these stances is quite easy and can be done by simply pressing a button. Every stance has its own unique combos which means there are thrice as many combos available now. Further into the game even more combos become available. Unfortunately there’s also a downside to all these different moves. It’s possible to almost complete the entire game by bashing buttons, since almost everything you hit results in a combo anyway. In order to make the combat even more graphically appealing, a Superstyle attack bar fills up and allows Nariko to perform a series of acrobatics to kill an enemy instantly. Also interesting is the block system the developers came up with. Instead of pushing a button to block an attack like in almost every other action game, the only thing you have to do to block an attack is to not attack. This sounds easier than it is since enemies can, just like Nariko, attack in three different stances so in order to block the attack successfully, the right stance has to be selected. To make things a little easier and to discriminate between the different attacks, enemies glow in the color of the stance they’re using.
Nariko doesn’t just go through the game beating up enemies though, there are times where her fruitcake sidekick Kai comes in. She is armed with a ranged weapon which resembles a crossbow and holding off enemies is her specialty. To quickly ward off hordes of enemy attackers, aftertouch can be enabled to give precise control over the arrows. After launching an arrow, the Sixaxis controller can be tilted in the direction you want the arrow to go to make every shot count. Slow-motion is enabled to very precisely aim for a specific weak spot. Other diversions from beating up Bohan’s soldiers are the occasional simplistic puzzles where an object has to be thrown and steered with aftertouch to hit a few buttons. It’s an insult to the player’s intelligence because it’s really too straightforward to be challenging. Boss fights on the other hand can be quite tricky occasionally as they force you to use different variations of attacks and even pick up a health potion here and there.
Graphically the game manages to impress quite often, but there are also times where a little more work was needed in this department. Highlights include huge environments with beautiful waterfalls in the background which look almost real and other gorgeously constructed surroundings. On the other hand, certain areas feel rather uninspired with a lot less going on in the background. Though the game manages to draw hundreds of enemies on screen at the same time, this causes the frame rate to cave in at times. It doesn’t matter that much because it doesn’t obstruct the gameplay as there are no quick reactions required. Severe screen tearing can be quite annoying on the other hand, especially in scenes where the background is moving. As mentioned before, the audio and especially the voice-overs for the characters are of extremely high quality. Voices sound lifelike, strong and emotionally charged as you’d expect from the characters they’re represented by. The musical score is composed of classical music and fits the atmosphere quite nicely.
The biggest drawback for Heavenly Sword is the length of the story and the replayability factor of the game. An average player could finish it in about 6-8 hours and then it’s basically done. Certain features have been implemented to extend the title’s life a little bit. One of these is an extra difficulty level that becomes available once you’ve completed the game, but this obviously won’t bring you the same experience as in the first playthrough. Another way to make you play again is to unlock extra content. The Blu-ray disc is filled with concept art, movies and other stuff. In order to unlock all this extra content, you have to finish each level without taking too many hits and build up a high combo score.
Heavenly Sword is definitely one of the better Playstation 3 exclusive titles this year but it certainly has its flaws. The way the story is told through the characters and their excellent voice acting is a great way to get sucked into the game. Unfortunately it’s just too short, and especially without any replay value, you pay a steep price for Nariko’s adventure. The other major flaw lies in the combat system. It’s great to watch the spectacle on screen, but there lies no challenge in bashing buttons. It took Ninja Theory five years to create this title, but if they took a little longer to refine it, Heavenly Sword would’ve definitely gotten a higher mark.
Final Score: 8 out of 10 - Good (How do we rate games?)