Heavenly Sword Review
Throughout most of this year, PS3 owners have been waiting for a select group of titles that are not only very promising, but also potential vindication. In other words, those who already owned the system have been waiting for the great games so as to make more sense of their expensive purchase. In regards to those who don't yet own Sony's next-gen console, they've simply been waiting for a good reason - or set of reasons - to own one. Among the titles we've all been keeping an eye on is Ninja Theory's Heavenly Sword, which hit stores nationwide yesterday, much to the impending delight of action aficionados everywhere. Everything we've seen and heard up to the launch has led us to believe one thing: this one will not only be worth playing, it'll be a landmark achievement and an essential addition to the PS3 library. So of course, the real question is, can Heavenly Sword live up to the hype?
We'll start with the graphics, and while they're never the primary focus of any video game, they always play a major role in the overall experience. Thankfully, this is one of the prettiest PS3 titles to date- the character design is absolutely superb, the environments are lush and detailed, and the choreography in the cut-scenes and cinemas is fantastic from front to back. There is some jerkiness in those mini-movies, which does hamper this category just a bit, but that's only a minor complaint. The color, shading and ambiance is downright amazing, and Nariko has the benefit of being one of the most beautifully designed characters in gaming history. It's not all roses - there's frequently some blurriness in the backgrounds and the enemies look very similar throughout the entire adventure, for example - but we have difficulty finding any significant flaws...or any flaws even worth noting. Visually speaking, this game is, quite simply, gorgeous. If you have the option of viewing Heavenly Sword in full 720p HD resolution, you're in for a real treat.
As for the sound... Okay, I've been playing games for 23 years, so I would never say something like this lightly- although it's debatable, one could make an argument for Heavenly Sword having the finest voice acting ever. Earlier this year, we heard just how good voice acting was going to be this generation with the advent of The Darkness, and we honestly didn't expect that to be topped any time soon. But Ninja Theory may have done it. The voice work is so superior to most games, and so professional from top to bottom, it's almost indescribable. Andy Serkis as King Bohan leads the group, but Anna Torv as Nariko is awesome as well. If the sound effects were nigh on perfect, we would've awarded the coveted ‘10" to the sound category, but they're not exactly flawless. The battle effects are great, but too many times everything tends to blend together, and those visually stimulating and acrobatic combos seem to lack the appropriate intensity. The soundtrack is also of the highest quality, but like the effects, lacks a little diversity, which grew a tad tiresome. Even so, we repeat: you just can't miss the voice acting here. Unbelievable.
So yes, the technicals are freakin' fantastic. But at the core of every game is, of course, the gameplay. Ninja Theory has presented something that seems to fall somewhere in between God of War and Ninja Gaiden; it's not as complex as the latter but it's certainly more intricate than the former. Furthermore, this particular action title is immediately unique because you can't jump with Nariko. Perhaps this was an attempt by the developers to focus squarely on the action; being able to jump would probably lead to minor platforming aspects, and there's really no such thing, here. But if they were going to do this, they should've gone all out with the combat mechanic - like Tecmo with Ninja Gaiden - and produce the single most involving and endlessly innovative system ever. Let's face it; the fighting is really all we have in Heavenly Sword. You can't very well go middle-of-the-road on your central emphasis in the game, right?
The combat system isn't quite as fully realized as we would've liked and it may seem a touch strange to not have any platforming parts whatsoever, but you'll get over it quickly. Why? Well, it's because when you're playing a cinematic movie of such high caliber, you really want to keep the flow alive and well. The balance Ninja Theory strikes between story telling and action is phenomenal. You never feel as if you're getting too much of one and not enough of another, and given the ultra-polished style of the cut-scenes and accessibility of the action, this is a big bonus. Back in 2001, Square-Enix wanted us to "Play the Action Movie" with The Bouncer, and that's exactly what we do in Heavenly Sword. Considering this, it's almost impossible to not be charmed and taken in by the impressive structuring and format, but you often wonder how far they could've gone had they taken the next step... Now that you have a better idea of the overall experience, let's dive into the nitty-gritty.
During combat, you will make use of the heavenly sword, which is ridiculously flexible and powerful, but is rumored to be a cursed blade wrought in heaven, one that will eventually drain all the life force from the wielder. This sword can be used in one of three ways, and they are as follows. 1. Speed technique (basically the default) where Nariko attacks with fast and moderately powerful melee slashes. 2. Power technique, where she attacks with the full sword in slow but immensely powerful strokes, and 3. Ranged technique, where she lashes out with blades on chains (reminiscent of the primary weapon in God of War). The player accesses each of these fighting styles by adopting a particular stance. The Speed stance is the standard stance, and you hold the L1 button for the Ranged stance and the R1 button for the Power Stance. You can also switch between these stances on the fly simply by pressing and releasing those two trigger buttons. It makes for a diverse and inventive combat mechanic, one that encourages experimentation.
To add to the strategy, they've included counter attacks, which can be executed by pressing the Triangle button at exactly the right time. But it will depend on what color the enemy flashes when he/she attacks if you want to pull off the counter: if he flashes blue, it can be countered with the Speed stance, if it's orange, it can be countered with the Power stance, and if it's red, it can't be countered at all. That is when you'll want to utilize the evade roll to dive away from trouble, which will be crucial considering you can't jump. Lastly, Nariko blocks automatically provided she's not in the process of attacking and everything we just said concerning counters holds true for blocking. This makes things a lot easier, but for the most part, you'll always be trying to attack or counter in every battle. These battles are usually very fast-paced and even epic, as the flame-haired heroine will often face odds of 20 and even 30-1, and that adds a great deal to the mystique and intensity of every encounter. Boss battles do exist, and at much the same frequency as God of War. In fact, the context sensitive actions, pioneered by Sony's critically acclaimed action title and Capcom's Resident Evil 4, are all here in full effect.
You'll use them often during parts where Nariko has to leap around and get to higher ground, and also when you face down bosses. Action fans know them by now: a button prompt flashes on screen during a real-time event, and you must hit it in time for the event to continue. It works well, and they don't really overdo it, which is good. Another special feature of the game centers on the aftertouch when firing projectiles- simply by holding down the fire button, you can guide the projectile (usually one of Kai's arrows) to the desired target in slow motion. It's like what you'd get if you could actually control the bullet during Bullet Time in Max Payne. You'll do this not only with arrows, but also with cannonballs and rockets, and much like the real-time interactive commands, Ninja Theory sprinkles the feature nicely throughout the story. Both gameplay additions mentioned here help out a great deal, and enhance this title's appeal.
The last part of the action emphasizes the Superstyle attacks, which can be executed after compiling a certain number of Style points. These special abilities always deal a deathblow to whomever they're performed on (just like particularly successful Counters), and they can even cause damage to surrounding foes. As this game is really all about style, it's no surprise that it would ask you to be stylish as well. The more stylish you are (okay, we'll stop saying "style" now), the more Glyphs you will receive upon the successful completion of each chapter section. You can get up to 3 Glyphs depending on your performance and there are over 130 to collect in total. Each one unlocks more extra content and special features, and if you want to get it all, you had best replay those sections where you didn't get all three Glyphs. Trust us, you won't get three very often your first time through, but you'll learn. Stances, Counters, Aftertouch, Context Sensitive events, Superstyle...it's all very cool, and very well implemented.
But before we go any further, we're going to focus on a few negatives that unfortunately drop this game out of the elite rankings. First, while the camera does its job and rarely screws you over, it isn't always your best friend. Many times, you'll lose track of Nariko in the thick of the battle, and sometimes, the camera will sit too low to the ground and too far back, which means you can lose your bearings at exactly the wrong time. Second, Kai (Nariko's curious and agile little friend) has a few missions of her own, but all she can do is shoot her arrows, vault over objects with the X button and temporarily stun enemies who get too close with the Square button. The aftertouch got tiresome and repetitive pretty quickly, and aiming her crossbow is little loose. We also never felt any real connection with Kai; she always seemed so helpless out there, and in the end, her part of the gameplay just felt tacked on. Thirdly and lastly, and speaking of repetitive, the general combat can get a little repetitive, even with Nariko's great ability.
All right, back to the good and the conclusion: the challenge grows nicely as you play, and just like the depth, it falls somewhere in between God of War and Ninja Gaiden. But the best part is that you almost always feel powerful when you play; you always feel as if you can lay the smackdown on whatever you face, provided you execute correctly. Because button mashing isn't always advisable and your reactions are routinely tested with the counter-attack system, the corresponding sensations that go along with success and failure are appropriate. Essentially, if you do good, it's because you pressed the right buttons at the right time. If you don't do so good, it's because you messed up, plain and simple. This is one area where Heavenly Sword excels, because it fits the atmosphere and story perfectly. There is always a sense of urgency, but you'll never feel outgunned or undermanned due to the immense power you hold and the confidence you have in your abilities as a gamer. Simply, this game rewards and punishes you exactly when it should. Nothing more, nothing less.
The control is a touch loose but pretty darn good throughout, and the story is surprisingly effective. This is one fun game, but it's all over much too quickly because most players will complete their adventure within the 6-8 hour span. For most people, that's just not long enough to warrant the $60 price tag, but hey, look at all the good. You can go back and replay every section of every chapter (probably to unlock even more artwork and combo moves by performing better), which immediately adds to the game's longevity, and the storyline is good enough to hold your attention at all times. The combat walks a fine line between overly deep and too easy, which means it should appeal to all kinds of gamers, and oh yeah, it's one of the prettiest and best-sounding games on earth. We would've liked to see more - how come Nariko couldn't get some kind of magic, or something? - and the combat can get repetitive, but you know what? This game is best played in spurts; in glimpses of genius viewed from the appreciative player. Take your time and enjoy the entire package, which really can't get much more refined.
In the end, Heavenly Sword is not without its shortcomings and drawbacks, and unfortunately, most all of those come from the gameplay. But for what it is, a good story with a lot of flashy action, it works extremely well. And finally, our hats are off to that voice crew (we have to mention Lydia Baksh as Kai and Steven Berkoff as Flying Fox as well) and to the Ninja Theory team, because you guys really went all out in the presentation and style aspects. No doubt about it; awfully impressive. Hey, the voices actually synch up with the characters lips in the cut-scenes! It almost seems trivial in this day and age, but that happens so rarely, it just has to be mentioned! Is it worth the price tag? It's a trade-off. If you can appreciate greatness in certain forms and tolerate some lackluster areas of the gameplay, than yes. And that's where we'll finish things...on a positive note. Heavenly Sword deserves it.
9/13/2007 Ben Dutka