After what seems like an eternity, Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword is finally out to satiate the increasingly bored PS3 owner. As Nariko, the player will be a bit of Kratos and a bit of Random Hero from one of the Dynasty Warrior titles, as she uses an arsenal of combos to dispatch waves of foes. With the powerful Heavenly Sword by her side, she will wade through six chapters to face down the humorously perverted King Bohan and his inner circle, staving off their advance into her homeland. A creative cast of characters and thorough combo system help to keep the fifth-grader-fantasy setting and over abundance of moves in check to deliver one of the better PlayStation 3 titles available.
In truth, Heavenly Sword is only rudimentary like a Dynasty Warriors title. It’s much more in the vein of God of War, with advancement unlocking combos that are used against a handful of foes at a time with a smatter of quick time events – press X now, press Left now, etc. – to break up the monotony of combat and the needlessly long boss battles. The focus is different, though. Nariko’s journey isn’t as tightly woven as Krato’s, but the combat is more involved, for better and for worse, and there are bit players that keep it from being a one-woman rampage.
Nariko is the focus though, and similar to her Greek counterpart, the presentation is top notch: solid voice-overs, slick graphics, and a similar reverse effect where the game is played from the past up to the present are all present. There can be a bit too many Jennifer-Love-Hewitt-from-I-Know-What-You-Did-Last Summer moments – looking up into the sky and screaming in rage and defiance at an unseen foe – but the chapter introductions are very effective and do much more to convey Nariko’s frustration than the in-level guttural screams. The other characters are solid, but King Bohan is without a doubt the most memorable. Despite the game not being overly graphic with gore, there are some strong sexual references that are made all the more creepy by the game’s phenomenal facial animations and Andy Serkis’ (King Bohan) delivery. Bohan’s henchmen are equally gross but not as charismatic as the psychotic tyrant.
Nariko’s side fares a bit worse, with the typically stoic father and annoying sidekick that is too weird just for the sake of being weird. The sidekick in question is Kai, an insane younger companion that likes to act like a cat and chew up guard detachments with an automatic bow. Unfortunately, the cannon fodder being taken down by the blade and arrow are completely boring with a total of around three or four different types. They are, oddly enough, decked out in Asian garb, like Nariko’s side, despite the fact that Bohan and they themselves seem to enjoy a bit of cockney. This dissonance did quite a bit to break immersion and did more than a little to convey a sense of a kid hopping going up and down going, “And make them have the hats like the guys who haul the buggies around! AND SWORDS!” If I have to kill hundreds of them at least make them interesting.
The enemies might not be very exciting but smacking them around certainly is. Like most games of this sort, there are too many moves to be practical: the player won’t learn them all and doesn’t need them all, with the first three or four easily accessible combos doing the lion share of the work. In a move that seems intent on driving people insane, blocking is done by not pressing any buttons. It’s easy to say, but imagine it: in a game that involves tapping buttons like mad, the main defensive maneuver is to not press anything. That’s like not eating the last bite of a donut – sure it can be done, but it’s torturous and unnecessary. There are back and side rolls as well, which are effective against bosses and small groups, as well as timed counterattacks that are based on stance and the timely follow-up to a block.
There is plenty more to combat than tap, tap, tap, push, tap. Sorta. If punched into the air, a jolt on the gamepad will show a quick scene of Nariko tossing the blade back into the enemy and following with a counter. The blade itself can be used in one of three ways – normal, ranged, and strong – by holding, or not holding, one of the shoulder buttons. The enemies will attack and block in a mix of the stances as well, and effective blocking and countering requires matching stance for stance. As enemies die, a style meter fills up - gauged by consecutive hits, performance in quick time events, and using projectiles - to allow for superstyle attacks. This is handy because, aside from encouraging the use of a dead enemy’s sword (or body) as a projectile, the are cinematic and deadly. Aside from killing the target, these moves – nine total: three for each stance – also tend to do damage to surrounding enemies as well. As style is increase, performance is tracked on a scale of one to three glyphs that is noted at the end of a sequence, with glyphs unlocking new combos and extras.
The combat choices can be overwhelming, but, as stated, most of it is unnecessary. Combat, much like a good bit of Heavenly Sword, suffers from excess; that is, Ninja Theory often didn’t know when to quit. A variety of combos are great, but they only bog the player down when they are put on the pile of everything else that is going on. I appreciate cool moves, and the three stances are handy, but a lower amount in a more refined system would have been preferred. Similarly, Kai’s portion is saddled with so many sections that demand using arrows in slow motion that I thought I was going to go nuts. (Oh, and here’s a fun tip: Turn off the tilt function. Using motion to guide an arrow or two is fun, not so much after two dozen.) I felt like a third of the game was spent tossing objects in slow motion to hit pressure sensitive buttons to unlock doors or to take down approaching foes.
Then there are the boss battles. As much as I enjoyed most of the bosses, all of them quickly wore out their welcome as they unleashed cheap attack after cheap attack during their multi-phase fights. Again, smacking down an incoming wave or slamming a hovering boss back down to the ground is fun the first time, but the third bout of sequential moves becomes tiresome. The last round is also followed by a quick time event that has the tricky timing typical in these sequences, and this is a gimmick that I would not be sad to see go. This system became especially unwelcome when it made what was turning into an absolutely amazing last 20 minutes into a series of ‘meh’ moments. Considering the game clocks in at about 6 hours long, that is just way too much filler.
It’s hard not to be taken in by the sights and sounds, regardless of the repetition. Aside from a few synching issues, and Nariko’s crazy levitating tentacle hair, Heavenly Sword is absolutely beautiful. The panning to show off huge environments or to get a cinematic angle can cause some control frustration, but the moments tend to work themselves out quickly and have plenty to show for them. The voice-overs are actually on par with the visuals, with performances matching the facial animations that I want to mention again due to being absolutely noteworthy. Even the unlockables are stylish, with feature animation shorts that are of a look completely different from the game and do a decent job adding to the lore by explaining the heavenly sword’s origins. Whether played on an HD or not, there are plenty of ‘oohh’ and ‘aahhh’ moments.
Overall: 7.5/10Heavenly Sword is a striking game that features facial animation and voice-over performances that give the characters personality on a level rarely seen in games. Main characters aside, the cannon fodder and setting are pretty humdrum. The excessive amount of filler in the form of slow-motion sequences and boss fights that drag on really stand out in a game that clocks in at around 6 hours. The combat system is definitely worth checking out and, abused quick time events aside, definitely gives its competition a run for their money. Come for the pretty graphics, but stay for the ability to counter with a kick to the crotch and sword to the gut.