Heavenly Sword

Heavenly Sword
Heavenly Sword Cover
Platforms PlayStation 3
Genre Combo optional hack 'n slash
Score 8  Clock score of 8Gameplay: 7
Fun Factor: 8
Gfx/Sound: 8
Story: 8
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Heavenly Sword is the latest PS3 exclusive title from developers Ninja Theory. They are a relatively new and smaller development house based in Cambridge, England. Originally founded under the name Just Add Monsters, their only previous project was an unrelated original Xbox exclusive entitled Kung Fu Chaos. Released in 2007, Heavenly Sword was hyped as displaying an example of what the PS3 was truly capable of.

The game follows the story of Nariko as she comes face to face with the prophecy of her people, a prophecy that may lead to victory over an opposing army but will almost surely end in her death. According to the story, Nariko’s clan has possession of The Heavenly Sword, a gift left behind by a warrior deity who once wielded the sword to protect them. It is now their sworn duty to protect the sword and to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Legend has it that any mortal who wields the sword will be granted amazing powers in combat, enabling them to slay armies, but will succumb to it’s power by eventually being cursed and dying a horrible death. The prophecy further says a male warrior will be born on a special day with the power to wield the sword. But on that prophetic day, the very feminine Nariko is born instead.

This fact hangs around Nariko’s neck like a noose as she is constantly resented as being the ruiner of prophecy. In fact, on the day of her birth, her father considered killing her, but was unable to follow through. Rather, he chooses to train Nariko as he would have any male warrior. This decision haunts him even to this day. When Lord Bohan, the leader of a rival clan attempts to destroy Nariko’s people and capture the sword, our heroine is poised to save her people or destroy them in the process. But how does this epic story translate into gameplay?

Some people would describe Heavenly sword as a "button masher". I would call it a third person fighting game with heavy implementation of counters and combos. This type of game can generally go two different ways. They can make the game easy enough that countering and combos are helpful but not necessary, or they can make it hard enough that counters and combos are absolutely required to progress in the game. This game chose the former, and if review scores are any indication, it was the right choice. A game with a similar gameplay mechanic that I reviewed earlier; Golden Axe: Beast Rider, took the higher-difficulty route and it was decimated by reviewers. In playing Heavenly Sword from start to finish, I had to memorize exactly ONE combo. And the only reason I learned it was because certain characters have shields and I needed a block breaker. Other than that, I was able to beat the game by doing simple moves and the occasional counter. Beating the final boss requires a very solid ability to counter ranged attacks, but otherwise, counters and combos are unnecessary. To be honest, I’m not sure which tack I prefer. I enjoyed both of the games I mention. This game was far less frustrating, with a much shallower learning curve, but beating it didn’t result in the same intense feeling of accomplishment.

Like any brawler, this game gets a bit repetitive. Each level consists of various waves of enemies, which Nariko must dispatch in order to progress. The enemy variety is decent. You have your standard soldier types with average attacks and weak defenses. You get your bigger enemies that often have shields and do more damage. Then you have enemies that are much deeper in their respective archetypes, such as the very large guys with huge hammers that move slowly but deal incredible damage. You also have the super quick ninja type enemies that have ranged attacks and use avoidance tactics. The lineup is rounded out with archers and the occasional exploding bad guy. It’s a pretty nice balance so even though combat gets repetitive; at least your enemies vary throughout each level.

I think the game designers realized the repetitive nature of this design was a problem so they introduced what I call "novelty" levels. These are basically short levels used as a way to break up the monotony present in the main campaign. Normally, they take the form of a driving level, stealth mission, sniper level or something similar. In Heavily Sword they go even further by introducing the secondary character of Kai. Kai is a young girl that Nariko has taken under her wing. Kai's mother was killed by Lord Bohan which pretty much means Kai is not only a daughter like character to Nariko, but is also driven by a revenge instinct. Unlike many games where the novelty levels serve only to break of the gameplay, the introduction of Kai really helps broaden the overall feel and scope of the game. It also allows the developers a good opportunity to explore the motion control capabilities of the sixaxis controller, or is it SIXAXIS?

Heavenly Sword Nariko Slashing Bad Guys

What was awesome: I have to admit, I really enjoyed the story presented in Heavenly Sword. The gameplay may have been repetitive and the fighting mechanics overly easy, but the story was one that really drew me in. This was largely due to good character facial animations and very good voice acting. Nariko’s husky tenor was provided by Anna Torv. Those fans of TV series "The Fringe" can look for her as Agent Olivia Dunham. The arch villain, King Bohan was artfully portrayed by Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame. The cast was rounded out by B movie bad-guy actor Steven Berkoff.

What I liked: Even though you didn’t need to learn the combos and the counters were only rarely required, I still enjoyed the combat. Watching Nariko perform the acrobatic moves and finishers was great. I read some complaints that the game was too short, but I honestly felt like it was about right. If it had been an hour or two longer, I think there may have been boredom issues, but as it was the story progressed at a good pace and gameplay followed it well. The use of novelty levels, particularly those emphasizing Kai and her portion of the storyline, broke up the campaign and helped keep things fresh.

What I didn't like: The biggest gripe I have with Heavenly Sword is small in its scope. It only happens about 3 times in the game. But it’s large in its facepalming annoyance factor. What I'm talking about are poorly implemented QTEs, or Quick Time Events. Fortunately, these are not a regular occurrence, but when they do show up, they feel out of place and don’t work particularly well. The main problem is that they include an analog direction as one of the button requirements. In the middle of a boss battle quicktime event, you’ll need to push the analog stick up and to the right. If you are a little too far up or a little too far right, it won’t register properly. The strange thing is, you actually have to be more up, than right. It took me about 10 times to figure this out. Each time having to do the first half of a boss battle over to get to that point and try again. I literally had to kill the boss 10 extra times because I was failing a QTE that was the same every time and should have been automatic the second time. Talk about frustrating. Eventually I just started experimenting with the analog stick until I realized that "up and to the right" was actually almost straight up. I don’t know if my analog controller was poorly calibrated or what, but I almost quit playing at that point. Also, I’ve mentioned that I was OK with the fact that the game was easy, or that you weren’t forced to learn the multitudes of combos. That being said, I wish there would have been a few more challenging sections. Two of the boss battles were quite challenging (one because of the horrid QTE that occurred mid-battle), but the rest were pretty much just trial and error affairs that left little imprint on the player.

Heavenly Sword Nariko Big Fat Boss


Scores

Gameplay: 7
While a bit too easy, the gameplay was solid and worked well. When I tried combos, they worked. I just wish there was greater incentive to learn them. If I had to guess, I would say there were at least 70 different combos that you eventually unlock through the course of the game. Lazy gamers need to learn exactly ONE.

Fun Factor: 8
This is generally my most important aspect in any game. This was a strong point for Heavenly Sword as I generally found the game to be fun. I liked controlling Nariko and I particularly enjoyed progressing the story.

Graphics and Sound: 8
While I wouldn’t say this game should be held up as a showpiece for what games on the PS3 can do, I think it was very competent. It looked good and sounded good. I think it might be more honest to describe this game as showing what an EARLY PS3 game could do, as games like Killzone 2 and Uncharted show us that the PS3 is capable of quite a bit more than we see in Heavenly Sword. But don’t get me wrong, the game looks and sounds very good.

Story: 8
As I mentioned previously, the story in Heavenly Sword was a strong point in the game for me. The voice acting by Nariko in particular was appropriately filled with anguish and emotion. This sentiment translated well into gameplay as we get to see and control the unleashing of that fury through the course of the game. It may sound strange but looking at Nariko's fighting style and stance, it really felt like her physique matched her mentality and emotional state. Through the course of the games dialogue we meet a young woman who is unsure of herself, yet brazen. The character is a contradiction in many ways and the way she carries herself on the battlefield further demonstrates this, creating a cohesion that I really thought benefited the game in a subtle but perceptible way.

Overall: 8
I liked the game. I don’t generally finish many games that I don’t like for obvious reasons. I’ve often judged a game by how many times it makes me want to quit playing altogether. In this game, I only wanted to quit playing during the nasty QTE boss battle. Other than that, every time I put the controller down, I looked forward to my next session. That’s pretty good.

Final Thoughts: If you own a PS3 and haven’t come across Heavenly Sword, I would consider it. In particular, if you enjoy fast moving fighting games with lots of combo and counter opportunities, you should really enjoy this. Just keep in mind, it will be purely your own motivation to learn the various combos because the games only reward for learning them is showing you more variety in character animation. Some of the combos do more damage than others, but even the weaker combos are generally enough to move forward easily. For those who have a combo-loving fetish, you may be able to get your fill on the hardest difficulty that is unlocked after beating the game the first time.

Heavenly Sword Nariko Art Twin Blades

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