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As Ninja Theory's debut title, Heavenly Sword is causing quite the stir. Here at TVG we've given the game a good going over to see what all the fuss is about...
It's fair to say that PlayStation 3 owners have had their fair share of disappointments since they forked out Ãâ??Â£425 for Sony's next generation machine. Even as far back as the launch line-up - when the PS3 should've been enjoying a short honeymoon from criticism - cracks in the PR applied veneer of the Sony Computer Entertainment machine began to appear.
There were ports with conversion issues such as the dodgy framerate in Tony Hawk's Project 8, exclusive titles which fell miles short of the hype they'd stirred up(Resistance: Fall of Man? We're looking in your direction) and other console exclusives which were good but limited, such as MotorStorm. Since then, any release worthy of note has tended to either be a port from an old Xbox 360/PC game (e.g. Oblivion and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas) or a straight multi-format release.
However, now PS3 owners are moving through these dark times and into the light as yet more console exclusive titles (some of which were originally scheduled for launch) are on their way to the shelves. Undoubtedly at the top of many gamers' pre-order lists is Heavenly Sword from developers Ninja Theory, a hack 'em/slash 'em mystical journey with puzzles in the vein of Prince of Persia and God of War. The question is: will it be the PS3's saviour? And the answer at the moment seems to be sort of, but not really.
The preview code we were sent allowed us to play thorough the second chapter of the story. From the first cut-scene, to the following interactive cut-scene and the ensuing battle sequence, the graphics are nothing short of stunning. This continues throughout the chapter we played with artistic camera angles unveiling magnificent vistas, motion captured expression models so graphically realistic it's freaky and environments with lush colours and textures. In combat, the character animations are a little average looking compared to the rest of the visuals but, relatively speaking, they're still good.
Graphics, though, are only superficial. If the gameplay is no good, then the razzmatazz on the surface is meaningless. Considering this, the razzmatazz on the surface of Heavenly Sword didn't seem quite as meaningful after half an hour on the chapter we played. Cripplingly, the game exhibits some repetitive combat that leads to a frustrating amount of undisciplined button mashing.
You have three primary weapons which are chained knives for your range attack, Sai-esque daggers for your speed attacks and a big fat Heavenly Sword for power attacks. They all have a variety of combos assigned to them, although the ones that the preview code presented us showed very little variation, meaning that there wasn't a huge difference between pressing square and triangle (the attack buttons) in random orders, or nailing a series of technical combos. As you string together more hits in combat, you fill up a meter which allows you to inflict a cinematically animated special move on an unawares enemy. There are three different moves depending on how much you fill up the meter, one of which is a foot to the groin from height - it's painful to watch. This does add some variation to combat, but not a great deal. However, all is not lost because this lacklustre fighting mechanic is saved from abject mediocrity by an unlikely source - the SIXAXIS!
Yes, that's right, the SIXAXIS. Having made us tear our hair out trying to pull-off a Benihana grab in Tony Hawk's and caused stomach ulcers with the stress of steering in MotorStorm, the SIXAXIS has finally been put to good use in Heavenly Sword. A tap of the X button allows you to pick up any number of objects that have been strewn across the floor (axes, shields, people etc.). If you then press and hold X again, Nariko (your Heroine) throws the object and the camera view moves along directly behind the thrown object in slow-motion. Then you can add aftertouch to the projectile by moving the SIXAXIS up, down and side to side.
Not only is the motion-sensing responsive and well balanced, it's also integrated into parts of the game that don't feel tacked on as an afterthought. For example, one puzzle sees you ricocheting a shield off a statue and onto a large gong (Chinese symbol thingy) while perfecting the shields trajectory with the aftertouch. Another has you sniping with Kai (Nariko's young side-kick) using arrows which utilise the aftertouch. Both these sections are a joy to play and finally provide PlayStation 3 owners with a glimmer of what it must be like to own a Wii.
Unfortunately, speaking of the puzzles, the few we played through were less than taxing. In fact, they were more like casual tasks to break-up the sections of fevered button mashing combat. And this is the main problem with what we saw of Heavenly Sword: it's very combat heavy and the fighting mechanic is simply not varied and intuitive enough to regale you from boredom.
Any game worth its salt in the "hack 'em/slash 'em mystical journey with puzzles" game genre (copyright: Gwynne Dixon 2007) has a good story behind it. Some of the more eager fans may have seen the Heavenly Sword anime series that's going around the net at the moment (telling the story behind the sword) and been drawn in by Nariko's back-story.
The game doesn't disappoint in this sense, providing some weird and wonderful characters (e.g. King Botan, played by Andy Serkis of Gollum in Lord of the Rings fame), an epic storyline and an engaging plot that pulls at the heartstrings. At least, that's what we could garner from chapter two. However, the build we played only seemed to display six chapters and, judging by how long it took us to complete chapter two, that suggests quite a short game. Only time will tell whether this is the case in the final version.
By the looks of things, Heavenly Sword will give PS3 owners a lot to smile about. There's the graphics that we knew the PS3 could handle when it was pushed, a cinematic style that feels like the movies and a good use of the SIXAXIS at last. Unfotunately, the gameplay is a bit average at this stage and this holds back the game considerably, but it's still enjoyable overall and provides a glimpse of what we can expect to see more of on the PS3.