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Nariko makes her way to the PS3 in the most visually stunning title to grace the format yet...
- Original combat system.
- Stunning next-gen visuals.
- Good use of the SixAxis.
- Too short.
- Puzzles not strong enough.
- Weak upgrades and character development.
Since its unveiling as the first title to result from Ninja Theory after the collapse of Argonaut and subsequently Just Add Monsters, Heavenly Sword has widely been considered as the PS3's first exclusive must-have title.
Originally planned as an Xbox exclusive back in 2003, Heavenly Sword follows the adventures of Nariko, a fire-haired female protagonist on a mission of divine destiny with a blade known as the Heavenly Sword. With an assorted cast of highly imaginative characters, Heavenly Sword's oriental themed storyline provides the basis for a genuinely compelling adventure as Nariko and her clan fight against King Bohan and his freakish ensemble of lieutenants for control over the powerful weapon.
Drawing influence from SCEA Santa Monica's God of War, it's immediately apparent that Heavenly Sword sets itself out as something considerably differently to Kratos' adventures. Whereas God of War and its sequel featured a compelling blend of puzzles and action, Heavenly Sword places the sole emphasis on the latter, coming across closer to Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden as a result. Admittedly, there's one or two puzzles thrown into the mix, but these feel very much a side-thought to the sole unwavering focus on combat. Fortunately, the combat system in Heavenly Sword manages to carry the entire experience, providing the basis for a heart-thumping blast that reaches a high level of intensity from the onset and refuses to let go until the end.
Initially Heavenly Sword appears to offer little more than the drab button-bashing gameplay that propels any number of uninspired shallow action romps, however, the game's subtle depth slowly unfolds throughout the adventure. With the Heavenly Sword, Nariko possesses three different combat stances representing Ranged, Power, and Speed attacks, each activated by corresponding shoulder buttons and depicted by a certain associated colour. Using little more than two face buttons to unleash a veritable barrage of destruction, Heavenly Sword places the emphasis on the strange prospect of not actually pressing anything at all to defend against the barrage of blows Nariko faces, each with the same colour co-ordinated attacks that she possesses. Instead of bashing through the game using the most powerful techniques available, it's a case of waiting patiently for the right opportunity, defending against the onslaught of attacks and keeping an eye out for the colour of the opponent's attack to know which stance to use and when to counter the attack. It's a setup that despite its initial simplicity, actually manages to provide a fresh experience in a genre typically starved of ideas, resulting in an elegant combat system that is as much about blocking and countering as it is wading through dozens of opponents using the power of the Heavenly Sword.
Each stance has a range of different combos that expand throughout the game, although the automatic nature in which new moves and combos are unlocked is a significant low point for the game. Because you're not choosing which new techniques to unlock, it has the detrimental effect of not instilling the move into the repertoire, as scrolling through an increasingly lengthy list whenever "New Combo Unlocked" flashes across the screen isn't perhaps the most intuitive way of discovering new moves. It's something that we'd certainly hope to see improved in the almost inevitable sequel, as Nariko's adventure doesn't quite manage to convey the same sense of progress and development that Kratos manages.
Beyond the combat, Heavenly Sword manages to successfully implement SixAxis control. The key reason is Ninja Theory's decision to keep the implementation subtle, restricting its use to aftertouch control when throwing any of the objects, weapons and bodies that litter the landscape. Using the SixAxis controller to control the object in flight, the vast majority of Heavenly Sword's puzzles are geared around this concept, using the aftertouch to hit various targets to open doors and destroy the colossal catapults that make frequent appearances throughout the game.
Unfortunately, the game's remarkably stylish aerial combos that find Nariko thrusting her opponents into the sky before unleashing all kinds of barbarities, come off far less successfully with the SixAxis controller. Requiring an upward jerk motion after launching an opponent into the air, we found the implementation to be far too hit-and-miss for a game of this nature and quickly thanked Ninja Theory for the option to revert to the more conventional button approach - the air combos are worth it after all.
Spliced between the action, Nariko's slightly odd sidekick Kai provides some much needed respite from the action. Taking advantage of her superior sniper skills, Kai's missions tend to revolve around taking out opponents using her bow and arrow along with the aftertouch feature. A particularly memorable section involves Kai protecting Nariko's wounded father, as he struggles to retreat across a bridge whilst opponents come from all angles. Later in the game, Kai takes a more predominant role as players take direct control in stages that bear a closer similarity to those focussing on Nariko. Without the heavenly sword and the general mean streak that Nariko exhibits, Kai has to focus on long-range attacks albeit with the ability to push opponents away if they get a little too close. Although restricted to a minimum, these stages fail to capture the intensity that drives Heavenly Sword and feel as though they haven't been developed as far as they could have been.
Without the puzzles so inextricably woven into the God of War design, Heavenly Sword relies upon the aftertouch missions a little too much. Instead of providing some brief moments of fun, it's almost inevitable that Kai will follow or Nariko is tasked to take down war machines on battlefields full of thousands of Bohan's troops. Whilst Heavenly Sword undeniably nails combat and action, the lack of an equal balance between different types of gameplay does tend to cause a feeling of repetition throughout the game and misses the changes in tempo that God of War manages to achieve so effortlessly.
Although Ninja Theory's first effort falls short of the standards set by God of War on a number of counts, it certainly manages to draw close and occasionally exceed SCEA Santa Monica's lofty standards in the presentation stakes. Employing the stylish camera angles, direction and general production quality famed by Kratos adventures, Heavenly Sword is awash with stunning pans and camera movement. During combat, Nariko will top up a three-tiered gauge by felling opponents, which unleashes a special attack dependant on the stance used. Using impressive camera angles to capture the action in close-up detail, the stunning direction behind the special moves helps to continue pushing the cinematic quality that Heavenly Sword offers in abundance. Employing the same quick-button sequences used so stylishly in God of War, Heavenly Sword throws a number of these throughout the game to continue spicing up the action, though it's a shame they're not used more often during the actual combat to lend the same sense of presentation to the main action.
There's only so much that can be said about Heavenly Sword before waxing lyrical over the game's sumptuous visuals. Despite the promises, the PlayStation3 has had a tough time when it comes to demonstrating its power above the Xbox 360. Amidst framerate issues, a lack of PS3 exclusives and timely delays behind the Xbox 360 version in the case of third-party titles, Heavenly Sword is truly the PS3 game to sit up and finally take notice. The painstaking effort poured into the game's motion-capture with the assistance of Andy "Gollum" Serkis is immediately evident in the game's lavish in-game cut-scenes. However it's not just a game that looks pretty in between missions, with the same level of quality matched during every section of the actual game. It truly is the first PS3 title to make you actually believe some of the hyperbole Sony was sprouting in the months leading up to the PlayStation3 launch, a game that easily holds its own with the very best that the Xbox 360 has to offer.
Perhaps the largest disappointment comes from the game's questionable length. Admittedly it's a game that grabs you by the cahoonas and refuses to let go from start-to-finish, so it's somewhat inevitable that the closing credits come a little too quickly. Despite an impressive sounding 43 stages across 6 chapters, Heavenly Sword is the type of game you'll complete easily over a weekend and it's questionable whether the unlocked 'Hell' mode will be enough to entice you back for the sake of earning artwork and promotional trailers.