The stunning graphics behind Heavenly Sword made it a potential marquee title for Sony’s PlayStation 3 but there was always a question on how well the action title would play since hands-on access was rather limited before the game’s release. After playing through it, I can tell you Ninja Theory came through in providing a visual and entertaining feast for Sony’s black monolith but it is not without some minor issues.Heavenly Sword is a story of a nubile outcast, Nariko and her search and subsequent protection of the highly coveted sword of the game’s title. I won’t give too much away since it’s a compelling tale that’s executed in a highly polished Hollywood manner, thanks to the services of motion capture actor Andy Serkis and WETA Studios – both of The Lord of the Rings trilogy movie fame. If you’ve been a skeptic of video game cutscenes, Heavenly Sword should change your thinking since it shows what can be accomplished with the right team and technology. The extensive use of Havok’s motion-capture tools, quality acting and witty dialogue inject a ton of life and character into the adventure, which is rare for most video games. The acting and dialogue is the most noteworthy, especially Serkis’ performance as King Bohan. The end result is a presentation of cutscenes that is as entertaining as the gameplay itself.You start the game off as Nariko and are given the task of protecting the highly coveted Heavenly Sword from King Bohan, who wants to use it to control the lands. The first thing you’ll notice that’s different in the game is your ability to steer projectiles with the use of the Sixaxis motion control or as it’s called in the game “aftertouch.” A nice touch is Nariko’s ability to pick up and throw standard objects in the game such as swords and shields. This gameplay mechanic is nicely integrated in the puzzles that are sprinkled throughout the game. The transition to long-range, aftertouch attacks is a bit jolting at first but it doesn’t take long to become proficient at it even though you’ll probably end up replaying some early stages to improve your performance score. For those who still scoff at using motion control, there is the option of turning it off and going with the old-school analog stick. I tried using the analog stick control for aiming projectiles but I found the aftertouch feature to be a lot more fun to use. I do admit using the analog stick during a major stronghold siege since it was time-based but for everything else, I stuck with the motion controls.I’m not a big fan of button-mashing fighting games so I appreciated how the developers made the fighting moves so much more deliberate than your typical hack-and-slash fighting game. Even with all the action that’s occurring around you, I always found myself comfortable in timing my fighting moves regardless of the situation. I know some will complain the enemies seem timid at times but this was obviously a deliberate design decision to ensure the action doesn’t digress into a speed-mashing exercise. I did find the absence of jumping and specific button-controlled blocking a bit strange at first but didn’t really miss either after getting into the groove of things. The blocking wasn’t a big deal since you’re able to block enemy blows through Nariko’s stance. If you time and select the right stance based on the type of attack (speed, power or range), you will successfully block the opposing attack. The cool thing is that if you properly time a counterattack, you’ll execute a finishing blow. Once you do learn how to fight, you’ll want to do it in style since your performance is being judged for each chapter in the game. The higher your fighting style is (through the use of combos and superstyle attacks), the more glyphs you’ll earn in each chapter, which open up unlockables such as new combos, superstyle attacks and game developer features (artwork, videos, etc.). I do wish the game had some type of replay option so you could evaluate your moves in slow motion and at different angles. If there is a Heavenly Sword 2, this should be on the top of the list of features to add.Not too far into the game, you get to jump into the boots of Nariko’s friend, Kai which is a lot of fun since her expertise is long-range attacks. There are some quirks playing as Kai since you cannot move her when you’re aiming so you’ll want to avoid short-range battles and it’s a bit disorientating when you snap out of zoom mode with her. These are relatively minor complaints since shooting her arrows and controlling them with aftertouch is quite entertaining. The cool thing about long-range attacks is that location-specific damage that can be inflicted upon enemies and your victims will act differently depending upon where you hit them with an arrow. So for example, hit an enemy in the leg and you will see him limp before going down. You can experiment with this and produce some pretty funny results – just use your imagination. Sick but fun.One feature I’m still not sold on is cineractives or what is known as hero sequences in the game’s cutscenes. This is where you’re required to hit certain controller buttons in accordance with the on-screen prompts in order to successfully move the character. There are a fair number of these sequences in the game and I still don’t get them. I understand the objective of getting the player more involved in a cutscene but why not try to create this type of action in the game itself. In my book, cutscenes should remain a passive experience, used to help tell the story and complement the gameplay. Throwing the player into the mix just seems to be forced and ends up detracting from the overall gameplay and the cutscene itself.This leads me to my only real complaint with the game and that is the boss battles, which fall into the same old video game rut as taking much longer than necessary to complete. The battle with the female nemesis, Whiptail is a good example of how it tarnishes the experience. You face her in a relatively tough boss battle, where she has two life meters that you have to run down. This pushes you like any other tough boss battle and you’re glad you’ve completed it. From there, you jump into the role of Kai and have to protect Nariko’s father, Shen against enemy forces as he slowly walks across a bridge. This is an excellent sequence since you have to pick off enemy soldiers rushing towards Shen from both ends of the bridge. This is brilliant gameplay but when you’re finished, guess what? You switch back to Nariko fighting another boss battle stage with Whiptail. What? I thought I already completed this battle? Nope, you have to endure more of Whiptail’s wave attacks in what I consider a colossal time-waster. The other boss battles aren’t quite as frustrating with the sole exception of the ridiculously difficult endgame fight with King Bohan. Personally, I feel it’s time for developers to rethink the whole boss battle approach to games, especially when it disrupts the flow of a game. What good is it to have a game that is blast to play but then comes to a screeching halt with “pain in the a*” boss battles?The shortness of the game (6 to 8 hours) is another downer but it actually didn’t bother me as much as the time inconsistency of the different types of gameplay. It almost seems like the game was designed around the boss battles when you consider how brief the core gameplay is. This is a real disappointment since Nariko’s melee fighting (against standard enemies) and Kai’s long-range attacks are the best parts of the game. Since there isn’t a multiplayer component, the addition of a training arena would have helped matters since you end up yearning for more combat. The only additional gameplay is going through campaign mode at a higher difficulty level (after completing the initial campaign), which is really more of a punishment, since you have to slog through even more difficult boss battles. It’s hard to understand why the core gameplay got the short end of the stick when it came time to gameplay time management.Heavenly Sword comes close to being a top echelon fighting game. It has fun action sequences (both melee and long-range) and is set in visually stunning environments. Add the excellent acting, dialogue and slick Hollywood-style cutscenes and you’re thinking – a “can’t miss” hit. Unfortunately, this sword ends up with some rough edges, specifically in the area of boss battles and gameplay time. They don’t pull the entire game down but just enough to dull its otherwise fine edge.
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.