Heavenly Sword is Ninja Theory’s first big-budget release and second game overall. In their early days, when they were still called Just Add Monsters, they also developed Kung Fu Chaos, a rather obscure platform game for the original Xbox. Heavenly Sword is a huge step up from their early work; in fact it’s one of the big showcases of the PlayStation 3’s still largely untapped potential.
In Heavenly Sword, you play as the beautiful and agile red-headed warrior Nariko, a member of a Japanese clan -led by her father Shen- that protects the sacred Heavenly Sword, a blade with incredible powers.
However, the sword corrupts any human being who wields it. Still, the blade’s mythical powers lead the ruthless King Bohan to rally a huge army and partake in a crusade against Nariko’s clan. In a desperate attempt to save her father and the survivors of her clan, Nariko decides to use the Heavenly Sword and try to defeat Bohan, even if that means she has to go down with him.
This not so very original story is brought in truly exquisite cinematic fashion. It’s almost as if you’re watching a summer blockbuster, set in medieval Japan.
The characters in the many cutscenes are brought to life through motion capturing and the most impressive facial animations since Half-Life 2. And let’s not forget the perfect lipsynching, great orchestral score and excellent voice-overs from Steven Berkoff (A Clockwork Orange, Beverly Hills Cop), Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) and especially the previously unknown Anna Torv as Nariko. Andy Serkis (prrecioussssssss) was also the game’s dramatic director and he has certainly put his stamp on the game’s presentation.
Heavenly Sword also maintains its film-like feel in-game. The fixed camera always chooses the most cinematic angles, without ever hindering gameplay, which is reminiscent of God of War. Heavenly Sword also features several spectacular-looking button press sequences. The game even uses splitscreens on several occasions to enhance the sense of drama.
The game is a visual masterpiece, both technically as artistically Though the levels are linearly designed, the panoramic views which Heavenly Sword presents are simply breathtaking. You’ll encounter atmospheric locales such as a prison, surrounded by huge Niagara Falls-esque waterfalls, a stone fortress, coupled with massive entry gates and a ravaged battefield, filled with thousands of soldiers, all coming after you. I kid you not.
The many on-screen characters are all wonderfully detailed and animated. Though the game stutters every now and then, it never harms the experience. It would have been cool if there were a bit more different types of enemies (or at least more skins for the same type), but that’s mostly nitpicking. At the heart of all this technical gimmickery is a pretty interesting new combat system.
Nariko has three different ‘stances’, namely a speed stance, a power stance and a ranged stance. In the default speed stance, you’ll unleash a rapid volley of attacks that do moderate damage to your enemies. In ranged stance (L1), the red-headed blademistress attaches her swords to chains, just like Kratos. This way, she can attack from a distance, which doesn’t do much damage, but is useful when you’re surrounded -which can happen a lot-. In ranged stance, you can also try out aerial combos. Finally, Nariko can use the power stance (R1). As the term implies, her attacks will dish out a great deal of damage, at the cost of speed. Every stance has its distinct set om combos, advantages and downsides and it’s up to you to make the most of them.
But there’s more to it. Since the game doesn’t feature a block button, Nariko will automatically block when you don’t attack. However, it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Most enemies will have a coloured glow around them when they attack you and you can only block them in the correct stance; yellow-coloured attacks in ranged stance, blue attacks in speed stance and orange attacks in power stance. After blocking, you can also deal counter blows by pressing triangle. If timed correctly, these counters will instantly kill an adversary.
Getting in the right stance and countering is especially critical in defeating the half dozen or so charismatic bosses in the game. Though all the previous sounds fascinating and fresh in theory -and to a large extent in practice too-, in the end the combat doesn’t feel as right as in, let’s say, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden or (again) God of War. The constant paying attention to the ever-changing colours can sometimes leave you confused and overwhelmed, especially with a lot of enemies on-screen. Nevertheless, this is one of the most innovative fighting mechanisms I’ve seen over the last couple of years. If Ninja Theory can refine it by the next game (there are plans for a trilogy if this one sells well), it may very well rank up there with the previously mentioned examples.
Nariko’s hacking, slashing, slicing and dicing is broken up by several levels where you play as Kai, the second playable character. Kai is a young and stubborn member of Nariko and Shen’s clan and is hell-bent on supporting the heroine on her quest. Kai plays totally different from Nariko. She is armed with a crossbow and can’t do any melee damage.
If a soldier comes close to her, she can only stun him and run away to get some distance and then shoot him. Kai’s crossbow can be used like some sort of medieval semi-automatic rifle, but that way she’ll more often than not miss her target. The trick is to keep the fire button pressed, which activates slow-motion and gives you a first-person view to aim. Directing the arrow is done by tilting the Sixaxis up and down, left and right. To my surprise, this worked amazingly well after a couple of shots. This is really a fine example of how motion-sensing should be used. Still, if you’re having trouble aiming arrows in enemies’ heads, you can always select the option to use the analog sticks instead.
I’ve saved the biggest (and pretty much only) disappointment of Heavenly Sword for last. Though the game is quite positively a thrilling action rollercoaster, it’s also over before you know it.
With a length of barely six hours, this game is very short, even by today’s standards in the action genre. Upon completion you’ll unlock the harder hell mode difficulty, which may or may not encourage you to play it again a second time. There is however a ton of bonus content to unlock, such as making-of trailers, storyboards, artwork, interviews etc. You unlock them by collecting glyphs (there are 3 in each level, 129 in total), which in turn are earned by fighting well and stringing long combos together.
So there you have it. Heavenly Sword is an exciting new IP in the action genre. It features a new and robust fighting system and is presented in a exemplary way, with gorgeous graphics, stunning panoramic views, splendid voice-acting and motion captured cinematics. Though good as it may be, it’s not exactly worth 60€ (60$/40£) since you can easily finish it in a weekend’s rental. Nevertheless, I’m dying to see what Ninja Theory can do with the sequel, which may well be the classic this game could have been.