Aug 28, 2007
Four years in the making at Sony’s Cambridge studios, Heavenly Sword is unashamedly the bi-product of Ninja Theory’s obsession/adoration for the chop-socky, swordplay-filled flicks of yesteryear. Part Shaw Brothers flick, part Red Sonja with a peppering of Wushu, the developer even went as far as hiring the same sound masters who provided the battle sound effects on Ang Lee’s Oscar-nabbing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to supply the noise of steel clashing with steel in one-to-one brawls and battlefield fisticuffs. Not a single sliver of creativity has been left unexplored here and it shows.
Ninja Theory has put a vast amount of time and work into scriptwriting and rendering the stunning cutscenes that play out with the emotional resonance of a big summer blockbuster. You won’t want to skip through these thanks to the work of Andy Serkis, he of Gollum and King Kong fame. Serkis worked on the dramatics with the game’s stellar cast - including John Rambo’s nemesis from Rambo II, Steven Berkoff - at WETA Digital’s swanky new motion-capture studio in New Zealand.
And frankly, Serkis is ultimately a massive part of why Heavenly Sword works so well as not only a game, but also as a hugely engaging adventure story about love, honour, family and steel. Serkis is King Bohan, a ruthless bastard of a leader who believes that he is some sort of messenger sent from the heavens above with one thing on his mind - capture the Heavenly Sword from Nariko and her clan guard.
Opening on Nariko’s death (which seems to be a gaming zeitgeist these days) you play through the flame-haired fighter’s last days before she’s killed by the titular sword in the midst of a gargantuan battle with Bohan’s army. You must then hack and slash through gorgeous countryside landscapes, vast castles, snow-covered towns and dusty arenas in a bid to keep the sword from Bohan’s possession and protect both your city and people at the same time. Essentially, Bohan must die, his armies must be destroyed and Nariko, we’re led to believe, is dead by the time the closing game credits start to roll. Of course, we’ve finished it and know what happens, but we’re not cold-hearted enough to spoil the game’s ending for our readers.
Adding extra oomph to this are the support players comprised of Nariko’s father, Shen and her kooky sister, Kai - who you take control of throughout the game as well as Bohan’s army of warped sidekicks. There’s Roach - his slug-like body fat is shielded in a steel shell rather like, erm, a cockroach. Throw in the slithery slut Whiptail, who - although we’re quite sure about this - could be Bohan’s squeeze. Then there’s Flying Fox (Berkoff) - a wrinkly, speed freak with a whiff of kiddie fiddler about him and very large knives attached to his back. All of which, you end up fighting at one point or another in the game as end-of-level bosses of sorts.
These boss battles usually involve the age-old classic arcade formula of knocking their varying degrees of health bars down from three colours to one (red) before you can truly begin to inflict some serious damage. And when you’ve done this, you’re prompted to slam circle and perform a series of button-tapping maneuvers that, if done correctly, usually end in you looking extremely cool and your foes extremely broken. Or extremely dead.
Sword, albeit a furious fighter, is less about gore and severed body parts, and more about the beauty of combat, mastering Nariko’s blades and triple-barreled style. Puzzles, although a major part of Kratos’s exploration, aren’t as prominent here. Instead you’re required to use the Sixaxis more to complete skill tests like locked gates and defeat shielded guards.
Harboring three stances, Heavy (hold R1), Range (default stance) and Speed (hold L1), Nariko comes jammed with a wedge of combos varying from the swift to the mighty. But chaining all three styles together will net you mammoth combo numbers - you can reach well above 100 hits - with devastating results. Oddly, there is no jump button, and despite the strangeness of it at first, aerial control of Nariko through the Sixaxis soon becomes second nature. One thing’s for sure: you will absolutely need to master these stances in order to own combo control, as blocking certain enemies require you to use either Power, Speed or Range stances to fend off their attacks. It sounds like a headache on paper, but after a few waves of Bohan’s troops, it all moves so fluidly you’ll hardly notice your fingers tapping the shoulder buttons.
As well as chaining combos and pulling off bone-breaking counters you can also use Nariko’s Super Stylin’ meter to kick ass. An inset of her health bar, this provides three devastating attacks. Firstly Nariko can perform a spine-dancing number on a single enemy. Or she can leap into the air, with the enemy impaled on her blades, slam to the ground and take out all those around her. Finally, she can break into a whirlwind attack wiping out everyone in the vicinity. And like the rest of the combat in Sword, these special moves look absolutely cracking, which is why you’ll find yourself methodically attacking enemies, chaining combos, waiting for that exact moment to pull off a nasty counter and filling up that bar for when you need it most.
Kai’s shot-focused missions help mix the gameplay up a bit, however, some of these missions do drag on - especially the one when we had to protect her father, Shen as he made his way across a bridge of Bohan’s troops. After you’ve launched an arrow, you’re thrown into “Aftertouch” mode - a bullet-time of sorts that allows you to control Kai’s arrows for pin-point accuracy.
It looks great and the payoff is even more rewarding when you hit someone right between the eyes or in the knees. This method of attack does sometimes slow the pacing down to a crawl when there are hordes of troops, leaving you yearning for a wallop of Nariko’s blades. In fact, we’d go as far as to say that Ninja Theory has included a little too many Kai-based missions when it should have been focusing on the real star of Heavenly Sword, Nariko.
And yet that’s where the game begins to unravel. Sure, the combat is truly next-gen, the game is as beautiful as you’d have hoped for and Nariko is as awesome as expected, but it feels way too short. We reached the end of the game in less than a day and were left feeling short-changed by the experience. We craved extra brawls with bigger bad guys, a few more puzzles plus extra missions that would have really stretched our skills.
Ultimately, this is Heavenly Sword’s Achilles heel. It’s just too damn short. Add to this the lack of online content, and as there’s only a handful of production diaries, a Making Of and a double-dose of anime cartoons, people will end up feeling a little deflated by the extras.
Still, quality over quantity is the vibe here and there’s no doubt in our mind that Heavenly Sword is a winner and a work of art (eat that Roger Ebert!) that will help shift tons of PS3s come September. When it’s good, it’s truly magnificent and some of the final stages will have anyone with a 42-inch high-definition TV foaming at the mouth. No battle-scene compares to Nariko’s finale. Plus, Nariko’s home of the new face of PlayStation, going so far as to shunt Lara Croft from her throne as the ultimate game girl. Bring on Heavenly Sword 2.