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Heavenly Sword - updated hands-on

It's been a dry first year for PlayStation 3 owners, but the trickle of long-awaited exclusives begins soon - and it's bringing this year's most anticipated hack-and-slasher along with it. Heavenly Sword is slated to hit stores in September, and now that we've seen and played more than just the tiny arena battles Sony's showed us in the past, it's clear that there's some real meat here - at least enough to keep fans of graceful, crowd-slashing brutality happy.

Heavenly Sword follows the story of Nariko, a young woman who takes up a holy-but-cursed sword in order to save her clan from the marauding King Bohan (played to the flamboyant hilt by Andy "Gollum" Serkis). Her time is short - the sword's curse makes her a terror in battle, but it's slowly killing her at the same time. So together with her weird crossbow-wielding sister Kai, Nariko sets out to carve a bloody swath through as many of Bohan's goons as possible.

As she tackles Bohan's death squads and weirdo generals, Nariko can rapidly switch between three basic fighting styles, each of which turns the Heavenly Sword into a different kind of weapon. In Ranged stance, she'll swing around a pair of small blades on chains, enabling her to weave deadly arcs, deflect arrows and knock enemies into the air for bonus slow-motion pummeling. Speed style is Nariko's default stance, allowing for lots of quick, destructive slashes with paired blades, and her Power stance enables her to execute slow, shield-breaking strikes.

Part of what sets Heavenly Sword apart from other slashfests is that there's a heavy emphasis on style and carefully timed counterattacks, with players earning new attacks and other extras depending on how stylishly they fight. As we pointed out in an earlier article, you can't achieve this by simple button-mashing; slower, rhythmic strikes tend to make for more fluid - and deadly - combos. The good news is that, when done right, these combos feel just as smooth as they look. Even better are the cinematic, enemy-flinging counterattacks and the "superstyles," which you'll earn by fighting stylishly. Superstyles are hyper-powerful attacks with three levels of power, and depending on how long you let them charge up, they can take out a single enemy instantly, or deal serious damage to everyone around you.

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