Heavenly Sword, or, Super-hot Sword Wielding Superwoman

narikoI’d put off playing Heavenly Sword (HS) for quite some time, even though I knew I’d love it. It turns out my purchase was worth it. Heavenly Sword does have its faults, but the beauty of the game, the interesting story (written by Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry), cutscenes and innovative combat system push the envelope of PS3 capabilities.

HS is the most gorgeous game I’ve ever played. I’m not just talking about the main character, Nariko (who makes Lara Croft look like an old hag by comparison, and I’m totally in love with her by the way), but the entire game. From lush backgrounds, to epic battles, to professionally acted cutscenes, this game is beautiful.

HS is also the first game I’ve played where I didn’t mind the Sixaxis controls. My previous encounters with the Sixaxis (Ratchet and Clank, Uncharted) left me frustrated. In Heavenly Sword you can control arrows and cannonballs, and it’s actually kind of fun when you get the hang of it. (Note to developers—the Sixaxis still sucks and should not be incorporated into new games. Though it worked in Heavenly Sword, the analog stick controls would have worked just fine for the arrows/cannonballs).

The combat in Heavenly Sword takes more than a few lines from my all-time favorite hack and slasher, God of War 2. As I’ve noted before, I don’t mind imitation. The good thing about HS is that it expands on that model in some intriguing new ways. Once Nariko gains control of the actual Heavenly Sword, she has three combat stances; Speed (fast, light attacks), Range (swing your sword in an arc on a chain, remind you of Kratos in GoW?), and Power (slow and heavy damage). The stance you choose also affects your defense. Before they attack, enemies briefly glow blue (Speed), orange (Power) or red (certain heavy enemies/bosses, Unblockable). If you are in Speed stance, you automatically defend blue attacks, in Power, orange attacks. While this is an excellent concept, it failed somewhat in practice. You don’t get much of a warning before enemies attack, so it’s often more useful to simply attack them and roll away (another Kratos move) to avoid damage. In addition, blocking doesn’t help much when you’re surrounded by 10 attacking enemies (this happens often).

That being said, the combat is epic, and in most cases is seamless and fluid (if somewhat hectic because of insane number of enemies), which is important to me. (For an example of the slowest, most disjointed combat engine, play the AWFUL game, Viking: Battle for Asgard.) You will be involved in battles where there are hundreds of enemies on the screen and you will have to kill all of them. All I can say is that part of the game is just fucking awesome, and my only gripe was that I wish it had gone on a little longer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can pick up and throw almost anything as a weapon in this game, from watermelons to the bodies of dead enemies (cool!).

HS mixes it up by also providing you with a second playable character at certain points in the game, Kai. Kai is Nariko’s younger adopted sister. Her weapon is a strange rifle crossbow that incorporates a ranged shooting dynamic to the game. When Kai gets too close to enemies, you’ll have to utilize her cat-like gymnastic abilities to put some distance between her and the baddies. During most of Kai’s combat you’ll be steering arrows with the Sixaxis. You take control of arrows in slow motion and steer them to their targets. It’s pretty fun to nail the baddies in as many body parts as possible—head shots, butt shots, groin shots. In addition, keep an eye out for flame braziers. Guide your arrow through a brazier flame, then steer it to a conveniently-placed gunpowder barrel to blow up multiple enemies.

Combat with Kai can be fun, but be prepared for a pretty steep learning curve and some initial frustration. My advice would be to take your time and play her 1st mission a couple of times through to improve your skills early.

The storytelling in Heavenly Sword also pushes the envelope of games-as-art. Nariko’s journey has a melancholy splendor to it that matches her physical beauty. From the beginning of the game, we know that the Heavenly Sword is cursed—it grants great power, but it also drains the life of any mortal wielding it. Nariko’s sacrifice to take up the sword and save her people makes for great storytelling and director Andy Serkis (Gollum from LoTR) does a first-rate job with his professional cast. Serkis himself voices the evil King Bohan; if there were an Oscar for best actor in a game, he’d deserve it. The ample cutscenes will draw you in and make you feel as if you are part of a movie — a stated goal of the developers.

Finally, two minor gripes. The first is that the game was too short (6-7 hours to finish). As a fan of shorter games, I am saying this only because I loved the story and gameplay so much, I did not want it to end. My assumption is that PS3 games take a god-awful amount of time to program and that adding the voice acting/cutscenes into this game probably doubled the production time. Making the game longer may have put production out another year or two. So, I guess I’d rather have it be short and good than long and bad (again, see Viking: Battle for Asgard for a game that was too long and clearly released before it was a final product).

Second, the final boss battle, while not impossible, left me frustrated. All the combat skills you gain throughout the game are tossed out the window. There is no reason to try to defend against the close range melee attacks of the final boss; they are too quick and/or unblockable. So you are left with avoiding, avoiding, avoiding him until he uses a ranged attack. You then have to block that at just the right time to have it bounce back and hit him. All the hack and slash fun of the game is drained out from this battle. Lame.

It’s also a long battle, as he has several incarnations. Which brings me to my second point: you are both infused with godly power for this battle, but his godly powers are clearly way, way better than your own. I hate it when developers do this (and HS developers are not alone in this). I’m fine with final bad guys being tough, but if we are both being granted additional powers, can’t I get something cool out of it besides a white glow? He gets wings, flying, raven hordes to attack me, power bolts, super speed, and all I get is a heavenly white glow? Boo! I could have at least had some sort of Angel Bomb or something.

Heavenly Sword is a game that I felt didn’t get the praise it deserved. While not perfect, it pushed the PS3 envelope in creativity, design, visuals, combat and storytelling (and it has an amazing soundtrack). Here’s to hoping there’s a sequel in the works — and that other developers will learn something from Heavenly Sword’s design.

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