A fellow reviewer and I have in the past discussed the merits of a head/heart rating system. It would be useful for those games where you’re split over how to score it; in your head and from a realistic critical perspective you have to be harsh, but despite any deficiencies and misgivings you are terribly fond of it, and in your heart you adore it regardless, and want to get on your soapbox and tell everyone.
For me, Heavenly Sword is a game which perfectly embodies this principal. It has its problems; it is short – coming in at around 6 or 7 hours, the combat is shallower than its contemporaries and it is unflinchingly linear. But at the same time it has awe-inspiring graphics, a tremendous story, cutscenes and characterisation, and it has obviously been developed with a degree of love, detail and passion that is becoming increasingly rare in the current generation.
Heavenly Sword is the tale of Nariko and her family; guardians of the titular sword and leaders of a clan whose duty is to protect the powerful, destructive blade from the hands of those who would use it for their own foul means, until such a time as it is taken back to the heavens and they are rewarded with eternal peace. For several months the clan has been pursued by the limitless armies of a vile foreign king, Bohan, and now but a few people remain and the army is closing on them. Bohan seeks the revered weapon as a trophy of his dominance and – in a scenario which evokes memories of The Lord of the Rings‘ Helm’s Deep – with nowhere left to run the clan must turn their back to the wall and make their stand. Facing the destruction of everything she has ever known, Nariko takes the blade – knowing its power will kill her – and fights back against the oppressors.
The narrative is very much at the centre of Heavenly Sword, so it’s lucky the story and characters are interesting, and the cutscenes are of a near-unparalleled high quality. Everything has been fully motion-captured, right down to each actor’s facial movements and the perfect lip-syncing, which gives the animation an authenticity and detail which outstrips even the likes of Metal Gear Solid 4. Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings) plays the role of the ravenous king Bohan to wonderful effect, lending the character just the right degree of insanity and unpredictable temperament, much like the late Heath Ledger did with The Joker. He also acts as Dramatic Director, and clearly he’s done a great job as the voice acting is superb across the board.
As Nariko, you wield the sword against Bohan’s innumerable forces, seeking to rescue your captured father and clansmen, destroy their generals and break the army. The gameplay takes a very similar stance to God of War; you can’t move the camera but instead the right analogue stick is an evade move, and by default the Heavenly Sword is two smaller blades on chains, much like Kratos’ Blades of Athena. However, Heavenly Sword is more streamlined than its ancient Greek cousin, as there are rarely puzzles here, Nariko is unable to jump and there is almost no exploration to undertake; the focus is very much on the combat. It takes a little getting used to – Nariko has three stances which allow for a different fighting style (speed, range and power) and even near the beginning of the game enemies have a propensity for blocking and a ‘Block Breaker’ combo will be needed to best their defences. Further, she doesn’t herself have a block button and the only way you can defend against attacks is to do nothing and she’ll block automatically, provided she’s in the correct stance.
With good timing you can also counter enemy attacks, and throwing an enemy to the ground as they strike then snapping their neck with a swift twist of Nariko’s leg is tremendously satisfying. Like all attacks, these short, sharp animations vary depending on how good your timing is and particularly what stance you’re in – so Nariko might throw a foe through the air into his comrades, or if you’re just a fraction quicker she might break his neck or impale him. Button bashing works up to a point in the early levels, but later in the game when there are more, tougher foes you’ll need to approach fights with an air of caution and tactics, although by this point you should be getting accustomed to the timing and intricacies of the combat.
Nariko is not alone on her journey – her catlike adopted sister Kai is also there to help. You control Kai for a handful of levels, and they are very different to those of Nariko as she is not a warrior, but is proficient with a huge rapid-fire crossbow which is perpetually strapped to her back. Thus, her levels are more like sniping missions – evading foes and taking them down from afar in ‘shootouts’ or before they can reach her. What makes them even more interesting though is through arguably the best use of the Sixaxis controller to date; when Kai fires an arrow the camera follows it and you can steer it in slow motion into the enemies. Moving the pad left, right, up and down to steer the arrows takes a little getting used to, but the sensitivity is just perfect and it’s hugely enjoyable to guide an arrow hundreds of meters before hitting the enemy in the head with a hollow thunk.
And Kai herself is one of the best characters in the game – she walks a fine line between ecstasy, misery and delirium, all the while managing to be the most likeable lunatic in recent gaming history. Nariko is a bit more of a traditional strong heroine; determined and honourable but with a unforgiving background and a tragic story. Bohan’s generals – Whiptail and Flying Fox, along with his son Roach – are more fantastical and comic book-esque, and could easily have been part of the Cobra unit in Metal Gear Solid 3. Lastly, there is Shen, Nariko’s father and leader of their clan. Shen is a warrior with a heavy sense of burden, and he has been rivals with Bohan ever since the two trained together in their youth. Shen is the antithesis of Bohan; his calm exterior and encouraging leadership is at odds with the dictatorship and violence of his lifelong foe.
In terms of graphics and presentation, there are few console games which can match Heavenly Sword. The main characters are exceptionally detailed and animated, and although this level of care hasn’t quite gone into the enemies, there are still a few varied designs with sufficient detail – even so it’s all the more impressive in the huge battle scenes when Nariko literally meets Bohan’s army of thousands head-on. The art style has very prominent Asian vibes, from the decor, clothing and even the music, and the game is absolutely crammed full of impressive scenic vistas with huge draw distances. There is also a nice line in Havok physics where everything will remain where it falls, meaning you can pick up discarded weapons and throw them, and bodies on the ground even move when interfered with. All said and done, this is probably the best-presented game I’ve ever played, and although these things shouldn’t really matter, it’s hard not to be a little bit shallow when a game looks and sounds this good.
However, it’s not all roses as Heavenly Sword falls down in a few areas. The combat lacks the depth of Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry and there is no real adventuring or exploration like in God of War, meaning the game undoubtedly feels inferior in many respects to its closest competitors. Furthermore, although the difficulty is generally very well-balanced, there are a few times when it gets infuriatingly tough – in particular, a couple of the bosses favour moves which are unblockable, and they have a knack of breaking out of your attack combos and countering when they really shouldn’t be able to. There is also a little over-reliance on Quick Time Events and their ilk, meaning you spend a fair amount of time watching these lovely animated sequences but not really participating.
Heavenly Sword has had a rough ride. After some five years in development, it was touted as one of the first PS3 games to really propel the console into the big time, but the backlash toward the game was one of disappointment and that never really happened as planned (that task was left to the wonderful Uncharted). For those who are fans of the fantasy action genre and who overlooked this almost-classic first time around, I would strongly suggest you not let the negative criticism keep you from missing out on this incredible ride.