Before I start, here's a quick disclaimer: I am going to reference God of War in this review--a lot. That's because the development team behind Heavenly Sword ripped a lot of chapters out of David Jaffe and Corey Barlog's playbook. It's not a stretch to think of this title as 'Goddess of War' as it also features a complex narrative that centers on a troubled main character and is married to a deep and substantial combat system.
- An interesting narrative, fantastic production values and deep combat system results in the first triple-A PS3 title of note.
- The game's combat system stresses reaction over action, the boss battles are iffy and the storytelling is uneven.
There is a lot to like about Heavenly Sword. While it never quite reaches the heights of classic game status, there are few exclusive PS3 titles that can rival it.
Price$ 109.95 (AUD)
The trouble is that, for all its glitz and glamour, Heavenly Sword never quite reaches the high bar set by Sony's first and primary action franchise. But what the game does -- and it does it well -- is offer up its own unique and satisfying take on the action genre that God of War helped redefine.
Heaven And HellWe won't go too deeply into the details of Heavenly Sword's story, as half the fun is in letting the narrative develop over the course of the game but if there is one thing Heavenly Sword does well, it's the narrative story: the main character Nariko belongs to a tribe whose fate is tied to a prophecy which proclaimed that a man would be born into their midst to save them. Unfortunately Nariko, who was born at the prophesized time, was born a woman, a fact that her fellow clansmen see as an omen of doom. Tied into the prophecy is the titular Heavenly Sword, a magical blade that is under the protection of the clan's protection. The evil King Bohan seeks the blade to consolidate his power and a war breaks out.
It's during this ensuing conflict that Nariko falls into possession of the Heavenly Sword and arms herself with it, setting into motion the events of the game. Suffice it to say, the production values in the game are top notch and it definitely has the cinematic flair that truly memorable games like Half-Life 2, Halo and yes, God of War, possess.
This is supplemented by a ton of unlockable Hollywood-style extras like behind-the-scenes clips and animated vignettes that flesh out the game's narrative. The game's graphics also take full advantage of the PS3's horsepower, with stunning backdrops and fantastic character animations. The in-game cinematics have a Hollywood quality to them, thanks to superb motion-capping and fine acting, including a great performance by Andy Serkis, he of Gollum and King Kong fame. The character animations are also smooth and adeptly choreographed. Nariko, especially, moves with a sense of fluidity and grace and at points, the game brings to mind fight sequences from popular wushu movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
Pushing HandsI should note, however, that the brand of action in Heavenly Sword is a little on the "soft" side. Nariko uses three stances during combat: speed, ranged and power. The speed stance is the default, the ranged stance--Nariko separates the Heavenly Sword into two and whips the ends around like a certain Spartan's chains--is activated by holding the L1 button, and the power stance, where Nariko swings just the Heavenly Sword, is activated by holding R1.
It doesn't take long for you get used to the controls and you'll be mixing and matching attacks from each style to form an impressive array of moves. However, the combat in Heavenly Sword never delivers the same sort of visceral punch that God of War did. Unlike Kratos, who was capable of plowing through enemies with a maniac's fury, Nariko must often rely on finesse and timing to take out her foes. Yes, she does crunch a few bones and mangles a few crotches but because most enemies can block your attacks, simple button mashing proves ineffective. I found myself mainly sitting back in a defensive shell and waiting for an opening; as a result, I never got the feeling that I was truly "manhandling" my enemies. No pun intended, of course.
The game also relies heavily on a paper-rock-scissors model that is difficult to master. All enemies attack using one of the three aforementioned stances: If an enemy exhibits a blue aura before attacking, they're coming at you with a speed attack, so you need to be in the speed stance to block it. If they glow orange, it's a power attack and thus, the power stance is required. Ranged attacks can be deflected with the ranged style until you get close enough to fight.
The problem is that you need lightning fast reflexes to switch up your stances correctly each and every time, especially when you're surrounded bymultiple foes. This is compounded by the fact that in order to block, you have to just stand there and let the game automatically block for you, which ran counter to my natural instinct to mash buttons.
I should also mention that the boss battles are weird. First, there are only a small handful and they play out like a strange mix of chess and chicken. Each boss has multiple life bars and a set pattern of attack. You have to carefully whittle down the boss' life meter -- again, by patiently waiting, picking your spots and counter-attacking -- then wait for the next attack pattern to initiate. Rinse, lather and repeat until the boss is dead.
And yet, even though the combat has its quirks, it is still satisfying and there are moments when you can't help but smile at the carnage that you are creating. The game mixes things up nicely, giving you the opportunity to man a cannon and rain death down upon an immense battlefield, fire off a cool rocket launcher like device to take out oncoming enemies and even take on the role of a side character, Nariko's childlike companion Kai, for some stealthy cross-bow action.
The action is also woven nicely into the game's deep narrative, making for an overall experience that is rich and satisfying. Yes, the plot is a little shaky--there are a lot of questions that are left unanswered--and the combat takes some getting use to but the overall experience is compelling enough that I wanted to return to it time and time again.
It's Not The Destination...
It's obvious that I, along with every other gamer, have become spoiled by the God of War series. When held up against that franchise's strengths, even a game like Heavenly Sword can pale in comparison. It's mildly unfair but because the game so obviously draws upon Jaffe and company's formula, it's also fitting.
So, while it doesn't eclipse the greatness of the original title that inspired it, Heavenly Sword is still a fun, engaging, and most importantly, exclusive PS3 title that Sony fanboys can brag to 360 fanboys about. Oh, there's also one unintended side-benefit: It offers a tantalizing glimpse at the possibilities inherent in the PS3 platform, which only raises my expectations for God of War 3.
Until Kratos' next adventure comes along, gamers can and should busy themselves by taking in the compelling saga of Nariko and her heavenly blade. It is without a doubt a journey worth taking, even if the road to the end is somewhat bumpy.
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