The world existing outside of gaming circles was introduced to Heavenly Sword when it mysteriously appeared nearly a year ago in a shameless plug on NBC’s freshman season of Heroes. Expectations for Sony’s premiere new potential franchise have built exponentially since then, leaving little to no wiggle room for fault or error else critics and Playstation 3 owners walk away from another exclusive with their heads hung low. Now that Heavenly Sword has finally arrived after nearly a year of delays, Sony and developer Ninja Theory can hold their heads up high for releasing what I consider to be the first bona fide must-have Playstation 3 title since the console’s introduction last November.
Classifying Heavenly Sword is tricky as it mixes and matches a number of elements found in recent blockbuster gaming franchises. The frenetic combat draws comparisons to God of War with an ethereal character wielding a gargantuan weapon against scores of enemies. The visuals and absurdly easy puzzles are reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden Sigma; beautifully rendered with attention to detail most developers can only dream of achieving. The story and acting within cut-scenes bring back memories of Halo and hopefully glimpses of Halo 3, only taken to a new level with Andy Serkis of Gollum fame managing all motion-capture performances that put many Hollywood films to shame.
Players initially find themselves in the midst of a massive battle between one heroine warrior wielding the mystical Heavenly Sword, Nariko, and hundreds of armored foes. After a brief tease of fighting with the massive blade, Nariko falls in battle after being consumed by the sword’s energy in a dramatic cut-scene. It isn’t clear yet but the sword will gradually consume its wielder over time, killing them. Nariko awakens in a strange purgatory, questioning the circumstances of her death. This sets forth the game’s events that begin 5 days prior, before Nariko ever laid a hand on the powerful sword.
Handling the Heavenly Sword is as simple as it is poetic and beautiful, much like a Haiku. Instead of three verses to work with, the sword offers three different color-coded stances: speed (blue), power (yellow), and range (red). Speed is the most commonly used stance and doesn’t require holding an additional button to execute. Power stance requires holding R1 and is fantastic for inflicting the most damage, despite its slower speed. Range is great for keeping swarms of enemies at bay, though it’s hardly necessary to call upon until the game’s final chapter where it becomes a necessity for survival. For special heroic moves, such as finishing off a trio of colorful boss characters, context-sensitive button patterns are the path to victory. The SIXAXIS is even incorporated with a violent shaking motion when Nariko has been hit and sent airborne translating to a swift counter-attack, though pulling this off successfully in the heat of battle is much easier said than done.
Fast reflexes are required to identify an opponents attack by the stance color they display a split-second before executing. Nariko will automatically block an attack if she’s positioned in the matching stance when it hits, negating the need for a block button ” though including one would have made defense and quick combo attacks more accessible. In addition, clicking the Triangle button at the exact moment of the strike sets Nariko into a counter-move, which if timed perfectly, results in a swift death for the attacker. Since the Triangle button acts as an attack button regardless of if you’re countering or not, it becomes easy to rely on it as accidental one-hit counter kills will always be in play.
Not until this year’s E3 did Sony let the cat out of the bag ” literally ” when they unveiled a second playable character. Kai, a nimble feline-like childish adult reminiscent of a Cirque Du Soleil performer, acts as an archer and Nariko’s lone friend. Players will be called upon to play as Kai to shoot a variety of human and inanimate targets to take a break from the hack and slash action playing as Nariko. What makes playing as Kai unique is nailing moving targets at extremely long distances using the SIXAXIS controller for after-touch arrow control. Aside from Kai’s first mission where the targets are far too close and fast, this subtle use of motion control is the most precise and fulfilling application of SIXAXIS I’ve encountered on Playstation 3 yet.
Heavenly Sword is the first Playstation 3 game I’ve seen push the console’s technical capabilities to its limits. Every aspect of the presentation is absolutely top notch and some of the best you’ll ever see appear on a current-gen console. The Playstation 3 is pushed so hard that, at times, the frame-rate seems to hiccup and skip a couple frames. I’d much rather endure these hiccups than battle with any type of lag, which Heavenly Sword is devoid of in any shape or form.
If Heavenly Sword has an Achilles Heel then it’s a remarkably short approximately five to six-hour completion time leaving little room for diversity. Whipping through the adventure in a pair of weekend evening outings is greats for family-challenged gamers, but will certainly irk those with much larger windows of gaming time on their hands looking for more than hacking and slashing the same core of enemies over and over again. Either group can choose to replay the story in much harder Hell Mode, only available after defeating the King on the lone default difficulty setting. A second run is likely required regardless to unlock the majority of attack combos (I had unlocked only just over half the combos after beating the game) and subsequently making-of videos.
Playstation 3 has been in dire need of a must-own exclusive title for nearly a year now. Resistance: Fall of Man came close but was ultimately no different than countless other first-person shooters already available. With Heavenly Sword, Sony has something unique and cutting edge with minimal shortcomings. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more polished or engaging action/adventure game on any console, regardless of its length. This is the PS3 “Hero” Sony have been searching for.
– Dan Bradley