Looking back at E3 this past July, Heavenly Sword was the game I was most eagerly anticipating (not an easy thing to say believe me). While unfortunately brief and linear, Heavenly Sword provided me with a very enjoyable ten hours of play, leaving me wishing their were more than just the ability to play through it again (something I haven’t been able to make the time for). That said, if you enjoy third person action, Heavenly Sword brings it in spades from start to finish in a surprisingly engaging tale.
A Most Powerful Sword
Players take the role of Nariyko, the long red haired protagonist, and her strange friend, Kai, who’s handy with a crossbow and agile as they come. When the evil King Bohan brings force upon a peaceful village that Narikyo’s dad is the leader of, there is no choice but to fight back. At the beginning of the game, you only have a long sword, but the combat system is a lot of fun even at this point. Anyone who has played either God of War (which you should make every effort to play through), will fit into the combat system in Heavenly Sword rather quickly. One major similarity is that Nariyko can evade simply by moving the right thumbstick in the desired direction. However, there are some key differences in the combat system, like blocking. It took a little bit of getting used to, but in Heavenly Sword, there is not block button; instead, as long as you are facing the enemy and are not attacking, and are in the proper stance (more on that in a second), she will automatically block. Now, if you press Triangle at the right time, she will not only block, but counter. It was a little unnerving not being able to block at will, but it turns out this system works pretty well.
Speaking of differences and stances, let me describe for a moment the Heavenly Sword, and what makes the combat system in this game so special. The sword itself is, from what I gathered from the story, a divine blade that was to be used to protect the people of this village. However, Narikyo was not the one prophesized to wield the blade, a male was. As such she has been mistreated and this history builds a foundation for the story and her strained relationship with her father and people. That said, the Heavenly Sword is beautifully powerful, and Narikyo can wield it in three different stances offering three different types of attacks. The default mode is Speed Stance, and is used for close quarters, quick, moderate damaging strikes. You also have Ranged Stance, in which Narikyo uses the swords not unlike the blades used by Kratos in God of War. Lastly there is the power stance in which the blade acts as a heavy, two-handed weapon. The combination of these is really something to watch, and something better yet to play and enjoy for yourself. You can switch between the stances in a hurry, as it only requires that you hold down L1 or R1 for Ranged and Power stance respectively. The stances are given more depth in that there are many enemies that require you to quickly change stances to be able to block their attacks; this makes for a neat, fast paced and exciting mini-game that fits perfectly along side battle. The Heavenly Sword and Narikyo are also capable of SuperStyle moves which are unlocked in four stages; once you have done enough ass kicking to fill up your meter, you can unleash a SuperStyle combo that is basically a room-clearing special move.
Kai & The SIXAXIS
Kai, the strange sidekick to Nariyko most of us got only vaguely familiar with in the demo, is actually a pretty darn cool character. Her parts the game are an interesting change from Nariyko’s God of War style combat. With Kai, you carry a large crossbow. It’s in her first mission that the SIXAXIS controls are first introduced and they are used heavily throughout the game, but wisely so. By that I mean that use of the SIXAXIS is required, and while challenging, unless you are just really terrible at it you should be able to get through most sequences comfortably without requiring you to restart the chapter. These mini SIXAXIS games come into play with Kai shooting arrows, with Narikyo throwing shields (to solve door puzzles), and shooting cannons at oncoming Bohan catapults. In all cases you press and hold a button, depending on the application, and when you do so the camera shifts to the arrow or the shield, whatever the case may be, an follows it. Time in the game slows down at this point to help you steer the object with your controller. These were fun, but throughout the length of the game I struggled to be consistently accurate, never really reaching the point to where I was satisfied. I only blame the controls partly because of this, the other part being my misjudgment.
That said, one SIXAXIS application I loved occurred in the latter missions with Kai. In these sequences you had to weave your arrows through torch fire en route to the enemy. Embarrassingly, there are a few too many times with Kai whereby you are aiming at big red exploding barrels that the enemies are camped right next to. To destroy them, you need only to run your arrow through fire on its way to hitting the barrel. Still, it was much more rewarding to fire and steer an arrow and hit one of these barrels than it was to just try to shoot it, it just wasn’t nearly as satisfying that way.
Humor And Character
Everything I saw about Heavenly Sword before playing through the full story made me think this was a very serious game from start to finish, but it turns out there is a lot of great humor, primarily coming from Bohan and his cohorts. Cutscenes reveal the internal confusion and struggle between the bad guys in humorous dialogue and actions; reminded me of God Hand for those of you who have played Capcom’s underrated hit from 2006.
Something else about Heavenly Sword that stood out much more prominently than I anticipated it would were the characters. Sure Narikyo is given a fair amount of attention and her character develops, or at least unfolds, reasonably well; that didn’t surprise me too much. What did was just how well the other characters in the game, including Kai, and nearly the entire cast of bad guys -- Bohan, General Flying Fox, and Roach to be exact – developed. Some of the plot twists were nothing short of surprising and even touching later in the game and I became more attached and invested in the characters of Heavenly Sword than I ever figured I would. To be able to do this with even five or six characters in less than ten hours of time (it took me about nine to finish the game) is no small feat.
I think one reason the characters were so effective in this game was because of their excellent facial animations. The cutscenes make it a point to zoom right up on the expressive faces of all the characters, and there’s no denying it’s really quite spectacular. The level of detail in the eyes and facials muscles rivals the best I’ve ever seen out of a cutscene, besting even my the recently-reviewed Lair. Another reason I think the story and characters were so effective was how different they seemed to be from anything else I have ever played or seen before. The two prime examples of this would have to be Kai and General Flying Fox, two very strange but unforgettable characters.
Short But Sweet
Clearly, the biggest drawback to Heavenly Sword is that it ends so soon. It should take the average gamer well under ten hours to beat this game. It took me about nine, but I could have probably beat it in less than eight were I better at the SIXAXIS control sequences. Still, one important point I would like to make is that the nine hours I put into Heavenly Sword were a lot of fun and I was constantly making progress in the story, and it was interesting the entire way through. I didn’t die very much, so I didn’t have to restart chapters over and over again, but the experience was challenging all the same. I would much rather say I put in nine hours into this game and had a great time nearly 100% of the time than to say I put in twelve or thirteen hours but had to do certain parts over and over again for whatever reason.
One area in which I do wish Heavenly Sword had expanded upon is in interactivity. Throughout the story, there are simply very few points of interactivity that aren’t necessary. Before saying anymore, let me just say that I love a game where you can explore your gaming world, explore your environment and interact with things and people. About the only time in Heavenly Sword that you can do that is when you play as Kai and you scamper your way into Bohan’s treasure room. There are about half a dozen artifacts displayed on the wall (including Krato’s blades!) that have a description you can read. Other than that, you can use L2 and R2 to ‘tweak the camera’ so that you can look around just a little bit more than the default view, but that’s it. Giving the player more to explore and fool around with would have added hours to the game play and made this title even better.
Upon game completion, you will unlock Hell Mode, which I believe is just a harder mode of the same game. Normally I don’t even try to make time to play through a game a second time because it’s either not worth it or I just don’t want to make the time for it. In the case of Heavenly Sword, I’m going to make time for it after the holiday rush. One reason is because of how much fun I had with this game, but another reason is because each chapter gives you a rating of 1 to 3 stars – the more stars you accumulate, the more combos you can unlock. There aren’t many combos per stance, but the idea of getting more of those beautifully animated combos is interesting. Thus, Heavenly Sword has replay value in it for me where most games I play do not.