PS3 Fanboy review: Heavenly Sword

Sony has recently started up their holiday blitz by releasing three highly anticipated games for the PlayStation 3; Warhawk, Lair, and Heavenly Sword. While Warhawk was released to almost universal praise, Lair was largely met with torches and pitchforks. So where does Heavenly Sword fall? Does it achieve the soaring greatness of Warhawk or is it doomed to languish in the used sales bin at your local videogame store like Lair?


When talking about Heavenly Sword, it's hard not to bring up SCEA's fantastic God of War series. From the very first glimpses at Heavenly Sword the comparison has been drawn and while it's not really fair they do share some similarities. Both Kratos and Nariko have short blades attached to chains that they swing about like a Benihana chef on crack, they both have surprisingly deep combo systems, and both games use quick time events (QTE) for cinematic action scenes. Outside of those similarities though, Heavenly Sword manages to create its own unique experience that brings to mind God of War no more so than any combat heavy fantasy-based brawler.

While some people have complained about the lack of depth or complexity in Heavenly Sword's combo system, their issues are largely unfounded. Nariko has three different stances (ranged, speed, and heavy) which changes the weapon she's wielding as well as the combos that she has available to her. The combos aren't meaningless either, it's important to know which attacks stun defensive foes, launches them into the air, or are completely unblockable. And while it is possible to button mash your way through the game, you're in for a much harder experience than if you learn the complexities of the combo system.

Adding further depth to the gameplay, the stances do more than just give you access to different combos. Each stance has specific strengths and weaknesses making them useful in certain situations and worthless in others. For example, to block an attack you simply need to be in the same stance as the type of incoming attack (indicated by the color of the weapon trails). As long as you're not in the middle of some action, you'll automatically block the attack. Sounds simple right? Well it gets more complex as the game throws dozens of enemies at you all using different types of attacks at the same time. Suddenly you find yourself switching between the different stances and hammering out a wide variety of combos and moves as you dance in an out of the crowd, picking off fighters while avoiding incoming attacks. What could simply be a mash-fest turns into an elegant and intense ballet of death.

Other aspects of the gameplay includes an entertaining and violent counter system, single button fatalities called 'Superstyle moves' (complete with over-the-top cinematics of Nariko gutting some poor soul in a unique and satisfying way), and the aforementioned quicktime events where you are prompted to press certain buttons during cinematic sequences to navigate a certain part of a level or kill a major enemy. While none of these features are particularly unique they help flesh out the combat system and keeps things lively.

Speaking of keeping things lively, Heavenly Sword tosses in some of the most satisfying Sixaxis gameplay in a PS3 game yet. Using the motion controls you control projectiles (including bodies, dropped weapons, shields and rockets) by tilting the controller left or right or up or down. It works pretty well once you get the hang of it and it's unbelievably satisfying to nail a catapult with a cannonball from four miles away.

That's why it's such a shame that your initial impression of this feature via Nariko's sister Kai's first level. You are tasked with using her automatic crossbow to fend off waves of warriors invading a fort. The learning curve is vicious at first and you rarely get a nice clean shot at the nonstop flood of enemies. It's frustrating, poorly done and obnoxious -- to the point where I almost quit playing. But at least once you get past that level you'll rarely get in the situation where the motion controls annoy you. *cough* Lair *cough*

Graphically, Heavenly Sword is absolutely mind-blowing, ranking right up there with Gears of War as the example of what a next-gen console can truly do. This is easily one of the best looking PS3 games out there right now, if not the very best. The environments are huge and expansive (even though your path is highly linear) and the game has some beautiful HDR lighting effects. The beautiful environments and effects come at a cost though, you will run into occasional framerate hitches and wider vistas will cause some v-sync issues. Neither are horrible, but they're worth noting.

One spot where the game really stands out is its absolutely fantastic animation system. Cutscenes in particular are gorgeously animated thanks to fantastic motion-capture work by Andy Serkis (he of Gollum fame). It's so good that it's slightly unsettling at first -- it's like watching a real person move around. The animation during gameplay is no slouch either, with Nariko displaying the perfect balance of grace and power. Enemies are animated well also, but they get more or less the basic treatment.

Character models in Heavenly Sword look quite good too, though as you'd expect Nariko and the bosses get the most love in that department. Nariko in particular looks absolutely exquisite. She will go down in videogame history as having the most lovingly rendered belly button of all time. She's also just straight hot, though not in the gratuitous and jiggle-luscious way that Rachel from Ninja Gaiden: Sigma.

Speaking of that, it's worth noting that even though Nariko is clearly designed to be an attractive woman (and the fact that she's not wearing a whole lot) the game never comes across as pandering to 15-year-old boys or whoring her out as nothing more than a piece of eye candy. She doesn't jiggle, there are rarely any gratuitous panty shots and she never uses her sexiness in some stereotypical femme fatal way. She's a warrior and a conflicted human being first, a sex symbol a distant second. While this may not seem like much of a plus to some people, it's satisfying to see game developers create intelligent female main characters who do more than pander to the baser instincts of the gamer.

As great as the graphics are in Heavenly Sword, and as satisfying as the gameplay is -- where it really succeeds is its Hollywood-worthy story. Written by Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of Terry Pratchett (one of the most successful and prolific fantasy writers of our time), the story is equal parts engaging, poignant, and surprisingly comedic. Part of what makes the story so engaging is how good the voice acting is. Nariko is voiced to perfection by Anna Torv, lending Nariko the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength.

The person who steals the show though is easily Andy Serkis' character King Bohan (the main villain). Serkis gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as both the voice and the body (via mo-cap) of Bohan. Unlike most villains, King Bohan has a surprising amount of texture to his personality and watching the cutscenes with him in them is an absolute treat.

As good as Heavenly Sword is though, it has one serious shortcoming -- its length. It took me about eight hours to beat it and another two hours to unlock some of the additional content I had missed. Once you've beaten the game you also unlock a Hell difficulty, but there's little reason to come back and play it more than once or twice. And there's the rub, for $60 dollars you get a fantastic game with a wonderful story and some of the best graphics on the PS3, but it's over almost before it begins and that's just a damn shame. Heavenly Sword still comes highly recommended, but its brief length drops its score fairly significantly. Still, even if you just rent it, you owe it to yourself to play Heavenly Sword -- while it lasts it's easily one of the most entertaining games out on the PS3 right now.

PS3 Fanboy Score: 8.0

This article was originally published on Joystiq.