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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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