Review by Zotmaster
"Proof that carving faces is still a good time."
The second half of the Playstation 3's one-two late summer punch that started with Lair, Heavenly Sword was perhaps even more anticipated than the former was. The emphasis of bladed vengeance brought many comparisons to God of War, and there was, of course, the great question of just how good it would look and run on Sony's beefy system. Now it's here, and legions of gamers are wondering whether or not it's worth taking the dive. Though not perfect, Heavenly Sword offers plenty of fun even if it doesn't necessarily push the envelope gameplay-wise.
Gamers primarily play the role of Nariko, the fiery haired woman who has little need for a barber. Nariko's birth was supposed to be hailed as the saving grace for her village. Of course, that was until she was born, for the natural assumption was that the savior would be of the male persuasion. As a result, Nariko is branded more as a pariah as an outcast, but her village's peril is real all the same. Facing extinction and worse from the wrath of King Bohan, the only thing that can save Nariko's village is the Heavenly Sword, which grants its wielder great power at the cost of that person's life. Out of options, Nariko brandishes the blade in the hope of leading her people to salvation. Along the way, Nariko gets a little help from a fellow villager named Kai, who, although she seems more than a little deranged, manages to charm from the outset and provide a fresh dash of youthful energy and humor into the story. The story is not particularly epic as written, but as acted, the story really comes to life. Few games offer up cutscenes as well-done as Heavenly Sword's, and it manages to transform the story from mediocre paint-by-numbers fantasy into something that really is rather compelling. Nariko's character does an especially good job of being worthy of the sympathy of the player, as Nariko's quest for vengeance is more out of necessity than because she wants to help the village. Such is the life of an outcast.
In order to get this revenge, of course, Nariko has to cut through enemies by the hundreds, and the bulk of Heavenly Sword's gameplay is dedicated to carving your way through all who would stand in your way. Nariko offers up three stances: a weak Ranged stance, which offers protection against ranged attacks and helps scatter enemies, a more all-purpose Speed stance, with some quick moves and balanced abilities, and the dome-rocking Power stance, which features slow moves but a great deal of destructive power. Two attack buttons and the three different stances combine to offer a nice variety of combos. Some combos are faster, others more powerful, some break guards, and some can even continue on into other stances. Performing well without taking damage in return fills a meter that serves up most of Heavenly Sword's unlockable content, some of which includes new combos. The enemies also offer further incentive to master all three stances, as ranged attacks can only be blocked in the Speed stance. Furthermore, up close, enemy attacks can come in three flavors: attacks that can be blocked (and countered) in the Speed stance, more powerful attacks that can be blocked (and also countered) in the Power stance, and even more powerful attacks that can't be blocked or countered at all. This variety also extends to the individual weaknesses of the enemies: some are better killed in the Speed stance, some in the Power stance, and some can only really be killed after their attacks are blocked or countered. Heavenly Sword's enemies do a decent job of keeping players on their toes...
...Although a large part of this is because when you fight any, you fight quite a few at a time. The enemy AI isn't particularly challenging. Rather, the game relies on large numbers of them to provide the player with a decent challenge. The result isn't necessarily horrible - throwing yourself into a pack of enemies will result in you taking multiple attacks from multiple directions, encouraging the player to remain flexible - but divide-and-conquer strategies result in easily defeated enemies. Worse still is the fact that there are very few enemy types. Truth be told, the enemy list somewhat resembles something out of a classic Final Fight game: there's the speed guy, the power guy, the archer guy, and, of course, ninjas aplenty. The same half-dozen or so enemy types repeat themselves throughout the game, so you'll be plenty used to each by the game's end.
The bosses, thankfully, are all very diverse and feel much different from each other. However - and again, old-school gamers will see the similarities - the bosses are very much pattern-intensive. A little bit of studying and a little bit of luck will teach you exactly when each boss makes himself or herself vulnerable, and those points will obviously be the times where you strike to damage them. Some are harder to figure out than others, and their attack patterns do change somewhat as they take damage, but observant players shouldn't need more than one or two attempts at the most to take each one down.
The game does attempt to deviate from the "go around and kill everyone" formula at various points, with mixed results. Kai's missions are an example of deviation done right. While some of her missions are a little lengthy, her humor and crossbow give much-desired breaks from the hack-and-slash norm. Kai's missions also serve to highlight the Sixaxis's function of the game: once a projectile - arrow, cannonball, or otherwise - is flying in the air, its trajectory can be altered somewhat by tilting the controller to adjust where you want it to go. Those who have already cut their teeth on Lair will find themselves at home here, and it is eternally satisfying to guide arrows into enemy crotches and faces. Another fun use of the projectile altering feature - called Aftertouch - is using fallen opponents as projectiles. All of them can be thrown, and the game does give a wonderfully sadistic satisfaction of throwing an enemy head-first into a gong, wall, or a pack of unsuspecting enemies.
However, the game does try to incorporate "puzzles" - although I use the term loosely - as another way of offering a change of pace, and unfortunately, the game's puzzles fail to provide a breath of fresh air. All of Heavenly Sword's puzzles pretty much follow the same formula. Whenever you find an inexhaustible supply of Kung Lao-style hats, you learn to realize that there is a gong or a pressure plate nearby. You then throw a hat - or any other projectile - at it, and the puzzle is solved. None of them are any more difficult than getting the hat to fly where you want it to go. The only real deviation in the puzzles is one in particular where you have to ricochet a hat off an object in order to get it to its destination. All of the puzzles felt weak and almost seemed to be added as an afterthought. Even if it didn't technically make sense, God of War produced puzzles as a fun, brain-bending break from the combat. The puzzles in Heavenly Sword would have almost been better not being included in the game.
Finally, the game does yield some context-sensitive events, where the player has to either hit a direction or a button when prompted. Most of these accompany some really cool animation, so the player feels rewarded when the proper button or buttons are pressed. Some of the timing windows are fairly short, but fast reflexes should be more than sufficient for first or second tries on each of them. All in all, while the gameplay doesn't necessarily break any new ground, it does the job pretty well.
The graphics, on the other hand, do break some new ground. The animations are gorgeous, and the places where Nariko fights her battles are full of details and eye-candy. From lighting to visual effects to character design, Heavenly Sword delivers the goods and then some. More importantly, everything is easy to distinguish. You will know what is what simply by looking at it, no matter how far away it is. Even the enemies are the same way: while there may not be a large variety of them, each one looks different from the others and sports a creative design. This also makes combat easier as you will know how to fight each enemy when you encounter them. The only real quibble on the graphics during gameplay is a drop in the framerate which, though noticeable, does not serve to interrupt the combat.
Some games lose it when it comes to cutscenes, but not Heavenly Sword. Where others fall, Heavenly Sword soars. The main characters especially sport creative designs and are well animated. The animations, in fact, are what really set Heavenly Sword apart from other games. Any gamer would be hard-pressed to find another game where the characters express themselves as well as Heavenly Sword's characters do. Extensive motion-capture work has produced extremely lifelike characters who really give a sense of how they're feeling with their facial expressions. A few minor lip syncing issues aside, the cutscenes are what elevate the story from fairly generic to compelling: Nariko and King Bohan do an especially good job of pulling the players in and making them care about what's going on. This also extends to the voice actors. Each actor really fits the character, from the goofy Kai, to the fiery and determined Nariko, to the sinister - but still very funny - King Bohan, and everything in between. The production values and the voice acting are easily comparable to anything produced by such acclaimed series as Metal Gear Solid or Grand Theft Auto. Finally, the music is diverse and adequate. It's easy to lose track of it as you're fighting for your life, but it gets the job done.
Bottom Line: Honestly, the biggest stumble with the game is that it can be completed in about six to seven hours. Obviously, that is not a particularly long title, although at one point in gaming's history, that was definitely the norm. Beating the game does unlock a harder difficulty, however. For most players, the question of rent or buy will largely come down to how greatly one values story and completeness in a title. Even though the game is short, the story resolves itself adequately by the end and the gameplay is always of the same consistent quality. If you place a high value on story and consistency, Heavenly Sword should qualify as a buy. Otherwise, or if you're skeptical, the title should be a rental. At any rate, the title should not be missed, and for those who are hurting from the commitments to games like Warhawk or Oblivion, perhaps a short quest really is what the doctor ordered. All in all, though not a perfect title, it is definitely not one to be missed.
Replay Value: 6
Overall: 88, rounded down to an 8/10
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/17/07
Game Release: Heavenly Sword (US, 09/12/07)
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