Some people feel this next-gen console war is over. Between Microsoft’s Xbox Live infrastructure with a solid title lineup and Nintendo’s “casual gamer” onslaught with the Wii, it is felt that Sony has dropped the ball irrevocably this time around. The one thing that can possibly save Sony from its grim-looking immediate outlook is to start delivering the quality titles that have been promised ever since the system announcement a few years ago. Most are waiting for the 800lb gorilla that is Metal Gear Solid 4, but some have been waiting with baited breath for the gorgeous and intense experience that Heavenly Sword had promised to be. Now that the title has officially hit store shelves the questions have been answered… is Heavenly Sword the game that many hoped it to be? While the answer will be a resounding “yes” for most, some will be upset at the fact that the game can be finished in nearly the amount of time it took them to drive to the store, buy it and come home.
Nariko, the game’s main character, has been distracting male gamers for months. She is beautifully rendered with enough detail to make most men forget they are watching someone’s drawing. Her animations are compelling, fluid and accurate, plus controlling her sword wielding skills is simple and intuitive. The facial animations are of Hollywood animation caliber and the voice acting is superb, and the whole graphical style of the game feels like an oil painting in motion… quite stunning and beautiful to look at.
As a matter of fact, it can be said that the game’s storyline and presentation are even more compelling than the gameplay itself. Although the game uses cutscenes instead of the actual game engine to drive its story forward, you will not feel that the style or narrative flow has been affected at all. That is not so say the game’s story is Shakespearean in quality, but compelling nonetheless. The whole experience is quite similar to that of Sony’s other flagship franchise “God of War,” with a couple of nods to “Ninja Gaiden” in some of the defensive moves.
The style of combat the player can employ is based on three stances; ranged, power and speed. The stances can be changed on-the-fly, which results in many impressive combination maneuvers. The triangle and square buttons act as the attack choices, and the triangle button can also deliver one-hit kills if used correctly with a guard break. The game’s main weakness is its repetitive combat scenarios, which eschew enemies of skill and throw hordes of the same type at you again and again. At times the gameplay can feel awfully like “Dynasty Warriors,” complete with all of that series’ trappings. In a nod to “God of War” once again, the game also contains a few “quick time” events that require the player to press buttons quickly, following an on-screen prompt. Most feel that this style of gameplay should be used quite sparingly as all it does is require memorization of the pattern the second time through, as most will fail the sequence the first time due to the design’s extremely small reaction time window.
The game does reward players for taking the time to get fancy with their combos by granting unlockable items as rewards. There is actually a meter that displays how fancy you have become with your attack combinations and depending on how far you fill the meter is how your rewards are determined. You can unlock new combos relatively easily and if you’re good enough you can perform really impressive moves to unlock bonus features and artwork. There is even a point where you can fill a meter and slam the circle button to perform a really stylish finishing move that can be quite satisfying on a visceral level.
At a certain point in the game, players will assume control of a secondary character named Kai, who seems to have adopted the personality of the villain from “The Most Dangerous Game” with her crossbow style of hunting enemies. Guiding arrows with the sixaxis controller’s motion sensing features is one of the more satisfying elements of the Kai sequences, even if it does become a tad repetitive like the rest of the game. Kai is also pretty weak on the attack in comparison, as she has nearly no close-range skills at all.
The audio presentation is a mix of both classical and contemporary instrumentals, ranging from the orchestral compositions to modern sounding, intense tracks with flairs of all different styles of music. The sound effects sound believable and tight, and as stated before the voice acting is “A-List.” If there is one flaw to be found there is that there are a few scenes where some lip-synching issues appear to have not been fixed.
For all the fun one can be having with Heavenly Sword, the game’s most glaring flaw is its length. A mediocre player could probably get through the entire game in one sitting (about seven to nine hours), and a skillful gamer could likely finish it in as little as six hours. There are arguments on both sides of this fence in the industry of late, as many titles seem to be getting shorter and shorter in length as each new console generation comes about. Some feel that it is a good thing that games aren’t padded out with filler and sub par content in order to bolster the gameplay time, while others see a short experience for your $59.99 to be both a rip-off and an indication of a developer’s lack of caring for the product.
Whichever side of the fence you may be on, you will find Heavenly Sword’s six to eight hours of gameplay to be an exhausting, immersive thrill ride that kicks into high gear early on and just keeps coming at you until the end credits roll. For all of its compelling gameplay, stunning visuals and enjoyable story, Heavenly Sword is definitely worth the afternoon you will spend completing it. Whether those six hours are worth ten dollars an hour is up to you.