Game Review: Heavenly Sword (PS3)

April 19, 2010 in Game Reviews by pacejmiller

I am finally getting around to playing a bunch of PS3 games that I bought almost a year ago but haven’t even opened.

The first one of these I tried was the 2007 Heavenly Sword, a kind of tamer version of God of War mixed in with a little Devil May Cry, Lord of the Rings and Dynasty Warriors, and featuring a sultry female protagonist.

After not expecting a great deal from the game, I came away pleasantly surprised.  The game features a basic but well-executed storyline, a mixture of proven and newly innovative battle techniques, a steady assortment of different levels, and as a bonus, excellent dramatic direction and motion capturing from “Gollum” himself, Mr Andy Serkis, as well as a stellar voice cast including Serkis and the distinctive voice of Anna Torv (from Fringe fame).

I would recommend Heavenly Sword to people who like this sort of stuff (ie action-adventure), don’t have a lot of time to on their hands (I finished the entire game over a long weekend), and want a good bargain (since the game is now heavily discounted).

(click on ‘more’ to read the full review)

Story

I don’t think I have ever expected much of a story from a video game, and Heavenly Sword is no different.

The story is set in what looks like a fantasy world that resembles the world from Lord of the Rings, with castles, forts, swords and arrows. The protagonist, Nariko, is the daughter of some chief of some clan that believes in a prophecy that a male warrior will be sent from heaven to wield the titular “Heavenly Sword” and bring peace to the land.  The sword is protected by the clan and they wait for the day the prophecy will be fulfilled.  But oops, Nariko turns out to be a girl and her mother dies giving birth, so that really messed things up between her and her father right from the start.

Nariko nonetheless grows up to be a brilliant warrior, and her clan is under attack from a power-hungry warlord by the name of Bohan (sounds very LOTR-esque, doesn’t it?).  It’s up to Nariko (ie, you) to protect the sword, save her father, her clan, and the world by defeating Bohan, his freakish generals, and his army of thousands.

Andy Serkis as Bohan

Sounds and smells like a typical video game storyline, but where Heavenly Sword differs is its execution of the plot.  Seriously, most games simply throw in a bunch of very well animated cut-scenes that don’t make much sense and expect to get away with it, but it’s clear that the makers of Heavenly Sword actually put some effort into the progression of the storyline.  The cut scenes actually link up with the action, and they don’t feel contrived or out of place.  On the whole, the action blends in with the cut scenes to form a complete game, a complete experience.  I can’t say the same thing about a lot of other games out there, where the cut scenes are more of a break in the gameplay rather than an enhancement to the overall game experience.

Another standout aspect of Heavenly Sword is the characters (and the acting).  As mentioned earlier, Andy Serkis (effectively the king of motion capture these days) is the dramatic director for the game, and it truly made a difference.  Usually in video games, the appreciation for characters don’t go much beyond simply thinking that they are “cool”, but for me, the characters in Heavenly Sword had that added layer of complexity and heart.  The relationship between Nariko and her father, as well as the relationship between Bohan and his massively freakish imbecile son Roach, are certainly two of the better ones I have come across in a game.

Gameplay

There progression of Heavenly Sword is relatively straightforward.  There are a number of Acts in the game, and each Act has a number of missions in them.  Naturally, you have to finish one mission in order to move on to the next.  There are some flashback sequences but for the most part the game is played in linear fashion.

In terms of actual gameplay, Heavenly Sword has a pretty basic structure.  Most of the time you control Nariko, who runs around slashing opponents using a combination of her three “stances” — speed (ie normal), range (can attack far but damage is limited) and power (strong but slow and limited range) — which you can interchange with relative ease.  There are also a number of Quick Time Events (especially for boss battles) where you have to press buttons in the sequence that match the ones that come up on the screen (a la God of War).

Gameplay screenshot

However, Heavenly Sword has more than just that.  My favourite part of the game involves missions by a second character, Kai, a young girl that, for lack of a better description, seems mentally challenged.  Kai is like a little sister to Nariko, and she wields a crossbow that is extremely fun to use.  Kai has no close range combat capabilities, so you’re limited to shooting down foes from a distance.  It feels very much like a sniper game, and the best part is that you can alter the trajectory of the arrows through the Six-Axis control pad, which you move around like some kind of steering wheel.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it it can be exhilarating.

The Six-Axis controller can also be used for Nariko’s missions, in particular when she mans a cannonball projector and when she picks things up to throw at opponents (or to solve puzzles).

Accordingly, the gameplay for Heavenly Sword is quite varied.  You’ve got the usual melee attacks against several opponents at a time, you’ve got the “castle defense” stages much like in the LOTR games, the cannonball launching missions, Kai’s archery missions (including both “standstill” and “movable” stages), dramatic boss fights, and finally, the thousand versus one, Dynasty Warriors-style battles.

The biggest downside of Heavenly Sword is that the game is incredibly short.  When even I can finish the game in two or three days, you know it’s not the hardest game out there.  If you fail a mission, just keep repeating until you pass — and most of the time even the hardest levels only took a few tries at most.  When you do finish, you get the option of restarting in some ultra-difficult mode, but for me there’s never a lot of appeal in those sorts of things.  Hence in my opinion the replay value of the game is relatively low.

Aesthetics

The graphics of Heavenly Sword are awesome, and I think were considered very advanced at the time it was released in 2007.  These days, however, it’s probably nothing special, and is more than likely considered average by current standards.  In particular, the movement and animation of Nariko’s long hair was a little distracting for me.

What stood out in Heavenly Sword was the character design.  Nariko, of course, is a sexy heroine, but she’s not anatomically imbalanced like say Lara Croft.  It was a bit strange that almost all of Nariko’s clan (and especially her father) look to be of Asian descent except for her, but it’s a game so I’m not going to complain.

Serkis’ Bohan looks very much like him, and he actually didn’t feel like a particularly evil villain.  Serkis and his “generals” are funnier than you would have imagined, especially through their often hilarious dialogue and mannerisms.  It was unexpected but definitely deliberate humour, and strangely, it worked.

Heavenly Sword does of course have a supernatural element to it, but most of the creatures you battle are strictly human.  There are I suppose “monsters”, but they are more genetic freaks as opposed to a different species.  Come to think of it, I can’t recall many games that have taken this route.

Verdict

Heavenly Sword is not a ground-breaking game by any means, and it’s far too short to be a classic.  However, for the price it is available at now, it’s definitely not a bad investment.  It has a compelling storyline, interesting characters, a dynamic battle system, and a variety of different stages.  What really sets it apart from other games of this type is that it is infused with star power from Andy Serkis, who really demonstrates his genius in this game.  It may be a “one-and-done” game, but in my opinion it’s a worthwhile experience.

8 out of 10!

[PS: apparently a sequel may be in the works!]