IGN Review of Heavenly Sword
The latter portion of 2007 is an important one for Sony and the PlayStation 3. It's the first major release season since the console's launch last year, and the publisher/developer has a number of titles set to hit over the next few months that will hopefully show gamers what the PlayStation 3 is capable of. One of the first big releases is Heavenly Sword, an action title that immediately caught the attention of gamers for its martial arts-inspired combat and highly impressive presentation.
Sony has put a lot of money into Ninja Theory's title, and a fair bit of it paid off. The presentation is great from top to bottom, with fantastic voice acting that supports absolutely stellar motion capture performances. Characters display a very wide amount of emotion thanks to facial animation that covers not only their eyes and mouth but eyebrows, forehead, cheeks and pretty much every other part of their entire body. It rivals and perhaps even surpasses what Valve did with Half-Life 2 in this regard, though in the case of Heavenly Sword all of these animations are delegated to cutscenes (not to take anything away from it). The story isn't exactly the deepest thing we've ever witnessed, but the presentation helps give it weight that wouldn't necessarily have felt like it was there otherwise.
But games aren't made to be watched. Heavenly Sword's on-paper design is great, but unfortunately it just misses greatness in a number of areas. The game's biggest strength is its combat system, which in large part works very well. Instead of using only face buttons to put together combos, you have three different stances that each has its own set of moves. Holding L1 puts you in the ranged stance where the sword separates into two parts that are swung around on chains (this is what drew a number of comparisons to God of War). Holding R1 will trigger the power stance where attacks are slowed but heavier, while using neither employs the default speed stance.
The three stances work very well in that they can be combined mid-combo to create some useful and visually impressive attack maneuvers. More so, they're actually useful in different situations, depending on whom you're up against, and how many there are. The ranged attack is great against a number of weaker enemies, but the bigger guys will almost always block it. In this manner the system works well to keep you changing up styles and tactics during combat.
Combined with the stance buttons, Square and Triangle will perform most of your attack maneuvers. Unfortunately, in most one-on-one battles it makes most sense to mostly stick with Triangle as it doubles for a move-breaking counter attack. The more often you use Triangle, the more likely you are to unknowingly counter an enemy's attack and come back with an instant-kill finishing move.
Another issue we have with the combat mechanics is the lack of a block button. Nariko will automatically block attacks when you aren't attacking, and an interesting concept here is that you need to match the incoming attack type with the correct stance in order to properly block it (enemies will glow a certain color just before their attack to clue you in as to which stance to take). That part is cool, but since you don't actually have a block button you can't forcefully take Nariko out of a combo and quickly block. You also can't begin a block in the middle of an enemy's combo most of the time. Because of this, it's usually best to either take your chances with a counter-attack or simply dodge out of the way. We're not sure why there isn't an actual block button present as the L2 and R2 buttons are simply used for swinging the camera a bit in either direction, which we almost never did anyway.
While the combat mechanics are generally quite strong, Heavenly Sword relies on them far too much to carry the excitement through to the end. You'll quickly find that you're fighting the same battles time and time again, and that there isn't much variety in what you need to do. Sure, you have a large number of combos at your disposal, but the actual battles are largely the same.
Part of the problem is that aside from the bosses, you really only fight the same soldier types for most of the game. There's the basic soldier, the heavily armored soldier, guys with bows and some ninjas. There are one or two other enemy types to fight at certain spots, but they're few and far between. Most of these enemies are introduced early on in the game, and you'll fight them until the very end.
Another issue is that a number of the skirmishes are essentially arena battles where you wind up trapped in a room and need to fend off swarm after swarm of enemies. This just makes it feel like you're trudging through that section of the game and that the designers are keeping you put for a while to rack up the overall game time. Whereas better-paced titles will have you constantly moving forward as you fight, or at least reward you with a new item in these cases, with Heavenly Sword it feels as if your progression is oftentimes paused as you fight off a number of enemies before progressing with nothing new to show for it.
While most of the general combat becomes tiresome after a while, the boss battles can be fairly interesting. They all have a bit of those classic pattern-based attacks where you need to figure out and then employ a strategy to finish them, and their environments and fighting styles make for unique battles. When you're in the midst of a melee combo with all of them the strong stance with Triangle is almost always the best move to use though, which sort of negates the value of your other options. But at least the other tactics here are unique.
Outside of the battles, there are a handful of small pieces that still needed a bit more refinement. For example, during some sections of the game you'll need to match the on-screen symbols with your own button presses, a la the boss finishers from God of War. Many of these presses need to be made very, very quickly, allowing for virtually zero reaction time. This means that you'll likely fail each and every one the first time through and will need to retry them after you've memorized the pattern.
Also, there are a few puzzle sequences where you need to bounce a shield or what have you off of a wall and into another object to trigger a door of some sort. While using the Aftertouch feature to follow behind the object in slow-motion and steer its trajectory works for things like arrows and canons just fine, these objects don't always bounce off of walls in the same manner and they'll often ricochet at odd angles. There's one section in particular where you must use a crank to raise a large statue and then bounce a shield off it and into another button before the statue lowers back down to the ground. With every miss you need to go back over and spend time raising the statue back up again. This is a very small example and wouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on the game on its own, but there are a number of somewhat similar parts that do make the experience a little frustrating at times.
There are a handful of sections in the game where you'll play as Kai, Nariko's very disturbed and very strange sidekick. She can't outright attack anyone by hand and can only use her crossbow for attacks, which gives her sections a unique feel. Some of these parts are fun, like one where you're running around the top of an arena and can kill guards with a series of exploding barrels. But there are a few sniper sections that simply go on for far too long as using Aftertouch to properly steer her arrows slows the game to a crawl. The concept is cool, but when you need to snipe soldier after soldier after soldier with little to no challenge, it just gets old fast.
Heavenly Sword does contain a number of unlockables, including new combos, behind-the-scenes videos, character art and more. You can earn up to three markers in any stage by way of how many "points" you get in battle, and you can go back to any sub-chapter to play that section again to try and earn anything you missed. While the combos are obviously useful and you'll want to work towards getting them, most of the other content is freely available for download either online or on the PlayStation Store, which negates your reason to go back and earn the missing markers. Most all of the bonus content is great, but since you can easily download most of it without bother there's not much of a reason to try and unlock any of it in the game.
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