Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Heavenly Sword (PS3) Review

When I got my 60 GB Playstation 3 back in 2007, it was at Best Buy and I received a free Sixaxis and choice of a free game with my purchase. This was a choice between Lair and Heavenly Sword, so I went with the lesser of two evils, Heavenly Sword. The following was my assessment of my purchase.

A Little Slice of Heaven

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Ever since the Playstation 3 was released, owners have been clamoring for an epic adventure to the likes of the God of War series, and while Kratos' third exploit is a long ways away, developer Ninja Theory hopes to fill the hole left with their own over-the-top action-fest otherwise known as Heavenly Sword. Does this title rise up to the ranks of Heaven, or does it sink into the inner pits of Hell?

Heavenly Sword, fittingly enough, revolves around the sacred blade, the Heavenly Sword. A noble clan possesses the sword, and a wicked lord and his minions want it. Nariko, our ass-kicking heroine, uses the sword herself to take on the evil empire. The catch, however, is that with each use of the Heavenly Sword, it slowly drains the user's life, so while Nariko may be annihilating and harming scores upon scores of enemies, she's simultaneously harming herself in the process. This story element unfolds itself in a way to keep the player guessing as to Nariko's fate. In fact, the game begins with Nariko unsheathing the blade to take on an entire army of soldiers until ultimately submitting to the sword's celestial power. What follows for the player is the story told through flashbacks all wrapping back up to the opening cutscene and the tale's finale.

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Nariko shows off her aerial acrobatics.

A game based around a sword should hopefully center around combat and action, and with no worries Heavenly Sword focuses more or brawn than brains. Sure, there's a small amount of elementary puzzles to solve and lavish cutscenes sprinkled throughout Nariko's journey, but for the most part you'll be engaging enemies head-on. Sometimes, you'll switch characters when the story allows and become the comic relief Kai whose weaponry consists only of long-range arrows. When the fire button is held down, these arrows can be steered toward targets with the Sixaxis controller which is pretty cool and fun to do. Regardless, it's much easier and less finicky to just to use analog controls. Still, it's great that the Sixaxis wasn't forced onto players.

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And now she goes through the spin cycle.

The biggest problem with Heavenly Sword is that it gets repetitive. Not just doing the same attack over and over again (thanks to there being no weapon upgrades), but you'll feel like you've been placed in scenarios more than once. Thankfully, there's entertaining and intense boss battles to partake in, and while these are by no means God of War standard, they help break up the sense of monotony. Victory won't happen through mashing buttons halfheartedly. You'll need to wait for a villain to expose himself (no, not in the dirty way) for you to get a good amount of hits on. This is followed by various Quick-Time Exchanges-- another God of War staple. These have you hitting a direction on the analog stick or pressing or mashing on a given button to defeat a foe in a simulated action sequence. Thankfully these exchanges allow for one or two mistakes, but even if you fail it, you can easily try again from the start with no penalty or waste of time.

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The penalty for failing a QTE segment is to simply try it again.

Nariko's sword skills have three forms of which to take out enemies with: speed, power, and range. The finesse here is in using the proper form on the proper enemy at the proper time. Reach enemies from far distances with your range attacks, use power to smash through a foe's defenses, and when there's an opening on an enemy, use the speed form to rapidly get some attacks in. Each form has its own stance which can be changed mid-combo. Of course, the best offense is a good defense, and that bodes true in the realm of Heavenly Sword. An enemy will either attack normally, flash blue, or flash gold. These colored indications tell you what stance to defend in. With the rightly timed dodge, you can perform a visually impressive killing blow which not only make short work of enemies but they just look damn cool. Alternately, you can roll out of harm's way with the right analog stick for baddies and bosses that are too tough to dodge any other way.

There's two parts to Heavenly Sword, the combat-heavy action that Nariko's sword skills call for, and the twing-twang shooting segments as Kai. Nariko herself will even be called upon to man (or I guess, woman) cannons to shoot down enemy catapults with well-placed shots or just wipe out enemy infantry. No job is too big or too small for Nariko. It's just unfortunate that the job (i.e. the game) can be completed in around five hours.

Through repeated battles you earn glyphs. These are earned by attacking enemies and keeping combos going without getting interrupted. By having your glyph total exceed one of three levels in a given game segment, you'll be given new combos, new art, and other bonuses. This is where the replay value lies in attempted to score high enough to earn every bonus the game offers, and the game is responsive and satisfying enough for making such an optional task seem enjoyable.

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So many men, so little time.

Heavenly Sword is indeed enjoyable to play, but it's incredibly enjoyable to stare at, too. The game has its own sense of style whether it's the split-screen conversations that go on while you're still in control of Nariko, the impressive art direction both artistic and technical, or the in-between chapter monologues where Nariko addresses the camera. All would be lost though if it weren't for the phenomenal voice acting which is some of the best I've heard in a long time. Kai's cries are especially painful for the heart to endure... and that's a good thing. There's some parts of the game where the framerate noticeably stutters, but apart from that issue the game is technically sound. Seeing literally a thousand warriors each with individual motions and movements is damned impressive. I said wow.

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Heaven for the player, Hell on the enemies.

Overall, Heavenly Sword isn't exactly gaming heaven. The quest is over far too soon, and if unlocking art isn't your thing, there's really nothing else for you to come back to. The game's linearity doesn't offer much of anything to explore, so repeated visits won't offer anything new. There is a much harder difficulty to unlock, but two playthroughs is hard to recommend a purchase for. Both modes can be completed in a rental period. However, if the price is right, and the desire for a next-gen God of War-esque experience is up your alley, then by all means try Heavenly Sword out. It's worth at least a rental, and at most a discount purchase. Regardless of which road you take, this game is definitely worth your time and quite possibly your investment.

[SuperPhillip Says: 7.5/10]

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