It's unlikely that Ninja Theory, the development team behind Heavenly Sword is overly fond of their game being compared to PS2 hit God of War, but after some hands-on time with the game it doesn't seem too far off the mark. In truth it's hardly a comparison to be ashamed of, especially considering that the PS3 is in desperate need of strong titles this holiday season. Anyway, Heavenly Sword sees you primarily take on the role of Nariko, a main character far prettier than the brutish Kratos, but just as nimble and deadly with a sharp blade.
Impressions of storyline are always hard with short playtests but it doesn't look like Heavenly Sword will disappoint. This is a tale of revenge, with Nariko fighting back against the King that destroyed her father's clan - the very same clan that guarded the precious Heavenly Sword. Although it brings great power, the sword depletes the life energy of any mortal who wields it, but it's a sacrifice Nariko must make if she is to stand any chance against King Bohan and his immense army.
With a story and script penned by Rhianna Pratchett, and Andy 'Gollum' Serkis taking on the role of King Bohan, Heavenly Sword isn't a game that is shy about taking on Hollywood. Serkis has made a name for himself playing virtual characters in some of the biggest movies ever made, and his work here looks just as good. Believability for characters in video games is one of the hardest things for developers to pull off, but Heavenly Sword appears to have none of the wooden acting that often plagues otherwise brilliant cinematic efforts.
Enough of the story though. What about the gameplay? The core of the game is undoubtedly the fast moving combat; the kind of which we've seen in God of War, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden and many more. As in God of War, the controller's right analogue stick is used to make your character roll and dodge, with the game's camera being fixed in place. Strangely there's no jump, but the fundamentals of the genre combo system seem in place.
What's more, Nariko has three combat stances, each offering its own pros and cons. Switched on the fly using the L and R buttons on the Sixaxis, these stances not only provide variety in attacks but also let Nariko pull off telegraphed counter attacks. The colour above an enemy indicates which stance Nariko needs to use in order to successfully counter, so, for example, blue requires the speed stance, while orange requires the power stance. It's a system that adds some depth to the flashy combat.
Combat looks spectacular, with certain moves looking even better thanks to the 'Cool' cam that shows close-up shots of the action. The animation for Nariko looks silky smooth and enemies react in a suitably over dramatic way to the punishment that's dished out. Special moves can also be performed, dealing far more damage than the standard attacks. Earned by building up orbs through continued attacks, you can opt to drain them early or wait until a full super move is available.
Large scale fights are something that everyone loves, but they often don't feel as good as they should. This is something that Ninja Theory is well aware of so the fights in Heavenly Sword use a few tricks to make them feel more alive. Firstly, objects in the environments can be broken and smashed up by enemies that go flying into them. Secondly, enemies will act as groups, even pushing you into other enemies, rather than standing off and coming at you one at a time.
Aside from Nariko's melee weapons, the game also features projectile attacks - with a twist. Weather it be an object you've picked up, a bow and arrow in the hands of secondary character Kai (Nariko's sister) or a cannon ball, you have two options. If you want to you can simply fire the weapon or throw the object at an enemy, as you would in any other action game; alternatively you can hold down the fire/throw button and be presented with a third-person view of the object in motion. From here you can tilt the Sixaxis and steer the object to its target. It is slightly ridiculous and often defies the laws of physics, but it's good fun and a novel use for the Sixaxis' tilt sensitivity.
Something that seems to be in vogue at the moment is QTE in-engine cutscenes. Heavenly Sword uses timed button presses to bring action packed moments to life, although I still have my doubts over their place in next-gen gaming - hopefully we won't have to suffer through as many seen in Activision's Spider-Man 3. Again, having only played a few short segments it's hard to know how they'll be used throughout the game, but it doesn't look like we'll be getting God of War style finishing moves.
Games that utilise a fixed camera tend to be able to get away with more advanced visuals, but this doesn't make the look of Heavenly Sword any less impressive. The lighting and animation are by far the stars, although the scale of the environments is also quite wonderful. Even a few months from completion the game is looking polished and hugely detailed, which can only bode well for the final retail release in September.
We're sure to hear a lot more from Heavenly Sword over the next few months, with Sony certain to feature it heavily in its pre-Christmas advertising blitz. It's too early to say for sure if it's a classic, but it seems certain that Heavenly Sword will be well worth picking up if you're in the market for a fun-filled action packed PS3 title.