Ninja Theory’s epic hack and slash adventure Heavenly Sword has a great deal of weight on its shoulders at launch, thanks largely to its own grand ambitions. At well-over four years in the making, and boasting Hollywood production values to a level previously unseen in a game, Heavenly Sword was always going to court a huge amount of hype, and with that, carry a weighty burden of expectation.
Add the PlayStation3’s underwhelming catalogue of games to the equation, and Heavenly Sword’s long established reputation as a desperately needed system saviour, and you can already smell painful disappointment looming in the hot air pumped out of your PS3.
So it is a pleasure to discover that while it isn’t quite the slice of infallible digital perfection many had hoped it to be, Heavenly Sword is a wonderful release of breathtaking beauty that lets us peek into the bright future of gaming.
Both in cut-scenes and in-game the visuals are gorgeous to behold, and linger in your mind like a sweet taste in your mouth. Each level is designed with incredible care and attention to detail, and the sense of a complete and coherent world goes a long way to whisking you far away from the controller in your hand and the bland reality of sitting gawping at a screen. The sound too is immense in its conception, with a wide-ranging and reactive dramatic score that is the backdrop to a colossal and rich range of sound effects.
And yet it is not the incredible sweeping vistas that surround each level or the minute particulars of a character’s pores and wrinkles that is most striking. Instead, it is Heavenly Sword’s almost eerie ability to genuinely convey emotion. Using both production and acting talent from the teams behind the Lord of the Rings and King Kong movies, and revolutionary motion-capture techniques, each cut-scene is peppered with some amazing moments.
Those moments are the ones when it hits you that games might finally be on the cusp of growing up. When a character is implemented with incredibly well-synched voice acting of high quality movie standard, and their facial expressions are convincing and enticing, you can’t help but think gaming’s time to shine has come. If a game can convey emotion, it can tackle adult issues, or explore romance, or do any other number of things that have previously been tinged with a cringe in virtual realms.
Emotion also makes ample space for character, and Heavenly sword is brimming with personality, from the hilarious henchmen of the king through to Andy Serkis’s superb performance as the maniacal, sarcastic tyrant. It is the game’s main protagonist Nariko though, that steals the show. She is both charismatic and stoic, and has enough sass and style to get away with how little she wears, making her a real Lara-beater across the board.
But lofty goals like Hollywood acting and human emotion are not the primary concern of games. Interaction defines them, and it is the gameplay in Heavenly Sword that must really bare the brunt of any critique of the title. Generally, the gameplay is of an impressive standard, but it’s Ninja Theory’s choice of genre that causes problems for an otherwise near flawless game.
The hack and slash, which has always managed to impress at the dawn of new consoles with showy releases such as Onimusha and Devil May Cry, is not just a hardcore gamer’s genre, but a purist gamer’s genre. The very things that define sword-swishing romps also stifle them, and limit their appeal to the casual player.
The hack and slash is by its nature punishing, repetitive and rather cruel as a genre, and in avoiding these clichés and reaching out to the mainstream player Heavenly Sword may have assured some success commercially, but dedicated gamers expecting the finely tuned intricacies of Ninja Gaiden Sigma may be left wanting something more.
The controls themselves are actually particularly nice. While the square and triangle buttons deal with most of the actual blows, your attacks are divided into three different stances, selected by holding a different shoulder button. Speed stance attacks are the standard and consist of blows of middling power at close range. The incredibly quick, far reaching range stance lets the two separable blades of the Heavenly Sword swing out on chains, and the power stance slows Nariko right down, but allows for strikes of enormous strength.
Defending yourself is based on spotting an enemy’s stance, indicated by a glowing vapour in their wake as they swing in with an attack, and matching the stance with the shoulder buttons, whilst resisting a swing of your own until the perfect moment to counter. At first not pressing a set ‘defend’ button is hard to grasp, but quickly you find yourself settling in to the system.
However, the mark of a great hack and slash is one that tempts you away from button mashing with a control scheme that creates a more pleasurable game. While Heavenly Sword does reward style with both new combos and some impressive ‘making of” content, it is a little easy to fall back on the most basic combat to succeed, even when the game gets more challenging.
There are other minor niggles too, like the monstrous loading times and the need to quit out to restart at a check point. The Sixaxis control too, while very workable, is used in very similar ways throughout the game, and is often at the root of some very uninspiring puzzles.
If you are looking for a purist’s hack and slash that will test you for months, go elsewhere, ideally to Ninja Gaiden Sigma. But if you want a thrilling and cinematic adventure that will give you ample opportunity to show off the muscle of your PlayStation 3 and provide a glimpse of the console’s possible future, you could do far worse than pick up this big-budget epic.