Heavenly Sword

Heavenly Sword

-PlayStation 3
-Fully SDTV readable

Heavenly Sword is a 2007 PlayStation 3 release that received a huge amount of pre-release hype as well as frequent comparisons to God of War. Neither of these have much truth to them, but this game might have what it takes to keep you amused for a weekend if you find it for the right price. Which is a VERY low price in this case.

Let's start with the two major gameplay styles you'll encounter.

The first is for when you're controlling the beautiful warrior Nariko. Her segments mainly feature traditional sword based combat. While not advertised as such, these play less like a typical 3rd person action game and more like a beat 'em up. As you work your way through a linear area, you will occasionally come under attack and be unable to proceed to the next area until all enemies are defeated. This quickly becomes a chore, especially as you'll be fighting the same few types of opponents throughout the entire game.

The only real depth the combat system has is the ability to change stances by holding L1 for range attack stance, holding R1 for power, or holding neither for speed. Some enemies are more vulnerable to certain types of attacks, and you can learn some complex, devastating combos. It's never really enforced that strongly, though. If you're willing to lose a little bit more health than normal for the sake of saving time, you can usually get by with very little actual strategy, and there are plenty of health refills scattered about, anyway. So I wouldn't say this is a total button masher, but there are definitely plenty of times when you could get away with just that.

There game has no traditional blocking button and instead, most incoming attacks will be blocked as long as you aren't attacking, and you're in the correct stance. The color the enemy flashes before making a move is your cue for this. Blocking IS useful because aside from negating damage, it lets you do counter-attacks, and insta-kills if you have good timing. But for tougher enemies, it's often easier to just forget all that and flick the right analog stick to roll out of the way, instead of taking the chance of messing up the block.

So while the groundwork was here for intense combat where precise timing and strategy would be important, in reality, you can just do pretty much whatever you feel like and get your health completely refilled in a minute or two.

The other combat type is the one I found to be a lot more fun, and it's one of the only times I've enjoyed motion control in any game, including Wii titles.

Any time you fire an arrow, which is the specialty of Nariko's adopted and somewhat feral sister Kai, you have the option of taking control of that arrow in real time to guide it to the target. Time will slow down, and you tilt the PS3 controller to the left, right, forward and back. This can be done with more traditional controls, but I wanted to make an effort to use the motion controls, since they're set to default.

It turns out to be a blast after you get over the initial learning process. While Kai is the only character you can use to actually fire arrows, you'll still get to use this feature while playing as Nariko. You might, for example, guide a cannonball into a target or toss an item to hit a far-away switch.

The only time this can wear a little thin is when you have an extremely large number of long-range enemies. Taking them all out in slow motion can be very time consuming, and far too easy, even when broken up by novel things like shooting a flaming arrow into some explosives.

The main challenge for Kai is getting everything defeated in time. If an enemy manages to get close enough to physically attack, Kai has no way of fighting back aside from stunning the enemy and trying to get back to long range, which is usually nearly impossible.

The bosses provide some much needed relief from the predictability of the rest of the game. They aren't fantastic battles, but they are quite varied. One enemy can create tidal waves to attack you from a distance, another will roll at you like a bowling ball as you try to cause him to crash into a nearby pillar instead of Nariko. Another boss flies around and tosses daggers that you have to try and deflect back into him (again, using slow-mo motion control gameplay). If we could have seen some of the normal enemies do this kind of thing, it would have gone a long way toward making the game less tedious.

I had a few Game Overs during me time with Heavenly Sword, but the levels are very, very short, so there's really very little penalty for dying. You'll probably spend almost as much time on the loading screen than actually getting back to where you left off.

Heavenly Sword will only last you about 5 hours unless you plan to play the unlocked hell difficulty and try to master every level and unlock the bonus documentary features. Some might find the length to be a major detriment, and even as someone who's against the idea that games have to be ridiculously long to be good, I understand their pain. Especially with this game originally selling for the unjustified $60. But there just isn't enough gameplay variety here, and even with it's already short length, it feels like they're stretching it nearly to the breaking point.

On the whole, the visuals are phenomenal, and if you're into seeing the latest and greatest in graphics, it might be worth renting for this reason alone. I could have done with a bit less bloom, but it doesn't seem likely that it'll be gone from games any time soon, and there are worse offenders out there.

The level of detail during the story scenes is the highest I've yet seen in a game. They've really worked hard to get the character's faces right and they do a great job of expressing emotion and being convincing. It's unlikely you'll see any graphical issue that'll break your suspension of disbelief and remind that you you're playing a game.

Environments are also fantastic, without a hint of slowdown. Unfortunately, when in actual combat, the view tends to be from pretty high above the characters, with the exception of certain special moves or counter attacks. A lot of the impact is lost when you can't see every detail of the action, and I'm guessing that it suffers even more from being played on a SDTV. Even during a segment of a boss battle while fighting several weaker enemies, I had a little trouble figuring out exactly where I was on the screen and who I was trying to hit. I'm not sure if this was done because of an artistic choice or because the PS3 couldn't run the game smoothly otherwise, but it's a shame.

The developers didn't seem to know whether they wanted to make a serious epic storyline or an over the top comedy, and so the story is somewhat jarring. Just when you find something interesting or a little touching, the game will cut to the absolutely bizarre interaction between the major villains. These villains include a sadistic, blade wielding man called the Flying Fox, another that I call the "snake lady"- just imagine any cartoon human-snake villain, complete with exaggerated hissing during dialogue, and the mentally challenged, impossibly obese son of the evil king. This unusal story seemed destined to be the start of a trilogy, and while those plans seem to have changed, you have a more or less complete storyline here that's bizarre enough to keep you interested.

If you have a PS3, think about renting this one to finish during your days off, or see if you can get lucky and find it in the bargain bin. I wouldn't go much higher than $20, so consider waiting a year or three before going for ownership.