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Gaming Evolution
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Gaming Evolution
Gaming Evolution
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developed by: Ninja Theory
Genre: Third-Person Action
Players: 1
Rated: T (Teen)
Release Date: September 12, 2007
Screenshots: Link
Amazon: Buy Now!
Written By: Daniel Sims

October 2, 2007 - When God of War hit the PS2 with its thematic presentation and blockbuster production values, in a way it gave Sony a new kind of exclusive with which to promote PlayStation. Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword seems made to fulfill the same role in the PS3’s line of exclusives this fall, but ultimately may sacrifice depth of gameplay for the sake of a great visual experience.

Heavenly Sword is first and foremost made to give players a cinematic experience that can truly be called “next gen,” and this is most definitely its biggest accomplishment. Ninja Theory seems to know how to give a game a presentation that maintains, above all else, balance.

For one thing, Heavenly Sword has pretty much set a new standard for real-time cutscenes in console games. The main thing that gets me about them is the characters’ faces. They seem to have hit that natural middle ground where they carry realism and animate strongly but don’t over-express themselves straight into that uncanny valley. I was particularly impressed with the scenes between chapters showing the main character talking directly into the screen as she seemed to slowly slip into madness. This is all backed up by a storyline that’s simple but well-told with characters that are competently acted and show just enough depth to escape clichés.

The game’s main protagonist Nariko is one of the few female leads I’ve seen in gaming that does the whole “tough but sexy” thing without looking like the developers had forced it on. The “sidekick” character Kai is deliciously retarded in a way that’s more charming than annoying. Andy Serkis’ (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) performance gives the game’s antagonist King Bohan an entertaining, almost comic, superficiality in his villainy that touches all the game’s villains.

Like God of War, Heavenly Sword maintains zoomed-out, fixed camera angles during gameplay in order to display its world in a way that tries to feel epic in the same way a movie like Lord of the Rings might. Despite my preferences for what I should call more “human” scales of camera presentation (i.e. full camera control) in games, I still have to admit that next gen visuals have enhanced Heavenly Swords’ use of cinematic angles.

Heavenly Sword’s environments are rendered with enough detail to make them appealing despite being generic. Some scenes in the game also have impressive amounts of action going on in the background. One sequence in particular early on in the game, has players operating a cannon from which they get a full view of a massive approaching army. As I shot at the front line it was pretty cool realizing that the game was displaying literally hundreds of fully-functioning enemy units on screen with only minor framerate issues (nothing unplayable though).

Heavenly Sword is undoubtedly made to look beautiful in nearly everything it does, but this may be its only real achievement in the whole scheme of action games. Like God of War, behind Heavenly Sword’s standard-setting visuals lies a pretty basic arcade-style action game. The difference though is that for all the video and sound packed onto that Blu-Ray disc, there doesn’t seem to be very much real game present. The whole gameplay scheme here seems designed primarily to make players feel like they’re pulling off amazing acrobatic and martial arts feats, even if they aren’t really doing that much.

The strategic crux of Heavenly Sword’s combat system is countering enemies’ attacks. In traditional fighting games as well as action games like Ninja Gaiden, doing that may involve a whole process of anticipating an enemy’s attack, dodging it, getting into position to attack, and then attacking, which results in a certain sense of satisfaction from having strategically planned and acted in combat. In Heavenly Sword, countering is done in literally two button presses: waiting for an enemy to attack, assuming a correct fighting stance depending on the color of the attack, letting Nariko auto-block, and then pressing triangle at the right moment which initiates an animation or cutscene of her counterattack.

The simplicity of this system along with the game’s rather weak A.I., which will much of the time simply stand there and let you attack it, takes away almost all motivation to make any use of Heavenly Sword’s more advanced combos. More casual gamers may appreciate the approachability of this game’s combat, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that even on hard mode it’ll measure up to combat like that of Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden.

Furthermore, instead of designing actual platforming elements, or even giving Heavenly Sword a jump button for that matter, Ninja Theory has filled the game with button-pressing sequences (like those of God of War) that display Nariko performing acrobatic maneuvers. Lastly, the closest thing Heavenly Sword has to puzzles is sequences where you must throw shields at gongs. I’m serious.

The one thing that saves Heavenly Sword’s gameplay from complete mediocrity is its “aftertouch” feature. Whenever something is launched or thrown, players can control its flight path in slow motion. Originally this was seen as a minor distraction from Nariko’s combat, but it actually ends up being the least derivative and ultimately most fun part of playing Heavenly Sword. The development of this feature through shooting levels that put players in control of Kai, along with the very nature of her character, pretty much makes Kai the best part of the whole game.

When playing as Kai with her crossbow, players will shoot arrows around obstacles, through fire, and into enemies as well as explosives. The feature feels really cool and is pretty challenging, requiring players to overcome its learning curve and aim with absolute precision.

Whether or not you appreciate what’s there to play in Heavenly Sword however, the game’s biggest disadvantage is that it can easily be finished in less than 10 hours. Other games have been this short without much criticism at all, but those usually managed to encourage replay whereas Heavenly Sword is quickly exhausted after the first play through despite unlockable content like art and videos.

If you’re the kind of gamer who enjoys theatrical experiences like God of War or many Japanese RPGs that are both pretty and accessible, you will probably have a lot to like about Heavenly Sword, but with such a short game packed on that disc, it’s very hard to suggest anything more than a rental.


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