Heavenly Sword Review

Heavenly Sword Review TitleSuperficially, Heavenly Sword looks a lot like an evolution of the God of War (GoW) series of games, though there is apparently no connection between the Cambridge based developers Ninja Theory (previous Just Add Monsters), the Sony Cambridge site and the Sony Santa Monica site responsible for the GoW series; nevertheless, the resemblance is striking. It would seem that Heavenly Sword started out as a PC based development looking forward to a next gen console, which was originally going to be Xbox 360. Apart from substituting the angst-ridden, suicidal-homicidal Nariko - with all her Freudian baggage - for the equally angst-ridden suicidal-homicidal Kratos, the rest remains the same: lots of bad guys are on the screen. You kill them and move on to the next one. Sometimes you have to do something to hit a switch, hit buttons as they flash up on the screen, fight a boss or fire a gun, but that's about it. Unlike GoW, despite a fair range of game-play options, somehow the game comes up feeling very limited and flat - possibly because the game is based on a combo system that serves surprisingly little purpose. While the game seems to be based around the combo system, it tends to feel a bit redundant, and instead comes down to timing on the counter button more than anything else. This game seems particularly worthy of note because at the time of release it was one of the few distinctive 'differentiating' products for the PS3 console. Heavenly Sword excels at delivering high production values, but overall the game is shallow at best, it's quite short and there's no significant replay value. The failings of Heavenly Sword are ultimately more interesting than its successes.

You get to play two characters:

  • The heroine Nariko, whose bright red hair seems to have a life of its own, has a pair of swords that can be used in three basic modes: ranged, speed and powerful. In use this all resembles Kratos' weapon from God of War quite closely. Nariko has no jump ability and no non-lethal forms of interaction with enemies. She has some combos that take her into the air but she delivers most of her death with her feet firmly on the ground.
  • Comedy sidekick Kai, the insane cat girl, who has no hand-to-hand attack, but does have a large cross-bow with infinite ammunition and a very short reload time. She also has the ability to jump over various obstacles, and also to 'push' an enemy away or hop over them. As a game entity, Kai is far more interesting than Nariko: her fundamental limitations and three basic (yet different abilities) are loaded with game-play possibilities. With Kai, the goal is always to put distance or an obstacle between you and the enemy, then take them out with the crossbow. As a game, this is a lot more interesting than the repetitive button mashing that Nariko delivers.
  • The sword combat consists of some pretty basic button-mashing and counters. It's not really that much fun. There isn't a solid sense of contact when you hit an enemy. There isn't a lot of variety in how you fight different (ordinary) enemies, and they lack the distinct combat styles of something like Zelda. The boss fights do differ, but once you've learned to counter their special attacks the fights are otherwise unremarkable. There is a lack of satisfaction in killing enemies, who are both disposable yet remarkably resilient - only special killing blows dispose of them - and in most cases, there seems to be no point administering a minor injury to a non-boss enemy. Compared to older games of this sort like Guardian Heroes, there's a lot missing from Heavenly Sword.

The projectile combat has a 'guide the projectile' aftertouch sub-game, which is sometimes quite good fun. Sadly, this is dreadful when played with the SixAxis tilt control, but you can turn that off and use a thumbstick, which is a lot more satisfactory. The sluggish nature of this aftertouch game is its greatest weakness. To use aftertouch you must apply it immediately and pilot the arrow/cannonball/shield/etc all the way to the target. In many cases this is a long way and you are quite bored by the time you get there. Much better if you could have swapped into this closer to the target. You can release aftertouch mode prematurely, but this is not so useful as it's really just a way to abort if you know you are going to miss. It's also quite unusable close up, yet the standard aiming system is fairly awful, causing problems with using a ranged attack on close enemies - this actually works as a mechanic for Kai, forcing you to keep enemies at a distance. Nevertheless, compared the Resident Evil, the aiming is awful.

The lack of multiplayer in a beat-em-up is by no means totally compensated for by the story and fancy cut-scenes.

Overall, there is the feeling that there was insufficient time allowed to get a really solid game out, and that while a lot of effort went into cut-scenes and fancy looking level settings, there wasn't time to produce all the content they needed or polish the game-play properly. Unlike God of War, there isn't the feeling that each section has been carefully thought out and balanced.

While Heavenly Sword does some things very well, most of those things involve surface flash and few of them involve depth of game-play. I would strongly recommend against buying this game if you can rent it. It only takes a few hours to play through and then you will never want to bother with it again.

Pros

  • The direction, rendering, voice acting, and occasionally even the writing for the cut-scenes is excellent. The facial animation is outstanding for a real-time rendered video game, and there's no doubt that employing Weta Workshop (Weta Digital Ltd) and Andy Serkis really paid off.
  • Andy Serkis is generally great at directing and acting in the cut scenes.
  • The script and voice acting for Kai is (also) particularly good once the game gets going.
  • The graphics are universally of a high standard with good designs, great texture work and beautifully realized scenes that employ a wide range of elaborate shaders in a way that rarely seems contrived or intrusive.
  • The depth of field effect isn't exactly realistic, but it does look very nice, and helps to unify the graphical experience. Attention is helpfully focussed on the foreground, and any dodgy variation in textures on distant objects is helpfully concealed.
  • The shadowing/lighting solution works fairly well, though it may only allow a single shadowing light. Shadow flickering can be seen if you are looking for it, but its usually not too intrusive.
  • The secondary character of Kai (the insane cat girl) makes things a lot less like a wannabe sequel to God of War. She works well as a playable character and may even be better to control and use than the main heroine herself. Though there are some issues (see below), in many ways a game based around a lot more Kai and a lot less Nariko would probably have its fans. This doesn't seem an uncommon opinion, so maybe we'll see more of Kai in the inevitable sequel.
  • The story elements involving Kai also worked particularly well, injecting some much needed humour into what would otherwise be a rather monotonous festival of angst and chopping.
  • There has been an effort to remove some of the most tediously punishing elements that might have naturally arisen from the game design. Failing at most of the button copying sequences allows the player to retry without much penalty (no reload). Sections where you have to solve a 'puzzle' (which is to say, hit a switch) are almost never combined with fighting enemies at the same time, and bosses rarely unleash unexpected attacks of instant death.
  • There are no loading delays when playing the game normally. However, if you die, things change greatly for the worse in this respect.
  • There have been attempts to make bosses, and some other fights something more than straight button mashing. Most bosses have a particular kind of attack that can be countered to your advantage, and others that can't. There are sections where you play against time limits, and various other attempts to mix things up a bit. This would be a stronger plus if they had been a bit more successful at integrating the special bits better with the basic game-play.
  • Controlling your projectiles after firing them with 'aftertouch' is a nice part of the game generally, but there are issues - see below.
  • The rebounding projectiles mechanism was particularly good, but they needed to make more use of it.
  • The game continually rewards you with various movies, artworks and so on for doing high values combos, completing scenes etc.
  • There's no getting lost or worrying about where to go next, the levels are very simple and linear, the switches are easy to find and its usually explained when you need to do something besides kill everything to proceed.
  • There are spots where when entering a level Kai emits some character building dialogue. This is not only non-intrusive, it varies from time to time, which feels _much_ better when you are forced to repeat the level. The ability to deliver contextual, but variable dialogue is a nice touch, not hard to do but often missed. Contrast this with the annoyance of the Nariko-Whiptail insult cut-scene that never varies and forces itself in your face over and over.
  • There are a substantial number of combos and they are fairly easy to perform.

Cons

  • The reload delay when forced to retry a level due to death is extremely long. This becomes a real annoyance when you come up against one of the sections in the game that initially requires a lot of dying and reloading. As other faults in the game can lead to a fair bit of dying and reloading, even without considering that some parts are potentially a bit hard and may naturally require a fair bit of dying and reloading, the length of this load time is completely unacceptable. It seems strange that such long reloads are needed, as the game installs to hard-drive (which also take ages), no geometry is modified and all they really need to do is reset some scripts and get the right animations loaded again. It seems pretty obvious that they're reloading everything from scratch.
  • The camera is often too far away from the action. Even when it is close enough, Nariko is usually still obscured by a crowd of enemies. There are serious problems with not being able to see your avatar because you can't apply any skill to timing combos or countering. As there isn't a whole lot of skill involved in the game to begin with, this is a pity.
  • In many cases the game seems to go out of its way to obscure Nariko in a fight. The final boss in particular seems intentionally created to blot her out. Not being able to see what you, or the boss are doing does not exactly lend itself to encouraging skilled play.
  • The game is extremely hostile to owners of standard definition televisions. In the shooting sections distant enemies are all but impossible to resolve until it's too late, and the character visibility problems are generally magnified. You also lose the benefit of some of the nice effects. While I understand that the game is written for HD, there were still a lot of people with SD when this was launched. I was still using a CRT for gaming at the time (due to its responsiveness) and certainly felt the pain. You really need a big HD with good response to play this game as it was intended.
  • Cut scenes are reluctant to let you skip them. This seems to be a bug. Sometimes a scene simply refuses to skip, when other times the same scene will skip after forcing you to watch a couple of seconds. Other scenes don't force you to watch anything at all. I have tested this, and have found that the skip function definitely breaks at random - possibly it won't let you skip if for some reason the game is still reloading data.
  • There are scripted sequences that are basically part of the cut-scenes that you can't skip, but which are nothing to do with playing the game and become extremely annoying when forced to replay a level a few times. By far the worst of these is at the start of the second part of the Whiptail boss battle. This might be the hardest boss fight in the game (despite being only about half way through), but it has a long scripted section at the start where Whiptail and Nariko trade some really weak insults and demo some of the most awkward acting in the entire repertoire of cut-scenes. That you are forced to watch their worst cut-scene over and over rapidly becomes infuriating, especially after the really long reload time. Even worse, this cut-scene includes no game-play-setup and when it ends there is a really obvious jump to the actual battle itself, so there was no reason whatsoever to make it unskippable.
  • Difficulty is very uneven. The game lurches from very easy to extremely hard from section-to-section. The first two stages of the final boss battle is really no harder than the second Whiptail battle, and the final boss fight is really only harder because there are some health pickups in the Whiptail fight.
  • The aftertouch mechanism is good, but the SixAxis controller's motion sensing of it is awful. Fortunately, you can turn this off and use a stick instead. However, it took me a while to realize this. It's terrible and should be off by default.
  • Using the aftertouch to control projectiles is basically obligatory in many battles, as otherwise you can't aim accurately enough to score the hits in the time you have. However, it drastically extends the length of some sections to the point where they become tediously long. In essence a one second arrow flight time is extended to ten or fifteen seconds. There is a scene where Kai has to save her father while he walks really really slowly from one end of a room to another. This battle demands constant use of aftertouch to kill the enemies fast enough, and yet instead of this mechanic increasing the pace of the game, it decreases it to glacially slow. The battle is very repetitive, quickly becomes boring, and takes over ten minutes to complete (perhaps almost fifteen), though if you could aim reliably without aftertouch it would be over in a minute.
  • Both Nariko and Kai seem to have 'facing' problems when firing a projectile or throwing an object. When you pop into aftertouch mode (or first person firing mode for Kai), the character, and hence the object (or projectile) doesn't seem to go in the direction you'd expect from their apparent third-person facing, but is instead about 45 degrees off. This makes the throwable objects largely pointless for Nariko, and causes some real difficulties for Kai as soon as she has to run and then fire quickly. Fortunately, Kai's best fights avoid this problem by giving you ways to get far away from enemies, or just putting you on rails.
  • The Roach and Flying Fox bosses both have unblockable attacks that they can instantly pop into, preventing you from avoiding them in any way by dodging. While Roach usually only does this predictably, he also seems to get a bit odd sometimes and can start popping into this mode more or less non-stop. Flying Fox is just completely arbitrary, which is annoying. When this starts to happen at random you usually die before completing the boss and there's no way to avoid it. There's no warning, no action you perform that triggers it, it's unblockable, and can jam you against geometry so you can't dodge either. Essentially, when this happens it's a cheap way for the game to make you watch the reload screen again. I have done the first Flying Fox fight several times and found that on some occasions he goes bezerk and makes an unblockable attack practically continually, but if he doesn't do this, he's very easy to beat.
  • The variety of distinct enemy types, excluding bosses, is very limited. I think there are five, maybe six enemies: grunts, tougher grunts with hats, ninja assassins, heavy axe guys, heavy armour axe guys (headshot only), and orangutan monsters. Possibly there is only one kind of axe guy but they seem different depending on whether you are Narkiko or Kai.
  • There is a distinct lack of sections where you can take it easy and just wade about killing everything easily and feeling smug and powerful - rather odd when you consider the supposed power of the so called Heavenly Sword. Really, this is something the game needed to reward you for completing the harder bits and it's absence leaves something of a void in player satisfaction. This is particularly irksome and obvious, because the game teases you with sections like this, but always manages to spoil them, either with a time limit, or by making you too powerful, or both.
  • None of the boss victories are particularly satisfying, considering the effort required to achieve them. They aren't even deaths in most cases, and you start to feel like fighting them is pointless as they are allowed to survive to annoy you later. Bosses that don't die would work better with shorter, easier fights that are pumped up as less of a big event. Also, Nariko clearly and solemnly promises to kill several characters that she does not kill when given the chance, which just makes it look like she spends most of her time talking rubbish.
  • The combos are to some extent hard to tell apart, and don't seem to be well distinguished from each other. Some are obvious, others less so. The worst problem though, is that there isn't an obvious reward or pay-back for performing one rather than another. It doesn't seem to matter how you attack a non-boss enemy, they always react 'in their current mode'. Counters always seem to trump combos, so you end up using counter nearly all the time instead, or you just fill up the super-style bar and then use one of those. Either way, combos aren't distinct from each other, they're all just a way to up your combo counter. As the core of the Nariko game is about the combos, this seems to be a severe weakness.
  • In some of Kai's scenes the entire problem is knowing exactly where the snipers are positioned, and this requires replaying levels that otherwise you could easily clear first time. It just seems tedious to be forced to learn the sequence that they spawn at, where they are hidden in the geometry, and exactly where the important exploding barrels are so you can complete the level.
  • There is no real incentive to replay the game. Though you can go back and replay chapters with more unlocked combos, this isn't a big reward. While you have the goal of unlocking the really high value attacks, you will probably have all of them by the time you finish anyway, and so far none of them have seemed particularly special. There are some pictures to unlock, but the rewards of this sort are not as good as the the benchmark (Soul Calibur II), and many of the pictures can be found on the net in an easier to view form. As well as the candy, the game needs some proper rewards or replay hooks, like Resident Evil 4, which has many extra game-modes, characters and weapons to earn.
  • When you finish the game, it unlocks a hard mode that they call 'Hell Mode', or something. The thought of struggling through this to face the final boss with even more cheating 'instant unblockable attacks without warning' behaviour did not entice me to play it through again.
  • There is a 'glyph' system that scores your 'style' on each mini-section. This would be an ok way get more life from the game, except you can't replay mini-sections, only whole chapters. You have to go through the entire chapter hoping to improve on just one mini-section. It's a complete waste of time, and besides, some individual mini-sections are fun, but chapters as a whole are almost always a mixed bag, with some dud sections in there. Also, there doesn't seem to be any obvious reward for getting glyphs besides an artwork, so why bother unless you are really short of good games to play? I know I have lots of games I'd rather play than repeat Heavenly Sword with a lot more tedious waiting for a level to reload after dying.
  • There's no multiplayer, despite that the idea of Nariko and Kai does lean towards some sort of cooperative setup.
  • The story is almost as bad as Assassin's Creed in terms of not ending properly and just setting up for a sequel. Well, perhaps not, but the ending is frustrating nevertheless. I can't say more without spoilering it to death.
  • The levels are linear in the extreme. Up to a point this is a virtue, but they usually go way beyond that point. There's no choice or variation in how you take on any threat. The game is completely about doing each fight the single "right way". Every other choice or style is "the wrong way" and you will be punished for it. After the wide-open freedom of Assassin's Creed this feels very old fashioned. If the game had offered a bit more of the 'action platformer' genre and a bit less of the mass-brawl-button-mash-beat-em-up it might have appealed to more people. While there's always a place for beat-em-ups, the best have always featured multiplayer, and this is a serious lack in Heavenly Sword. There isn't much variation in the levels once you have considered the two basic types (slicing and shooting). Kai doesn't even have a stealth based stage, which seems odd, as her setup literally begs for one.
  • Despite the generally very high standard of the cut-scenes, there are many occasions where the lip-synch seems to be either for completely different dialog or for a different language. This is particularly odd, as there are other scenes where the lip-synch is spot on. While it didn't bother me much, my wife noticed this immediately and it instantly put her off the story. It's very odd to get this so inconsistent after making so much effort to make good cut-scenes.
  • There are spots, particularly in cut-scenes, where the render halts, jumps or stutters. These are probably related to streaming in data, but nevertheless they are distracting, annoying, and stand out against the polish of other parts of the game.
  • Flying Fox's jerky teleport and anim-snap effect doesn't really work as a computer animation, and his actions sometimes look as much like bad animation jitter as intentional (though I'm sure they are in fact the latter) - possibly this was not the best type of movement to choose for a computer game character. This really stands out when the render is also stuttering. Basically, the standard of the cut-scene direction and acting is so high that minor issues like this start to stand out.
  • Nariko's (apparently) sentient hair seems a bit odd really. Not in a good way.