This review originally appeared in E180, October 2007.
Heavenly Sword is a game that has had to carry the burden of becoming a standard-bearer for PlayStation 3, and as its host platform's topsy-turvy ride has continued, its importance has increased. It's not good enough to simply be a good game and a flagship title: with the likes of Killzone 2, LittleBigPlanet and MGS4 some time away, it has to be proof of the console's capabilities and, above all else, a system seller.
The game is certainly stunning from a visual standpoint, with some breathtakingly realised levels throughout, but it is its roster of characters, which surpass those of the likes of Gears Of War, that really push at boundaries. At the same time, however, some design decisions simply jar – Nariko's famous hair, for example, is incongruously unreal next to her perfectly modelled face. It may have been a major design decision, but it's not justified by the implementation, which at times simply looks weird. However, many of the other characters – particularly Nariko's father and King Bohan – simply set new standards in gaming.
Nor is the narrative merely dressing. It's a good story, and the voice-acting throughout is excellent. Ninja Theory has created some bizarre and grotesque enemies, and Nariko offers up some effective verbal comebacks during boss encounters. The dialogue is neither profound nor particularly deep, but it's easy to see its tongue-in-cheek moments becoming cult favourites (although one more ëweak point for massive damage' reference may just finish us off).
As for the meat of the game, the combat system works well, and in some respects is superior to its obvious inspirations, thanks primarily to the ability to switch easily between ranged, speedy and heavy stances, which all involve predictably different techniques and effects on your enemies. Thanks to a fluid incorporation of blocking, dodges and counters, the game is, at times, a cracking action extravaganza.
However, even on 'Hell Mode' (unlocked after beating the game on normal difficulty) the enemies provide little sustained challenge, and mastering the basics will see you waltz through their ranks with ease. It's one respect in which the system is markedly inferior to the likes of Ninja Gaiden, although Heavenly Sword's focus on spectacle over challenge should be emphasised. But when a game can be easily completed on its hardest setting without using a major slice of the moves available – and there is never any real need to use the environment – then there is obviously a touch of the formulaic about its challenge.
That aside, the real Achilles heel of Heavenly Sword is its focus on distance attacks, which take up a significant portion of the game. During these sequences you have to fire arrows at oncoming enemies, or move away from enemies and fire arrows at them, at which point you can take control of the projectile and guide it on its way and even through flames in moments reminiscent of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. It's a novel concept the first time you do it, but tiresome the 20th, and just a bit tedious the 100th. There is so much repetition of this basic idea – over clichÈs such as a slowmoving cable car – that it almost sours the rest of the experience.
That it doesn't is testament to the quality in some of Heavenly Sword's design touches that let you exult in Nariko's power and grace. There's a section in one of the final levels, after a series of tough fights, for example, when you move on to a picturesque bridge and the camera takes a side-on perspective. A heaving crowd of weak enemies pours out towards you, and you barrel into them, scattering bodies to all sides. It is a sensational-looking encounter, and it's hugely gratifying to play.
These smaller moments, in fact, outshine some of the more ambitious sections, such as the large battle scenes in which Nariko has to face down an entire army. Unfortunately, these episodes have been implemented poorly: over three levels involving mass-scale tear-ups you'll spend perhaps ten minutes on foot but more like 20 minutes with a cannon. And the cannon-based battles, which work just like the arrow-shooting sections, are drawn-out – not because of any great difficulty, but because of the great amount of repetition involved in taking down identical catapults while an abstract energy bar or (even worse) a timer counts down, neither of which have any effect on your surroundings or succeed in communicating a sense of urgency. But the battlefield is at least pleasing to look at, and the final boss shows an eye for the climactic moment that goes beyond most games, providing a satisfying denouement.
But those moments are rare, and the exception rather than the rule. If Heavenly Sword is a great spectacle, in more than a few respects it also falls somewhat short of the quality of the games whose templates it has studied – plus, it's all over all too quickly.
It's worth experiencing for the artistry in its visual flair, excellent cutscenes and one or two inspired directorial moments, but as a game? The previous-generation God Of War series has the definite edge.