Heavenly Sword is one of those annoying games that everyone has heard everything about, but nobody actually knows anything about. Of course you've heard of it; how could you not? It's one of Sony's great white hopes, one of the much-vaunted PS3 exclusives which have the unhappy fortune of being pivotal to the next salvo in the Great Console War of 2007.
But know about it? Well, we've known marginal details; we've known that it's a third-person action game starring a red-headed lady with a fine line in swinging around very large swords. We've known that it's being developed by British studio Ninja Theory, and that renowned actor Andy Serkis (you know, Gollum!) is involved with it...
...And, despite this being one of Sony's headliners, that's actually all we've really known about Heavenly Sword, with the primary source of info being an incredibly short, restricted demo which is now around 15 months old. Since then, next to nothing. Until now.
Now we've played an up-to-date version of Ninja Theory's opus. Pull up a pew, and we'll tell you all about it.
In the Beginning
The question, really, is where to start. When Ninja Theory showed off Heavenly Sword to us in London recently, they started with the cut-scenes - something they're understandably proud of. After all, they had New Zealand's Weta Workshop (you know, Lord of the Rings!) break new ground in the motion capture technology used for them, and Andy Serkis (you know, Gol... Hang on, we've done this one already) as dramatic director for the whole thing.
(We like the idea of a "dramatic director"; we imagine it to be something like Stephen Spielberg, but with vastly exaggerated hand gestures, a mysterious personal gust of wind which blows his hair around at opportune moments, and regular tearful flounces back to his trailer to post on LiveJournal. But we digress).
Cut-scenes play well to a wider press audience, we suppose, and Heavenly Sword's cut-scenes more than most. They've certainly lifted the bar in this area, so much so that they look almost like a movie, and they've got that chap who played Gollum and King Kong so that's probably good for a photo piece in a newspaper or maybe in the back of Heat magazine.
Okay, stop twitching. We know. It's Eurogamer, not Eurocut-scene-watcher, no matter how much we like Metal Gear Solid. So, with all apologies to the lovely Mr Serkis (who played Gollum, you know), we were somewhat concerned when half an hour of presentation about the cut-scenes ended with five minutes of brief talk about the game. Thankfully, the game was in residence to speak for itself. Let's talk about the game. [Yes, let's. - Stern Ed]
Heavenly Sword is, by Ninja Theory's own admission, a resolute attempt at creating a new videogame icon (and, by extension, a new videogame franchise) in the form of Nariko, the heroine of the piece. Blessed with flowing, flame-coloured locks, exotic features on one of the most detailed and expressive faces we've ever seen in a game, a penchant for fairly revealing clothing and a pair of bloody great swords, Nariko certainly fits the bill.
Most of what you need to know about the structure of the game is right there in the sub-heading; this is Goddess of War. The game sees you progressing through the storyline by beating the stuffing out of countless enemies in an increasingly brutal manner, interspersed with occasional interactive scenes where you need to tap out on-screen button combinations.
Those interactive scenes seemed pretty regular from the sections which we played, and often play a role in combat with bosses or powerful enemies (much like God of War). More lengthy interactive scenes see you pressing buttons to navigate through astonishingly cinematic feats - in the first demo level we saw, Nariko slides down massive anchor cables to a suspended platform, flipping from cable to cable as her enemies cut them off in an attempt to dislodge her. It's epic stuff. We strongly suspect it may be one of the first levels.
The Lady's Not For Turning
Once you're on the platform, it's time to go crazy. Nariko wields a remarkable blade which has three different modes, or stances. The default stance is "fast", in which you slice and dice at relatively close range with a pair of blades. Hold down L1 and you switch to ranged stance, swinging around your blades on the end of chains. Hold R1 and you're in heavy stance, which inflicts massive damage with a single, slow blade.
There are only two standard attack buttons - triangle and circle - so most of the game mechanics are built around this stance system. You can flick between stances instantly, which allows for combos to be built up using moves from multiple stances, a technique that in turn allows you to build up some fairly unique and powerful move-sets.
The block system is also based off your stance. Each enemy attack has a certain glow; blue means you'll block it in Fast stance, yellow means you'll block it in Heavy stance. Red means you can't block it at all, and getting the hell out of the way would be a fine plan. Finally, tap the triangle button at exactly the right time (a little flash on screen indicates this) and you'll execute a counter move.
The objective, according to Ninja Theory's developers, has been to create a fighting system which has enough depth to work like a beat-'em-up in one-on-one fights, but which is also fun in large brawls and even on massive battlefields. The game's battles do range from taking on single enemies to running around a battle with 2500 participants, taking in just about everything in between along the way. Overall though it's a tricky proposition, and certainly ambitious.
Based on our play time with the game, Heavenly Sword takes a damn good stab at such a tough challenge. The controls feel fluid and dynamic, with incredibly well choreographed moves blending together to form great-looking combos even during our earliest fumbling experiments. Little tactics like doing a spinning Ranged attack to knock back a scrum of approaching enemies came naturally, while chaining attacks from different stances together seemed to be the key to hitting the weak points of armoured or shielded foes.
No game of this sort would be complete without some satisfyingly brutal finishing moves, and Nariko brings plenty of those to the table. As you play, you charge up "orbs" for special attacks, which can then be executed using the circle button - one special for each stance. These specials can be eye-wateringly brutal (we're really not fond of the Heavy stance special attack which sees the sword slammed into the crotch of a retreating enemy), but also sport some tactical depth. The ranged special, for example, clears a breathing space around Nariko by swinging around a single impaled enemy on a pair of chains - ideal in a tight corner.
Unfortunately, we don't feel like we've played enough of the game to say whether the combat is as good as God of War's, but what we can say is that there's absolutely no reason why what we've seen of Heavenly Sword couldn't blossom into a combat system as deep and satisfying as God of War's over the course of the full game. It's all very promising.
Very Special Moves
The game has some tricks of its own to bring to the table, too. Almost every object in the environment can be destroyed, and as you fight the various levels will pile up with corpses and the debris of shattered furniture and fittings - all of which is subject to physics, and makes a glorious mess.
You can also pick up the bulk of the objects in the game and hurl them at enemies. This even demonstrates an actually rather sensible use of the Sixaxis functionality of the PS3 - there's a little bit of aftertouch on everything you throw, which means you can steer objects in flight by tilting the pad.
Later in the game, there are also points where you play as Nariko's companion, Kai - a younger girl who seems half-feral, and is armed with a very big crossbow. Her stages are specifically laid out as shoot-'em-up stages, from what we saw, and have a unique set of puzzles - we especially liked one which required that you set arrows on fire by shooting them through torches. Oh, and the crossbow bolts, too, have Sixaxis aftertouch on them.
Of course, Heavenly Sword wouldn't be much of a showcase for the PS3 without having stunning graphics - and that's one area where the game isn't likely to attract much criticism. It's one of the best-looking titles we've ever seen, with incredibly detailed scenery stretching hundreds of metres into the distance - complemented by life-like and superbly animated foes, even in scenes where there are dozens on screen at once.
Indeed, the whole affair comes across as being simply beautiful - with some points in the game having an almost (dare we say it?) ICO-esque feel thanks to the large-scale puzzles and vast, ancient architecture which reaches off into the distance.
And then you have the characters. Yes, it's cut-scene stuff, but Weta and Ninja Theory absolutely deserve praise in this department. According to Serkis, this is the first time that multiple actors have been motion-captured acting out scenes together, with both their body movements and their facial expression being captured. Frankly, the benefits of the technique shine through clearly.
The characters are given an astonishing level of depth and emotion by their actors, who imbue the tale - focused on Serkis' wonderfully insane and malevolent King Bohan - with a truly Shakespearean feel. Nariko, her compatriots and her foes don't just have a set of facial expressions to suit all circumstances; they genuinely emote, and react, and provide exactly the sort of powerful character performances that you don't expect to find in a videogame.
Ninja Theory's claims for the game may be somewhat optimistic - there was talk of combining the drama of Kurosawa with the visual flair of Hero, of videogames entering a Golden Era not unlike that of film, all of which may be somewhat premature. However, what we've seen of Heavenly Sword so far suggests a game strong enough to stand up in the face of its own hype.
It's got killer looks, fluid, fun gameplay, a genuinely superb heroine - and, lest we forget, the best cut-scenes you've ever seen in a videogame. Comparisons with God of War are easy, and not remotely unfair, but if there's a sin in producing a visually stunning, professionally executed title in the God of War mould for a next-gen system, then it's not one our faith condemns. Besides, it's got that bloke who played Gollum in it - what more could you want?