Version tested: PlayStation 3
The most disappointing games aren't the low-scoring Driver 3 out of 10s - those are just the road crashes we point and laugh at. Those are beyond redemption. No, the really gutting ones are always the ones that just fall short of greatness, where you feel sure that with a bit more polish and refinement that they could (and perhaps should) have been amazing. Heavenly Sword is that sort of game: your sense of disappointment is amplified because it's clear that Ninja Theory handled so many elements exquisitely. It really did have the potential to be the PS3's first must-have title - yet, somewhere along the line it doesn't quite deliver. For PS3 owners, the wait for the killer-app goes on.
But let's stay within the realms of exquisiteness to kick-off with - it's a nice place this time of year. For probably only the second time since we fired up the PS3 have we been moved to drag the sofa a bit closer to the TV. it's a game that you'll want to truly bask in, such is the visual opulence on show. It's as if Ninja Theory fell in love with the art style of ICO and fancied the idea of a setting a truly bombastic God of War-style hackandslash within it. Not a bad idea at all, when you consider how well both of those went down with you lot.
There are times within Heavenly Sword's six chapters when the technical accomplishments offer an embarrassment of riches; breathtaking moments designed to make you just stop, mouth agog, and wallow in some of the most ambitious, picturesque landscapes and ornate environments ever committed to a digital canvas. Some might boringly label it as 'truly next gen' or whatever - I'll just thank the art team for investing so much effort in making the simple process of traversing the game world a hugely entertaining experience in its own right. If anything's responsible for dragging you along through Heavenly Sword, it's the way the game makes you play the digital tourist, eager to find out where else the game can push the PS3. It's not as if we've had many titles that have done that so far.
It's a game that also takes the business of narrative extremely seriously, so it's just as well that such an emotive, desperate tale can be expressed on-screen in ways that have eluded game developers the world over - until now. Nariko's battle to keep the eponymous Heavenly Sword out of the hands of the evil King Botan is one told over a regular procession of in-engine cut-scenes, using the most sophisticated facial animation system seen outside of the CG movie business.Aided and abetted by the expert touch of Andy Serkis, not only do the character models look uncannily realistic (apart from the hair, which still looks like polygonal dreadlocks), but convey the kind of expression and emotion not normally associated with mere videogames. With near-perfect lip syncing adding a final layer to the effect, it's clear that an incredible amount of effort went into the cinematic appeal of Heavenly Sword. Unlike so many other games released on PS3 to date, you really appreciate the generational leap in the production values. Even Square-Enix's legendary teams would be impressed.
The problem with all this technical showboating is you need an equally great game within all the blockbuster presentation - and it's here where things start to unravel for Heavenly Sword. The crux of the matter is that the combat never quite feels as gratifying or assured as you'd hope. Lacking the hardcore depth of a Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, nor as wonderfully accessible as, say, Onimusha or God of War, it sits in a kind of unsatisfying no-man's land between them, and goes its own way to the ultimate detriment of your overall enjoyment.
At its most basic, it does much the same thing as all of them. Yep, the square and triangle buttons get a good pasting again, with the heart of the game's uncomplicated combo system based on various button presses of every hackandslasher's most overworked symbols. Occasionally you might want to throw in a X for good measure, but more significant is the role played by use of L1 or R1 - the 'stance' modifier. Without using either you fight using the 'speed' stance's set of moves, which effectively gives you the ability to throw a flurry of quick sword-based manoeuvres, but do medium levels of damage. It also means you can counter your opponent's moves if you see a blue-ish hue and hit triangle just as they're about to land an attack.
If you hold down L1 you can pull-off the range attacks/counter. This chain blade attack might be pretty weak in isolation, but in the right context comes in incredibly useful - such as breaking up a gaggle of enemies if you're surrounded. As a counter, it can be essential - swishing away a hail of incoming arrows, say, or dispersing a wall of water heading towards you. By far the most deadly, though, is the heavy stance, performed by holding down R1 and mashing combos using triangle and/or square. Although it's a bit slower than the others, it's invaluable when timed right - and, likewise, an effective counter to have up your sleeve when the opportunity presents itself. Once you learn a few of the basic combos (or get lucky with button mashing), even the hardiest enemies hit the deck as they feel the full force of your blade.
Mastering Nariko's 'Superstyle' moves gives Ninja Theory the chance to zoom in on the action and show off some of its grisly, but never less than satisfying finishing moves. Essentially used as a payback for stylish, relentless killing sprees, the better you get at killing, the better the action looks. Countering successfully, and an unbroken string of kills bring delicious, grisly rewards.
While there's no denying that the combat can be brutally thrilling to watch, at no time during the game did we ever feel fully in control of our actions. Wild, random slashing would often be just as effective a technique as studying the combos and attempting to follow them to the letter - so, inevitably as new moves get unlocked, you tend to stop paying that much attention to the progression system and play on furious, rhythmic instinct. So long as you're making progress, it hardly seems to matter if you're button mashing or not - sad to say.
Wonder Milky Bitch
Part of the problem is the way Heavenly Sword rewards progress. Every game from possibly Onimusha onwards has gravitated towards a variation on the genius orb/soul harvesting system, which ensures players have a means to power up weapons/powers/armour as they see fit. This allows players to subtly change the experience to suit them, and how they want the game's 'currency' to be invested - for example, spread thinly across all abilities and weapons, or towards maxing one in particular. However, Ninja Theory's decision to go for a predetermined approach is baffling, because it leaves the player with no means of controlling or varying how Nariko powers up over the course of the game.
Perhaps only having one weapon (the Heavenly Sword) is a bit of an oversight in a genre that relies on the variety and intrigue provided by new and increasingly powerful attack methods and, likewise, defence mechanisms. All the game offers in return for your concerted efforts is new combos when you accumulate medals during each sub-level. To a degree there's a incentive to go back and replay levels you didn't do so well on to earn new combos, but only if you're capable of working out these new moves afterwards. For the vast majority of players, that's no real incentive - not when good old fashioned button mashing does the job just fine (on Normal difficulty, I might add - the unlockable Hell mode's a different story, in as much as it'll kick your arse if you don't know exactly what you're doing).
Another thing to take issue with is whether the counter system is a good idea at all. What's wrong with being able to block, for example? If anything, the rather lame auto block system merely encourages you to wade in like a maniac and thrash around until everyone's lying prostate on the ground. If you could block, it would encourage a bit more strategy, but instead it feels like a never ending sequence of attacks - it's not as if there aren't enough spare buttons to make it possible. On the whole, the control system just makes the game feel more hemmed in than other hackandslashers - which, we suspect is precisely the opposite of what Ninja Theory was aiming for. It might make it more accessible on the surface, but you just feel constrained.
It's a real shame to reflect on that, because in all other respects the game gets things just right. The bite-sized structure (and the ability to replay each and every segment afterwards) is a great touch, and keeps the action flowing like a good action blockbuster should. The camera, as well, is exceptionally well executed, and is never something you need to worry about, because (like God of War) the levels are designed intelligently enough to take all of that away from you. Instead of having to control the camera with the right stick, it pans around exactly when it should, leaving you with the option to use the right stick to pull of a nifty evasion move. If peering in a specific direction is that important to you, L2 and R2 give you that ability - not that you ever really need to, but sometimes you might just like to admire the view...
Now and then Heavenly Sword takes a break from all the hackandslash guff and lets you shoot at things from big cannons, or fire arrows into the mush of one of those sneaky archers stationed up in the ramparts. In these hugely entertaining (but rather samey) interludes you can aim the rough direction and trajectory with the left stick and fire haplessly with the square button (and invariably miss), or hold down L1 and effectively steer the missile directly to its target. By default, the game encourages you to use the SixAxis tilt controls, but although it feels rather fantastic when you wobble your pad to your target, it's horribly imprecise. After a few hours of struggling with it, we couldn't quite believe how much easier it was to control the direction with the analogue stick in comparison. Nice try, but no thanks. Inevitably, after you've played through a couple of these shoot 'em up sections, the novelty wears off a little and it starts to feel a bit tacked-on, but that's not to say they weren't enjoyable. At the very least, they show off the gore, the excellent explosions and the game's frankly superb physics in an incredibly cinematic fashion.
On that last point we should perhaps elaborate. In keeping with the exceptional technical graphical feats, the way all the game's objects have a convincing physical property is genuinely impressive. Objects splinter and break apart, structures collapse and debris knocks other items asunder. Every scene is truly alive with destruction, and the ability to grab hold of practically anything and lob it at an enemy is great fun. But, as with so many of the other impressive technical feats in the game, it only seems to make the central gameplay flaws more apparent, sadly. In short, it looks pretty, but never really utilises the physics to do anything in real gameplay terms.
But that's not to say the game is totally glitch free, either. In fact, on regular occasions it's glaringly apparent that Heavenly Sword isn't quite as optimised as it could have been, with notable frame rate hitches creeping in now and them, and occasional v-sync tearing. As polished as the game is 90 per cent of the time, there's a lingering feeling the game was deemed 'good enough' rather than fully honed in all areas. That's a real shame, because it brings us back to thinking about how good the game might have been had the developer been given a few more months to tweak, refine and change a few things that might have made all the difference.
As it stands, Heavenly Sword is still an impressive, epic hackandslash adventure, and one that's full of memorable moments that keep you engaged right to the end. At times it veers towards being truly great, with the general 'direction' of the game's key sequences ensuring that it always keeps your attention with one visually arresting sequence after another. But inevitably, no amount of lavish technical polish and drama-filled cut scenes can disguise how it feels to play, and the fact that at its core, the combat doesn't quite cut it. Put simply, it feels like it's trying too hard to be different for the sake of it, and throws all manner of good, well-established ideas out to its detriment. Instead of being a spectacular refinement of what's gone before, Heavenly Sword is a reinvention that doesn't quite pay-off. Not quite the 7th heaven you might have been looking for, then.
7 / 10