Goddess of War.
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.