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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Heavenly Sword (PS3)

As one of the most-anticipated Playstation 3 titles this year, Heavenly Sword has built up some high expectations. We're happy to report that it mostly delivers on its promises. Playing as title character Nariko is exciting thanks to the intuitive controls and excellent execution. There's an excellent balance between action and puzzle sequences that gives things a good pace. The game's gorgeous high-def graphics immerse you in an elaborate cinematic world with an engaging story. There are a few bumps along this journey's road, such as annoying quick-time events and sometimes frustrating mini-games, but this is a solid title that transports you inside an engaging cinematic adventure with a beautiful, yet dangerous protagonist.

Ninja Theory has spent a many years in development creating one of the PS3's most-anticipated launch titles, Heavenly Sword. First spotted several years ago at the PS3's infamous E3 press conference unveiling, the game has suffered seemingly endless delays and while it's not quite perfect, Heavenly Sword has definitely been worth the wait. The ambitious title attempts to create a synthesis of action-gaming and cinematic production values, and largely succeeds despite some mis-steps along the way. The epic quest follows the adventurer Nariko as she tries to protect the Heavenly Sword from the grip of the evil King Bolan. Along the way, she encounters hundreds of soldiers in her path along with a few daunting boss battles. The game unfolds in a linear fashion with a series of arena-style battles against multiple opponents, which are punctuated by extensive cinematic sequences and mini-games which help to break up the unrelenting action. Heavenly Sword takes place in a series of beautifully rendered proto-Asian environments replete with elaborate fortresses, lush forests and other locations. At the start of her quest, Nariko only has a standard sword to use, but gains possession of the Heavenly Sword itself early on. Once she has this powerful, holy weapon she can perform a variety of attacks.

There are three different basic stances to use, which players can access instantly using the shift buttons. The first of these are Nariko's standard attacks which she can use to take out enemies nearby and cause substantial damage. She can also switch to a ranged attack, which doesn't cause as much damage to foes but allows her to keep a safe distance from her enemies. Finally, Nariko can use the Power Stance to inflict a devastating attack at close range, which significantly damages any enemies nearby. When she builds up enough glypths, Nariko can also perform special power moves that inflict an unblockable and usually fatal amount of damage on a nearby opponent. This is an excellent system that allows players to balance attacks and use the Heavenly Sword's different abilities effectively during these intense combat sequences. Since she usually has to dispatch more than one opponent at the same time, Nariko has to time and use her attacks to defeat as many opponents as possible without leaving herself vulnerable to their attacks. The game is fairly easy to play in these sequences, and most players should have very little getting the hang of things, especially when you consider the on-screen tutorials which give you the basics as you play through in a simple manner.

These standard fighting scenes comprise the majority of Heavenly Sword's gameplay and are highly polished and entertaining. Most of the enemies aren't that difficult to beat in isolation, but the fact that they attack in numbers makes them more challenging. Luckily, there are usually several vases in each level that offer a full health recharge when broken, which means you won't have to spend a lot of time backtracking. There are also frequent save points, which should further help your progression through Heavenly Sword. Additionally, there are several cinematic sequences when Nariko has to use other techniques to progress through a level. These can involve firing a cannon, shooting arrows at attacking forced or shooting a bazooka-type weapon. During these sequences, players switch to a first person perspective and can affect the trajectory of objects by using either the Sixaxis controller or standard d-pad maneuvers. This gives the player a cool ability like aftertouch that allows you to guide the projectiles to your targets in a cool and visceral way unlike many other games on the market. Heavenly Sword also has several puzzle sections where you have to throw and guide metal hats at gongs and perform elaborate multi-objective acts in order to unlock doors or gates, which helps to further immerse players into the action. The developers have done an excellent job of mixing these different types of gameplay into one title and the transitions make for a relatively seamless experience, though you are fairly constrained in your actions overall.

Sadly, this is where some significant problems emerge with the design during the course of play that detract from the overall experience to a large degree. This is especially true in Heavenly Sword's cinematic action sequences, where you are reduced to pressing buttons in sequence while Nariko does the rest. For example, when you are using the chains on her sword to swing and scale up the sides of buildings, you are not in direct control of Nariko, instead a series of buttons to press are displayed and you must hit them in time or return to the beginning of the sequence. This can be quite annoying and it helps to take you out of the action to some degree, and reduces the players into a near spectator. This is they kind of context sensitive action seen in God of War, and while the execution is similar, it feels more annoying than anything else, like the developers were taking a short cut instead of implementing actual controls. This makes the game easier to play, but also reduces the challenge significantly which is disappointing considering the high-quality the rest of the game brings to the table.

These context sensitive controls and the shooting mini-games make the endless swordplay somewhat less monotonous, but the trade-off comes with a reduction in the game's flow which makes for a choppy and somewhat disorienting design where you never know what's coming next. This inconsistency comes into sharper focus during the game's elaborate boss battles, where the distracting taunts of your opponents and frequent shift in perspective make them much more complicated than they need to be. The changes in camera perspective when you use one of Nariko's special moves are also annoying and feel out of place next to the standard attacks. There are also some cinematic sequences that attempt to be funny, but end up falling flat - some of the more over-the-top dialogue and jokes attempt to lighten the mood, but don't really fall into place. Finally, the sequences with Nariko's half-sister Kai feel like they've been tacked on and don't really engage the player nearly as well as the main adventure, making this attempt at comic relief feel really hackneyed and obnoxious at time. However, these levels are only a small fraction of the game and once you look past these problems, there are many aspects of Heavenly Sword that deserve praise which more than counter-balances the parts of the game that don't work.

Many attempts have been made to create a cross-pollination between Hollywood and Silicon Valley over the past few years, and most have fallen short of their goals. However, Heavenly Sword is one of the few titles where the production values actually live up to its ambitions. It doesn't hurt that the developers enlisted the aid of Andy Serkis from Lord of the Rings to play some of the lead characters, including King Borat. The use of motion capturing on the facial expressions for all the characters in the game gives them a remarkable range of emotion, giving them more depth and believability than you'd typically find in most games. The facial close-ups, where you can see every pore of the characters' skins is particularly impressive and makes Heavenly Sword's cinematic sequences feel every bit as elaborate and punchy as an actual movie. The highly polished production values extend to the in-game sequences as well, with Nariko herself displaying fluid animation and movement while she performs her acrobatic and elaborate attacks. Heavenly Sword's dialogue is excellently acted throughout for the most part, though some of the over-acting on the part of the king and his minions can be annoying. Still, there is a definite high-quality to the game overall which is no doubt due to the professional, highly talented actors enlisted for the experience. Rounding out the game is its excellent orchestral soundtrack that mixes western and eastern sounds, with some memorable results. It compliments Heavenly Sword's epic feel and scale during battle and sets the mood effectively while the slower cinematic sequences unfold.

While there are plenty of issues which can be seen as annoying during the course of the game, Heavenly Sword largely ignores many of the pitfalls that occur when developers over-reach. Unfortunately, there are a few major problems that Heavenly Sword can't overcome. The game is a bit too linear, which hurts its replay value and it's overall level of difficulty isn't as high as you'd expect it to be meaning that a good player will be able to get through most areas of the game quickly without much effort. It doesn't help that you can get through several sequences with button mashing, which is annoying and the lack of challenge in the quicktime events is an unfortunate byproduct of trying to appeal to a mass audience. Despite these predicaments, Heavenly Sword is still an impressive technical accomplishment, with a sense of scale and drama most games don't even attempt. The main character is attractive and sympathetic, despite her bloody quest and the supporting characters are also interesting. The gameplay itself is interesting and offers some diversity in its mix of action, strategy and puzzle elements, though this isn't always executed as flawlessly as you would like. In the end, Heavenly Sword's fantastic production values, immersive storyline and occasionally breathtaking battles are superb and should be more than enough to keep players satisfied and thrilled for its duration.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B-

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