When a game features motion capture, scriptwriting and animation input from Andy Serkis and the Lord of the Rings special effects team at Weta, you know you’re going to get the absolute best production possible in a video game. When Ninja Theory first showed Heavenly Sword it was a confusing mixture of QTE (Quick Time Events) button presses and frantic swordplay, but it always seemed to have that certain spark that great games seem to possess. Now we’ve finally gotten our hands on the finished game, the whole experience is one that gels together perfectly and, despite being short at only 7 hours in length delivers a thoroughly entertaining ride from start to end.
Playing as flame-haired lead character Nariko, the player begins the game at the very end of the story, as the eventual warrior is faced off against (literally) thousands of enemies on a huge battlefield. It’s not long before the game rewinds 5 days, though, and the plot begins in earnest. Nariko’s character is as fleshed out and developed as any RPG lead might be, with a distinct personality and a certain attractiveness that extends beyond the Westernised figure and flowing locks. She’s not the only one, her main nemesis is just as strong a character, expertly voiced and with some great lines, and her odd friend Kai, who we learn more about as the game goes on, is also fascinating to both watch and play as.
Whilst Nariko’s sections are 90% combat, 10% platforming and puzzling, the progressive nature of the story means that there’s always moves to learn and fresh combos are unlocked by skillful play. It’s no spoiler to say that it’s not long before the Heavenly Sword is your main weapon, and it’s one with 3 main stances: speed, range and power: switched by holding the small shoulder buttons that not only affect the style of fighting, but also whether Nariko will block oncoming attacks. The action is broken up, however, by the sections of the game revolving around Kai, whose Twing Twang is an affectionate dub for her scoped automatic crossbar, the perfect yin to Kariko’s deadly close-range yang.
What would be spoilers, though, are the intricacies of the ever twisting story, and it’s not something we’re going to ruin for you here, suffice to say it’s easily worthy of a movie screenplay, and with the voice acting and the motion capture so so impressive we’d settle for a DVD taken directly from the game engine, much like the Shenmue one included in the Xbox sequel. Cut-scenes are spooled from the hard drive as a pre-rendered movie, but they’re done in exactly the same real-time engine as the game using the same assets, so there’s no great leap between gameplay and mid-chapter interludes.
So, visually, it’s an absolute treat: Heavenly Sword is just as capable of pitting you against hundreds (and indeed, thousands) of enemies at once as much as it loves intimate combat with a dozen or so hardened characters, and the one-on-one boss fights are a real highlight. The vistas are lifelike and expansive, and for the most part this even extends to close up scrutiny of textures, although the frame rate does dive occasionally when disk access is required, and whilst the animation is first rate it’s not always perfectly smooth. Regardless, Ninja Theory have pulled off what is undoubtably the finest graphics on the PlayStation 3 so far, running at 720p throughout.
The music is also quite splendid, and the various sound effects are well produced and make heavy use of any digital surround sound set up you might be using. Voice acting is sublime and convincing and is dubbed expertly into multiple languages, should English not be your preferred choice. The Blu-ray disk is positively crammed with unlockable extras too, including a nice ‘making of’, various image and movie galleries, and of course the five-part anime that’s featured on the PSN over the last month-and-a-half, all in glorious high-definition.
So, it seems almost churlish to complain about the length of the game, as what is here is exciting throughout (without any padding except the odd puzzle) and is paced well, with plentiful checkpoints and replayability provided by a basic 3-point rating system after each section. However, whilst we can think of no reason for a multiplayer mode here, some kind of online rankings would have been appreciated and no doubt increased the lifespan of the game massively – as it is we’ll have to rely on Ninja Theory providing some kind of post-release downloadable content.
This is all academic though – as a game experience Heavenly Sword is unmatched – it flows superbly and at its highest peaks it soars – absolutely unmissable and so close to a ten it hurts.