Monday, June 10, 2013

Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007)

Wake and Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers were both fun indie titles, but after playing through both of them I was in the mood for something a bit grander. I was ready for some epic adventuring AAA style. I started looking through my unplayed games and remembering the various TV ads I'd seen. Until recently I didn't own a Playstation 3, and there are still plenty of PS3 exclusives that I haven't had a chance to play yet. One game that I remember seeing ads for all the time was Heavenly Sword. Oddly enough, I don't remember anybody mentioning it lately. So, I popped it in to see what this game was all about.

Heavenly Sword started off by wowing me with its amazing production value. Once I got past the loading screens (they tend to feel a bit long) I saw the first cutscene. Whoever it was that worked on these cutscenes, they all did an amazing job. It felt like watching a movie.

Then the game started with a tutorial level where I learned the basic controls while fighting off enemies in a contained location. Then, another tutorial level about sniping with a bow and arrow. It was frustrating at first because it had you control the arrows mid flight by tilting the entire controller, trying to compete with the Wii's 2007 popularity. Luckily, you can turn off the motion control and use the left stick instead which is much easier.

Then, it was back to another combat tutorial? And then another? This is when I caught on to Heavenly Sword's dirty little secret. While it tries its best to present itself off as God of War with a chick, Heavenly Sword is actually a series of mini-games, chained together with elaborate cutscenes and disguised as an adventure. Each mission has you in a contained area, sometimes getting from one side of the area to the other, but often just staying in one spot while enemies come at you. After each mission is a cutscene, and then you are in a different area for the next mission. There is no flow, and I never felt as if I was actually exploring this world. I was simply reacting to it.

Let's talk about the combat, because that's something the game did right. The combat in Heavenly Sword had a smooth flowing hack n' slash style that was obviously heavily influenced by God of War. There are three stances to choose between, selectable with the L1 and R1 triggers. The default speed stance has you dual wielding as the sword splits in two and allows you to quickly slice a path through the fodder. The range stance puts these two swords on the ends of chains that can be swung in wide arcs God of War style to pick away at enemies while keeping a safe distance. The power stance combines the weapon back into the large two handed sword seen in the cutscenes.

The stances also effect what incoming attacks you can block. There's no block button, as long as you have the correct stance and you're not in the middle of attacking, you can block. Pressing the triangle button at exactly the right time can result in a counter attack, but it's difficult to do and not much better than just hacking away. It also sometimes leads to another of the game's annoyances, Quick Time Events.

If you're not a QTE fan, you should probably stay away from this game. They aren't optional. When they happen, you get them right, or you fail. Often some of the most exciting action in the game happens over quick time events, which means that instead of watching this exciting action, your eyes are glued to the bottom of the screen waiting for the next unforgiving button prompt to appear. If anybody else is in the room watching you, they can tell you how cool what you just missed was. But the worst QTEs are at the end of each boss battle. After slowly hacking away at the boss's health bars while listening to the same canned voice over repeat itself (and sometimes having to hack through hordes of weaker enemies too), you finally get them down to near defeat. Then, the QTE prompts. They are long and intricate and must be done immediately and perfectly or else not only is the boss not defeated, half of the boss's health is returned. That's usually a good time to let yourself die and start over.

All of that was when using Nariko, the redhead from the cover art. About a third of the time you are playing as her friend Kai, a sprightly young girl with a crossbow that for our purposes functions as a sniper rifle. In the actual sniper missions, this works great as you pick off enemies from a distance while protecting your friends. When it doesn't work so great is when they put you in a room full of enemies that must be shot in the head to be taken down. Kai has no melee attacks at all, and no auto lock, not even a way to shoot while running, only zoom in sniper mode. Meanwhile the guy you're trying to aim at is 3 steps away and has a giant war hammer speeding towards you. Not the best time.

The cutscenes, as I mentioned, look amazing, and are expertly acted and shot. What's so odd about them is that while the faces are some of the most expressive seen in gaming, with every pore and whisker realistically rendered, everybody's hair looks like the sort of low-poly mesh you'd see rendered in real time on a PS2. The cutscenes also tend to be on the long side, and sometimes stray from the needed storytelling. Every character's back story is expanded upon, but often it just feels like a candy coating to distract you from the rigidness of the gameplay.

There's something else odd about Heavenly Sword. There was obviously a lot of thought and effort put into making the main characters that you play very attractive. The box art, the TV commercials, even the loading screens imply that this is meant to be one of the big draws of the game. The cutscenes are often viewed from provocative angles. But when it comes to actually playing the game, the camera is always so far away that you can barely even tell that it's not a dude running around the screen. This doesn't affect gameplay at all, but it just seems odd.

The world of Heavenly Sword mostly consists of one large elaborate palace, much like in Ico. You never get to actually pick which room you're going to be in, so there's no fear of getting lost. The puzzles that pop up from time to time feel as if they were an afterthought. They range from simple tasks such as picking up a shield and throwing it at a switch to more elaborate tasks such as turning a crank to expose a switch and then throwing a shield at it before it goes away. That's about it for puzzles.

All in all, the best way for me to describe my experience with Heavenly Sword is to say it's a game in which everything about it is almost great. If not for writing these reviews, I probably would have set it aside unfinished and added it to the list of games I mean to complete one day but never do. It's still a sight worth seeing, but you might want to save yourself some time and frustration and just watch somebody else play through it on youtube instead.

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