If This Is Heaven, I'm Not Sold
Recently, I plopped down in my recliner, turned on the TV, and booted up a shiny Blu-ray. After viewing the Ninja Theory logo that briefly flashed on-screen, I caught a glimpse of a fiery redhead with a bangin' body. I thought I was in Heaven.
Once I delved into Heavenly Sword, I quickly forgot about the heroine Nariko's preference for fighting in her undergarments; instead, I was fixated on her East-Asian inspired world. Heavenly Sword's environments and denizens draw heavily on the majestic cities of ancient China and its equally beautiful natural locales.
In Heavenly Sword, you'll fight atop city walls, brave the dangers of massive, desert-like battlefields, and you'll traverse lush forests -- all from fixed camera angles (well technically, you can shift the camera a bit, but it isn't very handy). When viewed from up close, these environments are colorful and full of detail, but Heavenly Sword's low-res background objects keep these areas from being pristine.
Heavenly Sword's character models are also a mixed bag. When viewed in cut scenes, Nariko and other characters look pretty enough to appear in celebrity magazines, but during gameplay, they often lack detail. Well actually, Nariko looks okay, but a number of her opponents look like Quasimodo and move like drunken buffoons.
As an action game styled after God of War, much of Heavenly Sword consists of combat. Nariko will take on six to a dozen foes at a time with her shiny, dual blades or the massive Heavenly Sword that would make Final Fantasy 7's Cloud Strife jealous. With either of these two weapons, Nariko can perform numerous combos that are essential for making quick work of her opponents.
Nariko's combinations are similar to those used by God of War's Kratos in that they're performed by tapping two different buttons in various orders. Something unique to Heavenly Sword, however, is the ability to execute combos from three different stances. Nariko can carry out her attacks in a standard stance by not pressing either of the two shoulder buttons; she can perform long-ranged abilities by holding L1; and she can execute short-ranged, but very powerful attacks by holding R1.
Each of these three stances has distinct abilities, but that's not all there is to Nariko's arsenal. She can also dodge by flicking the right stick, and she can execute special moves by pressing circle when close to an opponent. There are three different levels of these special moves, which can be performed once her special meter is full. Usually, these abilities involve spectacular acrobatics such as Nariko leaping into mid-air, tying up her foe with a set of chains, and slamming him on the ground.
In addition to numerous regular and special attacks, Heavenly Sword is chalk full of quick time events. During cut scenes and boss fights, you'll frequently tap buttons and directions on the d-pad to make Nariko pull off amazing stunts such as leaping from a crumbling bridge onto a cliff where she'll then knock over a massive statue to bowl over a group of aloof knights.
Generally, Heavenly Sword's quick time events didn't bother me, but they were sometimes irritating during boss fights. Usually, they required simple combinations involving the square, circle, and triangle buttons, but sometimes it was difficult to react in time after spamming sword blows. Occasionally, I'd make a mistake and get manhandled (which I didn't mind), but I found it absurd that bosses could regain health due to a simple mistake. These quick time events were probably designed to make boss battles as spectacular as a BMW, but in the end, they felt like driving a Kia.
Even while ignoring Heavenly Sword's QTEs, I still wasn't impressed with its brawls that played out like an episode of the Hercules television series. Heavenly Sword's battles really aren't much different from God of War's, but the higher enemy count and lower collective brainpower put them in Hercules territory.
When fighting six or more human vegetables, one would usually engage Nariko while the rest would remain stationary -- staring at her hot bod. Heavenly Sword's brain-dead enemies look intimidating, but they're easy to dispose of with rudimentary combos and button mashing. Having more enemies and breakable objects on-screen is certainly impressive, but good enemy AI was clearly sacrificed in the process.
Occasionally, there are even battles involving entire armies. Usually, these fights require Nariko or her sidekick to operate various cannons via motion control. These refreshing motion control segments have you guiding cannon balls into catapult weak points with the Six Axis. Acclimating to this control scheme takes awhile, but later, guiding projectiles into targets via subtle movements becomes second nature.
When these controller tilting exercises are complete, the player sometimes guides Nariko onto the battlefield where she'll fling hundreds of soldiers around like rag dolls. Seeing so many soldiers in a warzone is certainly impressive, but these battles feel so unrealistic, it's laughable. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Heavenly Sword's boss fights.
Heavenly Sword has you dueling an assortment of freaks that use simple attack patterns. Oftentimes, these boss fights are aggravating because they're three times longer than they should be, and health pots are typically out-of-reach. During these encounters, you'll occasionally have to perform special maneuvers and quick time events, but generally, rolling out of the way and counterattacking will suffice.
Fortunately, a plethora of unique missions scattered intermittently throughout the game mostly makes up for dull boss battles. During these missions, you'll take control of a teenage girl named Kai who specializes in sniping enemies from afar via motion control. As with Heavenly Sword's cannon-manning missions, archery is difficult to adapt to, but it's a worthy challenge. It's a shame that Kai's missions overextend themselves at times, because they'd be much better as one-minute-long mini-games.
During the rare moments when you're not in hand-to-hand or ranged combat, Heavenly Sword gives you puzzles to solve. Most of these are simple affairs, but they're hampered by poor motion controls and lousy camera angles. Frequently, you'll have to turn a wheel by repeatedly tapping 'x'; then you'll have a two-second window to pick up a disc and hurl it at a target via motion control. These unoriginal puzzles wouldn't be so bad if Heavenly Sword actually gave you decent camera angles to work with, but as it stands, it's like throwing horse shoes across a football field.
Sadly, Heavenly Sword's failings don't stop there. What could have been an interesting tale involving an ancient relic and an outcast girl is hindered by a ridiculous cast that doesn't fit the serious tone of the script. Nariko's conflict with the Heavenly Sword, her people, and a ruthless warlord should have been engaging; instead, it's a barely digestible tale.
Even with solid voice acting and motion capture techniques, Heavenly Sword's characters generally lack realism. Nariko is the exception, and is a strong-willed female character who displays a range of emotions. As for the other characters -- they belong in a circus. Your primary sidekick: Kai, is the poster child for this clown posse; she acts as if she's drank a dozen two-liters of Mountain Dew. Actually, scratch that. She's nowhere near as weird as Heavenly Sword's eclectic cast of villains.
Heavenly Sword's villains wouldn't even belong in X-Men's world of mutants with a cast that includes a morbidly obese, giant man-baby with huge breasts and horrifyingly large nipples, a snake woman who claims to be your sister, and an effeminate freak show that probably eats babies. Surprisingly, this oddball bad guy posse is headed up by a ruthless warlord who probably feasts on turkey legs and drinks out of a golden cup. Even though his strangeness pales in comparison to his lackeys, you'll really despise this despot by the end, because you have to fight him three times!
Despite its numerous shortcomings, Heavenly Sword is a game that's at least worth renting. It's relatively short, repetitious, and has a mediocre storyline, but you might get a good laugh at the ridiculous nature of its baddies. It's a shame that most of its elements (other than its visuals) aren't on par with the God of War titles it clearly imitates, but at least Heavenly Sword provides some unique motion control segments and a respectable female character.
· Solid voice acting and motion captured animation in cut scenes
· Stars a sexy, strong-willed heroine
· Beautiful East-Asian inspired environments
· Operating cannons via motion control is exciting
· Heavenly Sword's goofy cast doesn't match its serious script
· Numerous soldiers on-screen don't make up for lousy AI
· Brainless puzzle segments marred by a clumsy camera. Boss fights that rival the length of your least favorite documentary