Developer Ninja Theory’s debut game is still fun and eye-catching.In light of Sony’s recent announcement to extend their exclusive action franchise Heavenly Sword to full-fledged feature film, now is a great time to revisit this old Playstation 3 beat-‘em-up. Heavenly Sword is a cinematic action game that has style, character, and a big heart. Although the title was released in 2007, a generation ago in video game years, developer Ninja Theory’s debut game is still fun and eye-catching and offers a unique blend of action and cinematics.
Heavenly Sword’s presentation elevates it above most action games—current games included—and the phenomenal cast and its accompanying technology make for a neat piece of videogame history. The technology for Heavenly Sword’s facial animations is still stunning today. Anna Torv (TV’s Fringe) is Nariko, a warrior cursed and derided since birth. Torv delivers lines with panache, and her monologues that book-end every chapter are surprisingly emotional and stirringly acted. There are moments in the story and during Nariko’s soliloquies that convey genuine emotion—a rarity in video games.Andy Serkis, who has portrayed Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, is more than up for the challenge as the vile Bohan.Nariko must contend with a foe of equal chops—both in terms of story and scene. Andy Serkis, who has portrayed Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, as well as roles in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and King Kong, is more than up for the challenge as the vile Bohan. Serkis pulls triple-duty, lending his voice and motion work, but also serving as one of the game’s writers, and importantly, lending his wealth of motion capturing skills to his role as cinematics director.
The sound design, like the acting, is also superb. The soundtrack is fully orchestrated by the City of Prague Philharmonic, which is truly delightful for gamers and audiophiles alike. The compositions are sweeping and adequately capture the mystique of Heavenly Sword’s world. The clangs and clatter of sword fights are wonderfully realized, and further the standout audio and visual design.The action is fun and loose, and does a great job of empowering you as the heroine, Nariko.Developer Ninja Theory definitely aims to create a different sort of beast than games like Ninja Gaiden, or ironically, Devil May Cry, which was released just a few months ago from the very same developers. Dramatic camera shifts and strong voice/motion acting go a long way to make up for the few gameplay limitations. Although you will only fight with a single weapon for the duration of the game—the titular sword—the action is fun and loose, and does a great job of empowering you as the heroine, Nariko.
You’ll gain the odd combo here and there, but Heavenly Sword is definitely more of a button masher than a precise slasher. You can modify your attacks with ranged and heavy stances, but its mix and match combos aren’t as freeform as you’d like. Think Kratos rather than Ryu Hayabusa; Combat has a decidedly slower pace than most action games. Enemies will rarely attack simultaneously and are overly conspicuous in the telegraphing of their attacks. It all feels a bit stiff, but the action is still rewarding as you witness Nariko’s graceful executions and aerial attacks.
Boss battles can be exhausting, as Heavenly Sword follows the videogame tradition of “threes”: you will typically fight bosses in three distinct phases, and frustratingly, failing at the final phase will lead you back to the beginning of the boss fight. Most standard battles take place in arenas; waves of enemies take turns attacking you, which is hardly the most exciting way to show off the impressive world and scenery of Heavenly Sword.
Additionally, there are gameplay moments that require you to slowly guide arrows or cannonballs to a precise target, and by default, you issue control with the PS3’s Sixaxis motion controls. While it is much more rewarding nailing the weak point of a catapult with a bit of physicality, it ultimately feels clumsy, which is likely why you can turn off the motion sensing entirely. These are small criticisms for a smashingly fun game.Heavenly Sword begs for a sequel to develop and fully flush out the gameplay systems and the engaging characters.The lore, the art style, the acting, and the animation in Heavenly Sword are still impressive, but it’s disappointing that the gameplay comes up a little short. Heavenly Sword begs for a sequel to develop and fully flush out the gameplay systems and the engaging characters. After six years, Sony looks to delve further into the interesting world of Heavenly Sword with the aforementioned film, and seeing as Heavenly Sword was one of the earlier blockbuster PS3 titles, one hopes to see a similar early showing of a sequel on the upcoming PS4.