Heavenly Sword

Heavenly Sword
Heavenly Sword Cover
Platforms Playstation 3
Genre Ball-busting Brawler
MtAMinutes to Action 6
Keep Playing? Yes, but barely
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The Playstation 3 was a tough sell for Sony back in 2006. Nevermind the console's infamous $599.99 US price tag; it simply didn't have any must-have games in its launch window. Much like the PS2, the system's first year was mostly without a killer app. Even worse, adoption of the Blu-Ray format wasn't nearly as fevered as the PS2's prominently-featured DVD drive. It was once said that the best-selling game in the PS2's first year was The Matrix on DVD: people ignored the lack of games, they just wanted a DVD player, and PS2 provided a cheap solution, which the $600 PS3 was anything but.

Perhaps Sony's first true hope for a must-have game, Heavenly Sword was released in November 2007, a full year after the system launched. The game was marketed heavily, taking top slots in Sony's E3 presentations and making appearances on television months before it was to launch. When Heavenly Sword finally descended onto store shelves, reviews averaged out to a positive mark, though the range of praise spanned from "Perfection" to "disappointment."

As a bit of a 3D action game buff, I've always had my eye on Heavenly Sword, but I'm only just now playing it for the first time. I've got specific tastes in the genre: even God of War managed to disappoint me on some levels. Let's see if Heavenly Sword cuts it.

The First Hour also has a full review of Heavenly Sword if you're so taken.

Minute by Minute

(minutes are in bold)

00 - "The Final Battle." Nariko, the main character, stands before an enormous army. She narrates that she was to be a child of prophecy, though her mother's death upon Nariko's birth marked her as a curse.

01 - Press square or triangle to attack. The enemy soldiers aren't putting up much of a fight. A heart beats in the background while fighting. Pressing circle uses superstyle attacks, causing Nariko to launch an enemy in the air knock him around, and then land with her foot planted between his legs. I see we're not playing nice, Nariko.

02 - Cutscene! The sword appears to be taking over Nariko, its symbols spreading from the blade onto her body. She cowers and moans in pain. Apparently Nariko set this into motion days ago and is now paying the price. Her character model looks quite good especially her face. Too bad she just died. Game over!

03 - The land under her is shining, and Nariko awakes in what must be the afterlife. She slowly gets up to a crawl, looks directly into the camera, and begs to go back. If she doesn't, they will all die.

04 - Words appear. Chapter Select, Combo List, Features...is this the main menu? Yes! Might as well check the combo list. There are only five combos listed. Let's hope that number builds.

05 - Chapter 1. "The Art of Battle." Five Days Ago. Nariko the narrator tells us of Bohan, a king from a distant country who seeks the Heavenly Sword, not only for its power but because it will signify his dominance of hte land. Nariko's clan retreats into a fort. They are strong, but cannot run forever.

06 - Nariko and clansmen argue about what to do next, but are broken up by Nariko's father, Shen, who gives the order to barricade the doors. Enemy soldiers are running right up the fortress walls, pulling ladders behind them. Objective: Make your way towards hte rest of the clan.

07 - Press X to use objects: in this case, a ladder. L2 and R2 pan the camera left or right... which doesn't seem very useful. I jump down a ladder to some enemies. Fighting is as easy as mashing square and triangle, and Nariko will automatically block when not attacking. Use the right stick to evade.

08 - Build hit combos without taking damage to get glyph points, which unlock new combos. Mashing buttons help you recover more quickly. Wiped out this wave of enemies, so I guess I'll help out the clan members below.

09 - Jumped down ladder, "Help defeat bohan's soldiers." I do this by mashing square and triangle some more. Enemies seem to flash blue when attacking, so I just let Nariko block until their combo is finished and reply in kind.

10 - "Smash heavenly pots to restore health and earn glyph points." The enemies are all defeated! Cutscene. "Shen. He's always been a teacher first, and a father second." Guess he's not too fond of Nariko.

11 - Another wave approaches! When Nariko successfully blocks an attack, press triangle to counter attack. Success launches the enemy out of the way with a kick. Perfectly timed, it will kill the enemy. One kill counter causes Nariko to catch the opponent's leg and lets him have it right where it hurts. This game is not friendly to the fellas.

12 - One soldier calls, "You can't last forever, you know!" Counterattacks sometimes use cinematic closeup angles. One thing I've noticed is that when away from the enemy, Nariko will bound over to them before attacking. It reminds me of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Enemies can be attacked on the ground, square or triangle stabs them to finish them off. I try pressing X, and it seems to pick up a dropped enemy weapon. Another press throws the weapon.

13 - The fighting finishes, and the clansmen immediately start bickering again, blaming Nariko for this curse. Shen shifts blame to Bohan, and says the clan fights together or dies alone. I guess he doesn't exactly hate Nariko, anyway.

14 - Assassins are pproaching from the forest! Shen tells Kai, a very creepy-looking girl with her face painted like a cat, to climb the trees and shoot at any soldiers she sees. She obliges, saying she'll "play twing twang." Whatever, crazy girl! Nariko follows.

15 - "Night Attack." Kai readies her...weapon. It looks like some kind of arrow-firing tube. I have to stop Bohan's soldiers from reaching the fort. They run in from the forest into the entrance below, and I'm not supposed ot let them through. Left stick aims, square shoots. Arrows can be guided to their target using "Aftertouch," hold square and use Sixaxis to guide the shot.

16 - Someone's shooting at me! Let's aftertouch them. It's actually really hard to control this aftertouch thing with the sixaxis, wish I could just do it with the analog stick. I've killed four and missed one thus far. This is tough. They're coming from everywhere, and I can't aim low enough to hit them once they get close to door.

Heavenly Sword Nariko big fat Boss

17 - Not doing well. 6 killed, 9 missed. Now ten missed. Half of them are coming from the right, where I can't even aim at all. Guess I'm not expected to get all of them. It ends with seven shot and seventeen missed.

18 - Time for Nariko to intercept the remaining soldiers. New Artwork unlocked! 33 hit combo. A counterattack lets me snap someone's neck with my feet. Ain't no thang.

20 - Night Attack completed. One medal sits aside two empty slots. I guess each checkpoint is ranked? Kai and Nariko are laughing, relieved at battle's end. "You may collect the bodies of your men and give them a dignified burial!" Kind of hypocritical coming from the woman who specializes in smashing gonads.

21 - "All my life I've had a recurring dream." Nariko sleeps. Shen takes the heavenly sword and approaches a sleeping Nariko. He raises the sword above his head. "I desperately try to call out to him, but am silent." Kai watches, fearfully. The sword strikes down. Shen plants the sword in the ground, next to her. "But this night it wasn't a dream. The sword is now mine to protect. And my life will change forever." Sorry to bring the news, Nariko, but forever is apparently only going to last you a few days.

22 - "Four Days Ago." Shen needs you, Nariko! Nariko wakes in the middle of the fortress courtyard. I look around, but there's nothing to explore or find. "We don't have time to stand about, Nariko!" I climb up the ladder to the clansmen.

23 - "Bohan's reinforced his troops with catapaults!" says Shen. I'm to cover the clan's retreat to the west by defending the fort with a cannon, then make a break for the eastern cliffs to defend the sword myself! Kai wants to go with Nariko, but is taken by Shen. Strangely, the whole cutscene played out in first person.

24 - Looks like I have to shoot the three big towers rolling forward. Shooting them with cannonballs looks explosive, but they don't seem to be getting damaged much. Apparently I'm to hit the three weak points. I can use Aftertouch with the Sixaxis here, but it's not very accurate. The first catapault is taken out when all three weak points are hit.

25 - Time remaining: 2 minutes 30 seconds. Tiny adjustments are needed to hit the small weak points. It requires a lot of precision.

26 - Destroyed the second catapault, moving on to the third. A minute and change left on the clock.

27 - Got it! With 40 seconds remaining. Shen and the clan will make a break for it, and I'm to cover their backs with the cannon as they run across the frozen river. A counter appears: 700 soldiers remaining! That's a lot of guys to kill. It's kind of impressive how many of them there are.

28 - 63 kills already! The cannon has a wide area of explosion. Some soldiers are getting through because I can't aim any lower, but I'm still getting a lot. Up to 200!

29 - 450 now. New Artwork unlocked! New Artwork Unlocked...again! And boom, 700. Dawn Siege complete, two medals. More catapaults appear, so it's time to make a run for it.

30 - Time to run the path to the right. I pick up a wood block from a wagon and toss it at enemies, knocking them over. Back to fighting again. These guys aren't very skilled warriors, basically standing around waiting for me to kill them. Framerate seems to dip a lot, and I'm pretty sure its max is 30, which isn't great for a fast-paced action game. Maybe that's why the combat is so slow.

Heavenly Sword Nariko Slashing bad Guys

31 - "What the hell is happening!?" The enemy chatter is pretty good in this game. Sometimes they awkwardly attack by sliding at Nariko. It has a very strange timing to block.

32 - "Try not to hack her body to pieces when you bring it to me, men!" A bunch of shields sit in a storage crate, though throwing them does little damage. Even bodies can be picked up, complete with ridiculous-looking ragdol! Thrown objects can use aftertouch, and yes, you can do so with a dead body. It looks hilarious and completely unnatural.

33 - On the other hand, it's not easy to control. Shaking the whole controller just isn't very intuitive in action game like this. The Escape completed, two medals. Forest Ambush! Tougher enemies approach, some with shields. They block frequently, as expected.

34 - I'm really just not enjoying the combat in this game thus far. Attacks feel floaty and imprecise. Maybe it gets better when I actually use the Heavenly Sword.

35 - "She's just a savage!" No arguments there. New combos can be viewed in the pause menu, and I've unlocked a new speed combo. "Spiral Blade" is the combo of Triangle Square Triangle. Not really noticing anything special about it. New artwork unlocked.

36 - Still running along the cliffside path. One soldier spots me from afar and runs away. He closes the gate behind him by hitting the gong. "That sword don't make you special! I've got a sword, and I ain't special!" Threw a sword at him, and he's dead. Threw another at the gong, and the gate opens. What an odd mechanism for opening a gate.

37 - "Forest Ambush" completed. "Heavenly Sword" is next chapter. Nariko runs to a bridge, but it suddenly collapses! I've noticed that Nariko's clothing hangs really unnaturally, especially the little cloth near her ankle that sticks almost straight out for a foot or so. Her hair isn't much better, floating around her head as she turns. A swarm of soldiers approaches from behind.

38 - Shen has been captured! Bohan offers to take away the burden of the Heavenly Sword, though Shen says to leave. "Perhaps I'm not making myself clear: I have something of yours, and you have something of mine!" says Bohan, with a hilarious expression on his face!

39 - Nariko takes out the heavenly sword and looks at it. "Every lifetime has one moment. You stand alone and you see it all so clearly. To save my father's life, I betray his whole reason for living. I know it's death I'm holding now. Did I ever have a choice?" Nariko wields the Heavenly Sword, ready for battle. She looks confident, even a bit cocky.

40 - It seems the Heavenly Sword can be used in 3 stances: speed, range and power. Speed is quick and does moderate damage. When knocked into the air, Nariko can recover and attack the enemy, but before I could see how, the tutorial went away and Nariko counterattacked. I think it's done by waggling the controller.

41 - An enemy with blue aura is using a speed attack, which is blocked in speed stance, which is the standard so I guess I don't have to press anything to block those. In ranged stance, used by holding L1, Nariko attacks multiple enemies at a distance but does little damage. The two blades of the Heavenly Sword are attached by chains. Could Nariko be the Goddess of War?

42 - One medal accumulated, though I'm still not sure how I'm getting these. Using combos earns style poiints and powers up superstyle attacks, activated by pressing circle. Nariko wraps her legs around the enemy's torso, beats the hell out of him, and snaps his neck. Classy.

43 - Bohan is still taunting from the background. I'm having a tough time breaking the enemy's guard, and the disappointment of repetition is definitely setting in. The combo list has a block breaker listed in speed stance, so I guess I'll try it.

44 - In power stance (hold R1), Nariko's attacks are powerful but slow. The two blades of the Heavenly Sword are connected into one huge weapon in power stance. Power attacks seem to guard break much better, and aren't really that much slower.

Heavenly Sword Army

45 - Yep, power seems the most useful as a combo starter, pushing enemies off their guard for subsequent hits. Some enemies attack with gold auras, which can only be guarded with the power stance. Ranged style attacks keep enemies at bay but seem to do little damage.

46 - Let's check the combo list. There are only two ranged combinations, so that's disappointing.

47 - Sometimes the camera angle is too low, and Nariko gets lost in the crowd

48 - Still fighting more soldiers. Let's check the combo list again. Aerial combos knock enemies into the air, where you can apply serious damage. Hold L1 and press Triangle to get them into the air.

49 - Before I can try it out, a cutscene plays. The creepy Bohan really likes the Heavenly Sword now that he's seen it in action. He hits Shen, Nariko screams, and Bohan screams right back at her, mockingly! Nariko ponders that, if what is written is true, the sword's power is so great it will kill her simply for wielding it. She is now a ghost of flesh and blood. Or was she before? She jumps into the river, fleeing.

50 - Three Days Ago. We're back to the afterlife, where Nariko is begging to the camera again. "What have you done to me, what have I become? You've turned me into a killer!" A sword statue raises from the ground with glowing notches in it. We're in the main menu again! Each big sword is a chapter and the notches are each checkpoint within.

51 - Chapter 2. "Bird or worms?" Kai asks. Nariko awakens, and Kai says Shen and the other clansmen have been captured. She really reminds me of Gollum, truly a creepy little girl. She ate the worm!

52 - Nariko stands upon the side of the mountain, looking at the temple below. Shen and the other clansmen are being taken inside.

53 - Nariko tells Kai to keep watch here until Nariko returns with the clansmen. A glowing ball sits next to big rope, and going near it triggers a quick time event. Nariko runs down a huge rope towards an enormous column, evading cut ropes and slamming into an enemy.

54 - Now we're fighting on the huge pillar. New power combos unlocked: Hell's Envy and Hell's Wrath.

55 - Still fighting on this pillar. Once all the enemies are killed, Nariko cuts the rope.

56 - The whole column comes crashing down into the temple square! Lots of enemies approach for the slaughter. There are lots of little destructible debris scattered about.

57 - The standard combat is pretty boring, so I'll try an aerial combo. Guess I have to shake the controller to follow launched enemies. Once in air, the camera pans to Nariko, floating and twirling with blades. It looks unnatural but still kind of graceful. Less graceful is the controller shaking needed to chase airborne enemies.

58 - Stabbing enemies on the ground doesn't seem to work most of the time. Big guys with axes come in and use power attacks. Guess they're the next echelon of bad dudes past the shield soldiers.

60 - A red aura indicates an enemy using an unblockable attack, use right stick to evade. New artwork unlocked. The battle continues, though the first hour is over.

Heavenly Sword Bohan

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 1 to warmup battle, 6 to real action. Note, there is a mandatory installation beforehand that lasts about five minutes.

What I liked: There are a few little things that make Heavenly Sword feel special, chief among them the narrative presentation. The story framing, starting with Nariko's death, is something rarely seen in games, and it seems like it will lead somewhere good based on the first hour. The cutscenes are quite unique, shifting from first-person as Nariko, first-person watching Nariko, and third person. And the characters are quite enjoyable: Nariko already feels more well-rounded than most video game heroines. In the course of the first hour, she's mostly shown her serious side, but also pleaded weakly in the afterlife, laughed in relief with cat girl Kai after battle, and shown some flare of confidence in combat. It seems like a hodge-podge doomed to failure in writing, but it actually works in practice. Even more impressive is the hilarious King Bohan, who is quite simply unlike anything I've ever seen in a game. To fill his crown, Ninja Theory sprang for Anthony Serkis, an experienced motion capture actor made famous by his portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, and it shows: King Bohan's voice and facial animation are exaggerated and hilarious, yet still more believable than most game characters.

What I didn't like: The combat is mediocre at best. Anyone hoping for an excellent action romp on the level of God of War, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, or Bayonetta will be disappointed with Heavenly Sword. There are a few interesting ideas, like the instantaneous changing of fighting style, the waggle for aerial combos, and the Aftertouch projectile system, but none of them really work. The sluggish feeling of Nariko's attacks doesn't go away even when the Heavenly Sword is acquired, and the game succumbs to the fate of a button masher with some peripheral abilities that aren't especially useful or fun.

Video: The East-Asian trappings, strong colors, and bloom lighting are nice, and the sheer number of troops during the cannon defense sequence was impressive. Less so was the framerate, which feels incredibly sluggish for an action game, and screen-tearing rears its ugly head often. Character models are mostly acceptable, though Nariko's weightless chunks of hair and clothing keep her from escaping the uncanny valley.

Audio: As is the trend with game tunes in the HD era, all the musical stylings are fitting but unmemorable. The voice acting, on the other hand, is impressive all-around, headlined by Anthony Serkis' over-the-top King Bohan.

Story: A unique framing device and some solid characters give Heavenly Sword the only real leg up it has over its action game contemporaries.

Gameplay: Action games live and die by their combat, so it's fitting that Heavenly Sword kills off its main character a few minutes after starting.

Pacing: Thankfully, Nariko's swordsmanship is broken up by plenty of checkpoints and decent side attractions like shooting cannonballs and arrows. Not that those side dishes are especially good, but sometimes you need a break from mashing square and triangle. Load times are a bit more frequent and extensive than a game with a mandatory installation should allow.

Challenge: The biggest challenge is staving off boredom while enemies simply stand around and block your attacks. I'm not even sure if the game has a life meter, because I sure wasn't watching it.

Fun Factor: If you don't mind the pedestrian combat, Heavenly Sword provides an unconventional combination of narrative styles that may surprise you.

Would I keep playing? Yes, but barely. I want to see what King Bohan does next, and I'll plod through Nariko's muddy swordplay if need be.

Heavenly Sword Nariko art Twin Blades

Words from beyond the First Hour: I've made it through another hour or so, and I'm thinking about shelving Heavenly Sword for good. Bohan and his cronies are wildly flamboyant, perhaps too much so. It's entertaining for sure, but also sort of off-putting in the context of the game. These bumbling loons are feared generals and conquerors of Nariko's proud clan? Ridiculous, but I'll allow it, because it makes me laugh. On the other hand, the combat is simply...too simple. There are some frustrating quick time events that aren't needed at all, and the boss battles feel hardly different than the standard blade fodder; they're just quicker and do more damage. I may go further still, but it's a bad sign when you're thankful that other reviews have noted how short the game is.