Heavenly Sword is all about… well, a heavenly sword! The sword is said to be an ancient and mystical weapon that is supposedly the only defense against great evil. According to prophecy, when the time was right a male heir would take up the blade. But whoever wields the godly blade will be cursed, as it will sap the life of the one that binds its power. When a daughter was born instead of a boy, the clan despairs. Beautiful Nariko is looked upon with disdain, as if her birth is a portent of doom. Her father, the clan’s patriarch raised her to be a deadly warrior all the same for he knew no better...
Enter the aforementioned evil in the form of King Bohan, a sociopathic despot who desires the sword for his own ends. He sends his massive army against the small clan, prepared to wipe them out. Nariko and her father battle with their clansmen against the King’s forces, but they are too many. In a last desperate attempt to save her people Nariko takes up the sword, and succumbs to the curse. The blade will slowly kill her; she has little time to face Bohan's hordes.
Now Nariko must protect the blade from Bohan’s evil clutches. She is helped by the orphan Kai, a young women you will take control of for certain sections of the game. Her missions involve ‘Sniping’ sections with her arrow gun. Kai is… peculiar to say the least. She’s a few trees short of a forest, a few cans short of a six pack… you get the idea. But when you find out why… well, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a game character. But Nariko needs her aid, and she’s good at "Twing-twang!"
This game is full of inspired performances and good writing. The incomparable Andy Serkis not only plays King Bohan, but also helped to write the story. Bohan’s lieutenants are very well done, with some memorable characters and more great voice acting. Because of the great cast and some pretty good facial animations, a fairly lame story becomes an emotionally charged tale where the characters are well developed. As you learn the secrets of Nariko’s painful past, or how Kai ended up as she is, you really feel for them.
However, you might notice how familiar the combat feels. Let’s not beat about the bush here… the combat in Heavenly Sword is very obviously influenced (if not completely ripped off) from God of War. It ain’t subtle, I’ll say that… but I’ll also say that it’s quite responsive and enjoyable. You mix light and heavy attacks to form combos in the same way. There are multiple forms the sword can take. The two-bladed style is the balanced version or they can combine for the slower but more powerful big single blade. Then there is the ‘Ranged’ mode, where the dual blades are on chains for weak, yet fast and reaching attacks. It’s a good idea to experiment with the different tactics to find what works against certain enemies. But yeah, in the end you can't help but feel like you're playing a God of War clone. Still, it’s pretty fun so I don’t mind nearly so much.
But what I love most about Heavenly Sword are the few sections of the game where you get to fire projectiles that you can then steer. This ‘Aftertouch’ has been used in other games (Dark Sector anyone? Hello? Anyone?), but basically you use the Six-axis technology on the PS3 controller (rudimentary motion control for those of you who don't know) to control the projectile in flight, guiding it into the target like a cruise missile. Driving one of Kai's arrows around a corner, over a barrel and back into the bad guy’s forehead is immensely satisfying. It’s good fun, but I recommend turning off the Six-axis stuff and just using the controller normally, otherwise you’ll end up banging your head against the wall. I always felt like the Six-axis technology never worked well, and was a gimmick at best.
Graphically, Heavenly Sword is middle of the road, nothing particularly special but certainly not bad either. The environments look great, but I did have some lag issues, especially when there was a lot of action on a crowded battlefield. There is some impressive motion capture, especially facial expressions… how much of this is Andy Serkis I don’t know, but at the time it was top tier.
I’m trying to think of a game with better voicework, but I may be destined to fail. For such a small, relatively obscure title, Heavenly Sword has a truly wonderful cast. Andy Serkis makes the game as he lends his voice and wit to the role of the evil ruler King Bohan. Lydia Bakish, who does Kai, is excellent as well. The score is great and it enhances the atmosphere, as do the sound effects.
But despite the brilliance of the cast there are other issues with Heavenly Sword beyond the ripped-off combat mechanics. The boss battles always felt a bit contrived to me. This is a downer because Bohan’s entourage is more than a little quirky. In the end, they are all the old-school, garden variety, pattern bosses where you learn their moves, then wait patiently, dodging everything for your turn to get a hit in and slowly whittle them down. Not terribly challenging, not terribly engaging either...unless it becomes down right frustrating, which the final boss definitely is…
There are a fair number of random ‘Quicktime’ events in Heavenly Sword that come out of left field. While QTE works in some games, in Heavenly Sword they ask too much. Your reaction times will have to be superhuman to get them right on the first go. Plus, they tend to rear their ugly heads during climactic boss battles. In these, the QTE’s become quite frustrating since you are usually concentrating on your chance to break the pattern of the boss, you’ll wind up missing the prompt all together.
But sadly, my biggest complaint with Heavenly Sword is not its lack of originality, but rather that the experience is over far too quickly. It’s really short… even by modern standards. Normally, I’m not one to complain about game length, but this is one case where they could have expanded it just a bit and it would have been beneficial rather than becoming predictable and repetitive. Sure, most of the fights were against the same generic enemies, but I still had a good laugh bludgeoning the poor fools by the hundreds. The game is so short that the tension of the tale never really develops. It could have been really engaging if only it had a bit more time to mature.
Heavenly Sword is an unapologetic, almost brazen imitation of God of War. Nariko was immediately branded as a female version of Kratos, and the gameplay besmirched as a direct copy. While there is some truth to that, I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from playing it. I think it has enough personality to stands on it’s own two feet. It’s a fun, if short, game with a wonderful cast. Put it another way… if you liked God of War and can get past the fact that it "borrows" a lot from that franchise, then you might enjoy Heavenly Sword. I did…
Score = 7.5 / 10