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PS3 Fanboy review: Heavenly Sword

    Sony has recently started up their holiday blitz by releasing three highly anticipated games for the PlayStation 3; Warhawk, Lair, and Heavenly Sword. While Warhawk was released to almost universal praise, Lair was largely met with torches and pitchforks. So where does Heavenly Sword fall? Does it achieve the soaring greatness of Warhawk or is it doomed to languish in the used sales bin at your local videogame store like Lair?

    Gallery: Heavenly Sword

    When talking about Heavenly Sword, it's hard not to bring up SCEA's fantastic God of War series. From the very first glimpses at Heavenly Sword the comparison has been drawn and while it's not really fair they do share some similarities. Both Kratos and Nariko have short blades attached to chains that they swing about like a Benihana chef on crack, they both have surprisingly deep combo systems, and both games use quick time events (QTE) for cinematic action scenes. Outside of those similarities though, Heavenly Sword manages to create its own unique experience that brings to mind God of War no more so than any combat heavy fantasy-based brawler.

    While some people have complained about the lack of depth or complexity in Heavenly Sword's combo system, their issues are largely unfounded. Nariko has three different stances (ranged, speed, and heavy) which changes the weapon she's wielding as well as the combos that she has available to her. The combos aren't meaningless either, it's important to know which attacks stun defensive foes, launches them into the air, or are completely unblockable. And while it is possible to button mash your way through the game, you're in for a much harder experience than if you learn the complexities of the combo system.

    Adding further depth to the gameplay, the stances do more than just give you access to different combos. Each stance has specific strengths and weaknesses making them useful in certain situations and worthless in others. For example, to block an attack you simply need to be in the same stance as the type of incoming attack (indicated by the color of the weapon trails). As long as you're not in the middle of some action, you'll automatically block the attack. Sounds simple right? Well it gets more complex as the game throws dozens of enemies at you all using different types of attacks at the same time. Suddenly you find yourself switching between the different stances and hammering out a wide variety of combos and moves as you dance in an out of the crowd, picking off fighters while avoiding incoming attacks. What could simply be a mash-fest turns into an elegant and intense ballet of death.

    Other aspects of the gameplay includes an entertaining and violent counter system, single button fatalities called 'Superstyle moves' (complete with over-the-top cinematics of Nariko gutting some poor soul in a unique and satisfying way), and the aforementioned quicktime events where you are prompted to press certain buttons during cinematic sequences to navigate a certain part of a level or kill a major enemy. While none of these features are particularly unique they help flesh out the combat system and keeps things lively.

    Speaking of keeping things lively, Heavenly Sword tosses in some of the most satisfying Sixaxis gameplay in a PS3 game yet. Using the motion controls you control projectiles (including bodies, dropped weapons, shields and rockets) by tilting the controller left or right or up or down. It works pretty well once you get the hang of it and it's unbelievably satisfying to nail a catapult with a cannonball from four miles away.

    That's why it's such a shame that your initial impression of this feature via Nariko's sister Kai's first level. You are tasked with using her automatic crossbow to fend off waves of warriors invading a fort. The learning curve is vicious at first and you rarely get a nice clean shot at the nonstop flood of enemies. It's frustrating, poorly done and obnoxious -- to the point where I almost quit playing. But at least once you get past that level you'll rarely get in the situation where the motion controls annoy you. *cough* Lair *cough*

    Graphically, Heavenly Sword is absolutely mind-blowing, ranking right up there with Gears of War as the example of what a next-gen console can truly do. This is easily one of the best looking PS3 games out there right now, if not the very best. The environments are huge and expansive (even though your path is highly linear) and the game has some beautiful HDR lighting effects. The beautiful environments and effects come at a cost though, you will run into occasional framerate hitches and wider vistas will cause some v-sync issues. Neither are horrible, but they're worth noting.

    One spot where the game really stands out is its absolutely fantastic animation system. Cutscenes in particular are gorgeously animated thanks to fantastic motion-capture work by Andy Serkis (he of Gollum fame). It's so good that it's slightly unsettling at first -- it's like watching a real person move around. The animation during gameplay is no slouch either, with Nariko displaying the perfect balance of grace and power. Enemies are animated well also, but they get more or less the basic treatment.

    Character models in Heavenly Sword look quite good too, though as you'd expect Nariko and the bosses get the most love in that department. Nariko in particular looks absolutely exquisite. She will go down in videogame history as having the most lovingly rendered belly button of all time. She's also just straight hot, though not in the gratuitous and jiggle-luscious way that Rachel from Ninja Gaiden: Sigma.

    Speaking of that, it's worth noting that even though Nariko is clearly designed to be an attractive woman (and the fact that she's not wearing a whole lot) the game never comes across as pandering to 15-year-old boys or whoring her out as nothing more than a piece of eye candy. She doesn't jiggle, there are rarely any gratuitous panty shots and she never uses her sexiness in some stereotypical femme fatal way. She's a warrior and a conflicted human being first, a sex symbol a distant second. While this may not seem like much of a plus to some people, it's satisfying to see game developers create intelligent female main characters who do more than pander to the baser instincts of the gamer.

    As great as the graphics are in Heavenly Sword, and as satisfying as the gameplay is -- where it really succeeds is its Hollywood-worthy story. Written by Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of Terry Pratchett (one of the most successful and prolific fantasy writers of our time), the story is equal parts engaging, poignant, and surprisingly comedic. Part of what makes the story so engaging is how good the voice acting is. Nariko is voiced to perfection by Anna Torv, lending Nariko the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength.

    The person who steals the show though is easily Andy Serkis' character King Bohan (the main villain). Serkis gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as both the voice and the body (via mo-cap) of Bohan. Unlike most villains, King Bohan has a surprising amount of texture to his personality and watching the cutscenes with him in them is an absolute treat.

    As good as Heavenly Sword is though, it has one serious shortcoming -- its length. It took me about eight hours to beat it and another two hours to unlock some of the additional content I had missed. Once you've beaten the game you also unlock a Hell difficulty, but there's little reason to come back and play it more than once or twice. And there's the rub, for $60 dollars you get a fantastic game with a wonderful story and some of the best graphics on the PS3, but it's over almost before it begins and that's just a damn shame. Heavenly Sword still comes highly recommended, but its brief length drops its score fairly significantly. Still, even if you just rent it, you owe it to yourself to play Heavenly Sword -- while it lasts it's easily one of the most entertaining games out on the PS3 right now.

    PS3 Fanboy Score: 8.0

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    Reader Comments

    (Page 1)

    1. A fair score. I would rate it an 8 as well. Yes it;s short but you can easily play it again and have a totally different experience because you use a different fighting style.

    And besides the way the story is told is magnificent.

    Posted at 7:30PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Egster

    2. totally agree with the score.
    HS, though not a game of "epic length", makes up for it with its "epic scope". i don't know about the rest of you, but i'd rather play an amazing 8 hour game than a mediocre 20+ hour game.

    Posted at 7:40PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Solace

    3. This game really ruined all in-game cutscenes for me. The Halo 3 cutscenes look and sound like a joke next to this. Heavenly Sword raised the bar so high I don't believe anyone will match, let alone surpass them for years to come. "Negative, we're going down." Oi, if you've heard that in the beginning of the Halo 3 campaign then you feel my pain.

    Posted at 7:40PM on Sep 26th 2007 by HektikLyfe

    4. i don't understand why Heavenlt Sword is fingered out for a short lengthed game and lose points because of this, while other games like Bioshock and Halo 3 are very short as well & no one mentions this. (though H3 does have online). I think that rating a game should ONLY be based on the games content (graphics, gameplay, sound, story)

    Posted at 7:45PM on Sep 26th 2007 by rogue01

    5. Thank you for one of the first just and unbiased review of this fantastic piece of game artwork!

    Posted at 7:46PM on Sep 26th 2007 by T Hancock

    6. rogue01: bioshock wasn't THAT short.

    Posted at 7:54PM on Sep 26th 2007 by sinergy

    7. I'm sold! I'm buying this.

    Posted at 7:56PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Random1448

    8. I don't know if you should penalize this game that much for its length. The gameplay really is *fantastic* and I would think it was Gears of War length. 8 hours is pretty quick, it probably took me 10-12. You just can't stress enough the quality of the visuals and how seamless it all is together. By giving it an 8 I think most people will think there is something 'wrong' with it. I'd give it a 9 with an afternote about length. It really didn't feel short.

    Posted at 8:04PM on Sep 26th 2007 by pizzanerd

    9. 8 is a perfect fit for the game. I absolutely loved this game, but finishing it around 6 to 6 and a half hours is just too short. The fact that all the unlockables came out a few weeks before the game's release didn't help either.

    For those comparing this game to Halo, Gears, and Bioshock get a clue. I hate the X-Bot but even I understand this simple concept. Gears, and Halo have fantastic online play (supposedly) and Bioshock clocks in around 15-20 hours. 6-7 hours for ONE run through of the game is just too short. Sure you can play it on a harder level, but you can do that with most games too, so quit with the comparisons already.

    Fantastic game deserving of an 8.0

    Posted at 8:19PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Stoph

    10. Well, I guess it might be about time to stop putting off buying a PS3. With Warhawk and Heavenly Sword there are now a couple decent/good games out, and at least some more decent/good looking ones in the near future.

    Also, I should note that the short length of HS actually APPEALS to me. As a medical student I play maybe 2 hours of games per week, if that.

    Posted at 8:22PM on Sep 26th 2007 by doc j

    11. @ solace
    I agreed with you at the ps blog and I agree with you now. Depth is better then length. Just like a movie you can have a 4 hour movie full of crap or a beautiful 2 hour movie, you pick.

    Posted at 8:31PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Ruben

    12. It looks like everyone agrees that it is a great game that is just a lil short and need better puzzles. I hope they make a sequel.

    Posted at 8:35PM on Sep 26th 2007 by ruibing

    13. it seems that this is the theme for this gen games:
    short but sweet. production costs are through the roof, yet there's few people and time to do it all.

    Posted at 8:55PM on Sep 26th 2007 by ryano

    14. beat gears of war in a little over 6 hours. the story had holes in it. the commercials had me thinking it would be rich in story
    (i kind of was sold by the song they had, i did the same thing for KH1. weird :|). the graphics i think was saved on the art style, character models look good, but the opening level to resistance did the same for me too. i guess the gameplay was what won people over but then again gears was a shooter, HS isnt.

    Posted at 9:04PM on Sep 26th 2007 by MYPS3KilledMy360

    15. @pizzanerd: I don't understand what you mean by "people will think there's something wrong with it." what exactly is wrong with an 8? are these people who were beaten, and spanked by their parents for getting B's in school? an 8 is a perfectly respectable score.
    i guess i just don't understand the mentality of people who think all games that aren't 9's or above are trash and not worth buying, or in some cases even playing. Over on IGN Heavenly Sword got a 7 (i thought it was a bit low) and every other comment on the review board was about how "Sony was doomed!" or "Thats the final nail in Sony's coffin" or worse. One hyped game with only decent reviews isn't the end. This game accomplished things that some shallow people will never get to experience simply because its not an average rating of 9+

    Posted at 9:09PM on Sep 26th 2007 by proArchy

    16. I'd give it an 8.5 (as much as I love it, 9 is really reaching for a combat game like this), but I really enjoy the combat. I always felt like I could take out enemies in cooler ways, which was inspiration to try. That and the final confrontation with Bohan, the setting is amazing and the variety in his attacks, while somewhat patterned, is very impressive. He does basically everything an enemy does before that.

    The length of the game wasn't an issue for me, even if I did want to play more of it. It has good pacing that's appropriate for the story. It never felt like it was dragging, and I give it more credit for never making me say "Isn't this part over yet?" than for being longer, however enjoyable it was. Do I want it to be longer? Yes, but not at the cost of slowing it down.

    Posted at 9:13PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Trev

    17. This game absolutely blew me away in every way, its a masterpiece in my opinion, the length kinda sucks but it just didnt get to me that much because the rest of the game is just that good.
    I loved the graphics especially in part 2 of the final bohan fight, my jaw literally dropped, brilliant game that everyone should play.

    Posted at 9:14PM on Sep 26th 2007 by kmo

    18. This is a great review, and I am very glad that Colin brought up the feminine/sexuality issue, because I feel this is a very strong feat of this title.

    I personally like shorter games. It will take me at least 20 hours to finish this. If it only took me 8 hours I would play it again and again, just to enjoy the story and graphics. I like games that I can play from start to finish in a short time, like reading a book, but even 8 hours is too long.

    So I'm glad I rented this from Gamefly! (It hasn't been sent yet, because it's so low on availability... oh well, Skate's in the mail!)

    Posted at 9:51PM on Sep 26th 2007 by John

    19. The graphics are stunning. It was the most fum I've had in a long time on a console. The flow was great and mostly non-repetitive, until the boss battle hordes came in. But it was still fun to beat them. To me, whoever beat this in 8 hours is a wiz or they didn't make it hard enough on the first round. I know I'll be playing this longer than 8 hours. I'll also let a few of my friends play this. It will sell systems to a few of my friends anyway. This game is a must have AND KEEP for any PS3 owners library.

    I'll give it a 9.3 based on the OMFRKINGOD factor. If you have to knock a beautiful game on the length it took you beat it to unlock a harder version, why are you knocking it on unreplayabiliy?

    Even HALO 3 is too easy and short to play SP on normal, that doesn't seem to get the knock!!! WHy HS?!?

    Posted at 10:28PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Matt B (SDF )

    20. The problem with the game is that when you finish it... it's pretty much over. As far as the unlockables go, all of the animes and featurettes are (to my knowledge) identical to the ones released on the PSN. While I enjoyed playing through the game (over the period of a week), there isn't anything compelling to make you replay it once you beat it.

    If only they'd done some unlockable costumes or characters, it would have made another playthrough worth it. The only unlockables I've missed are in the art gallery, and frankly... *shrugs*

    Posted at 10:41PM on Sep 26th 2007 by Mike M.

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