Heavenly Sword was once the PS3's flagship title. Released to a stupendous Hullabaloo back in 2007 it didn't have the massive impact that was expected and duly faded into platinum.
The question is, why? Heavenly Sword was effectively the PS3's answer to God of War, complete with next gen graphics and state of the art motion capture. The cut scene graphics are tremendous, rivalling anything being released right now. The backdrops, character design and animation are all state-of-the-art. The motion capture performances were directed by Andy Serkis of Gollum and Kong fame and the cast, including Steven Berkoff and Anna Torv, really deliver high quality performances. Torv is a powerhouse as the lead character Nariko and Berkoff slimes wonderfully as General Flying Fox. This level of commitment back in 2007 really set a precedent which has paid off in titles such as Unchartered and Batman:Arkham Asylum
The in-game graphics and animation are fantastic too. Throw in a epic orchestra score and you have a winner. Assuming the gameplay is up to scratch, of course.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is Heavenly Sword's Achilles heel. This is a third person slasher that overcomplicates itself. Nariko gains the Heavenly Sword early in the game - a weapon unique for its awesome power and desperately desired by the evil King Bohan (Serkis). The story effectively charts Nariko's goal of keeping the sword from Bohan by systematically polishing off his three boss henchmen and, ultimately, him.
When wielding the Heavenly Sword, Nariko has three styles of attack - a speed, ranged and power stance. Each stance is indicated by a colour, blue yellow and orange. She can block an attack from an opponent but only if she is in the correct stance. If an opponent attacks Nariko with a speed attack whilst she is in a power stance, she will be fail to block the attack. If she is in the correct stance, she will automatically block and have the opportunity to counter. Red attacks are unblockable.
For a slasher, this is a complicated combat system and the game throws you straight in at the deep end. immediately you are surrounded by hordes of opponents who attack in different stances at the same time and repeatedly block your attacks. You cannot defend against a blue attack and a yellow attack at the same time and, in the heat of battle, yellow and orange aren't dissimilar. Ultimately, combat intended to be a matter of skill becomes an orgy of button mashing. Also, when a group of enemies is whittled down to one - the lone survivor's abilities suddenly improve. The could have been avoided with graduated level design - perhaps increasing the clutter of opponents more slowly and introducing opponents who can block later in the game as was done with Batman:Arkham Asylum. Also, there is not a huge amount of imagination in the combinations of opponents thrown at you. Later in the game you are introduced to hammer wielding enemy. Shortly after, you face four at the same time. Then six and so-on.
Bizarrely, Nariko cannot jump. Certain sections in the game require a gong to struck to open doors and gates. For dynamic reasons, this cannot be done by hand, it has to be done by flinging a shield at it and using SIXAXIS to steer the shield to it's target in slow motion. I have never been convinced by SIXAXIS and always considered it a gimmick and uncomfortable to use. Unfotunately, there is no option to use the stick as an alternative.
During the game, key targets have to be struck using SIXAXIS, even when Nariko is right next to them. But, because she cannot jump, she cannot reach them by hand.
Another gripe is the lack of am adjustable camera view. You can use L2 & R2 to tweak the camera left and right, but there is no button to hold to allow you to free look around you. During combat this is a pain as you cannot see where your enemies are and are forced to run around in circles until there are in front of you.
Accompanying Nariko is the childlike archer, Kai. Kai's missions are virtually all sniper missions and require extensive use of SIXAXIS to steer the arrows into targets. By this time, however, there is a good chance you will have got used to the control system and there is much fun to be had steering an arrow through a lit torch and into a barred room full of fireworks. On the minus side, any enemies Kai doesn't hit will attack her hand-to-hand and she has no melee attack. Instead you are forced to vault over their backs, run in the opposite direction, turn around and take a few more pot shots. With certain opponents you find yourself running up and down a corridoor until you hit them in the right spot. The inclusion of a simple weak melee attack would have easily resolved this.
The boss fights are okay. There is a standard three wave attack pattern interspersed with key button presses to lead to a cut scene finish. Some are easy, some are harder. Practised gamers will not be over exterted and in-game tips are given, although it must be mentioned that the tips box remains on screen for a long time while you are still playing, obscuring the action.
Overall, Heavenly Sword aimed for the stars and hit the moon. The presentation is 5 star, the gameplay more like three. I get the impression the developers would rather have been making a movie than a game. Tellingly, there are no plans for Heavenly Sword 2. Still, for all it's flaws it's a still a lot of fun and, for the current price, tremendous value.