Review: Heavenly Sword – Ninja Theory – PS3

The next game in the Fast Games series is Heavenly Sword, released by Ninja Theory on the PS3 way back in 2007. As usual, I picked this one up years ago. September 2009 in this case, shortly after I got my PS3. Marouda and I both took turns playing this one when we first got it, and at the time it looked great and was a lot of fun. We stopped playing for no reason in particular, and the game went back into the library, but always one of the games near the front of the shelf, since I’ve always wanted to get back to it.

Playing it now, it seems to be a bit shallow on the gameplay and long-winded in the cutscenes. Perhaps I’m less patient now, or perhaps I was just keen to play it whenever she had the controller. Gameplay is prety much 2-button-mashing Single-player-only-Dynasty-Warriors-Lite for almost the entire first chapter. (There are 5 “proper” chapters + a boss fight). Once you start to use the sword at the end of Chapter 1 the combat opens up a lot and becomes more interesting, though it still feels both dated and very DW. Yes, I’ve been spoiled by Arkham and Shadows of Mordor. It’s very button-mashy.

The PS3’s loose thumbsticks are horrible when it comes to the shooting sequences (I vastly prefer the 360 controller to the plasticky cheap feeling POS that of the PS3 controller – thank god the PS4 is such an improvement, though I do still prefer the XBox thumbstick placement), and there’s some gimmicky aftertouch bullshit in the shooting controls as well which soon becomes central to the gameplay progression, but the initial shooting sequences are a waste of time. My solution for the awful crossbow scene early in the game was to literally put the controller down and wait for it to finish so I could get back to the game’s Milkshake – which is obviously the choppy-choppy action. I’m all for mixing up gameplay, but I like it to, you know, be good. The later cannon sections are a little better (though they pretty much entirely rely on the sixaxis aftertouch gimmick), but it’s still sub-par compared to similar stuff I’ve done in World of Warcraft of all things.

Sadly, the game keeps doing this, with the game being incredibly keen for me to pick up barrels and boxes and shields and throw them at my enemies while utilising the badly-done gimmicky aftertouch controls. Sadly, the shield-throwing is mandatory through much of the game since Nariko needs to hit endless little round gongs and shields to open doors, destroy siege engines, and unpuzzle puzzles. Unfortunately, it’s tedious at best and frustrating at worst, since the enforced camera angles (shades of Onimusha and Devil May Cry) make it difficult to judge which way Nariko is facing, and so her throws can be right out, and not fixable with sixaxis waggle.

Heavenly Sword showing its Dynasty Warriors-inspired combat.

Visually, the game is nothing to write home about. It looks okay, and I’m aware that it’s from early in the previous generation of consoles, but the identi-cloned enemies, noticable aliasing (another PS3 bugbear of mine) and older graphics make it feel like a late-gen PS2 game a lot of the time. At the same time, some of the things like the splash screens and the pre-rendered cinematics are very well done, and could almost pass for some of the current crop of cross-gen PS4 games. Likewise, the environments vary from slightly-better-than-PS2 right up to quite indeed, on a par with games like AC2/Brotherhood – though obviously far less expansive or interactive.

Character design is pretty average. Half naked hot chick and crazy younger (half-sister?) is pretty much a usual trope, except they’re running around half-naked in the snow. Her outfit isn’t quite as incongruous in Chapter 2 and later levels, though the point still remains that this was the clothing worn at home, in the snow.

Much of the reception when this game came out seems to have been based around how hot the main character Nariko is. Amusingly, I found this out when I was looking at info about the length of this game, mixed in amongst oh so many of the complaints about the length were people including how hot Nariko is amongst the “it’s so replayable” justifications. It just makes me /facepalm and laugh in equal measure. I don’t agree with everything that Sarkeesian says by any stretch of the imagination, but she does have some good points in there, and this game’s character design and fanbase seem to be amongst those points. I’m fine with Nariko being unrealistically pretty (Jude Law as Vasilli Zaitsev, anyone?) but her outfit only covers half of her arse. I mean – Come on, guys.

They did a good job with the splash screen character (face) model.

I’ve seen this game described as an “interactive movie” and while that description isn’t accurate or fair to either the game or films in general, it’s accurate to say that the story is pushed strongly, almost over gameplay. While the story is pretty thin and trope-ridden, the cutscenes and voice acting (in some cases) were enough to keep me interested. Interestingly, Nariko’s father speaks with a typical grizzled Asian man videogame accent, while she and Kai (the crazy “little sister/catgirl character) speak with (different) English accents. Because fantasy, I guess. Kai also seems to be somewhat based on Smeagol (not Gollum) which I’m not sure is coincidental, given that Andy Serkis plays the Big Bad – and provides many of the game’s best moments via sarcastically fun cutscene acting. Later on, of course, Nariko’s father seems to have dropped his Asian-ish accent in favour of a more British one.

Have I mentioned Quicktime events yet? In case it’s not clear, I find them really fucking annoying, and whoever thought it would be a good idea to have them incorporated into the boss fights needs to be set on fire. Likewise, Quicktime events to open gates and climb mountainsides are equally shitty. I get it that designers seem them as a way to incorporate some cool cutscenes and stuff that might not be possible via normal gameplay, but they’re just not gameplay. If you must have them, just have a single X prompt and then run your “cool” animation so I can concentrate on watching it and not the screen for the next prompt when I need to press Square or Circle or Y or B or Up or whatever. I think it’s heavily inspired by the original God of War in many ways, especially on the cutscene front. It’s also annoying how most of the puzzles and switches and such need you to be standing on the exact specific spot, without a “close enough” area around it. I guess that’s another little minor issue that would simply be better-designed nowadays.

Not such a good job with her costume design though. Unless you NEED to see your videogame heroines’ panties at all times?

Kai’s levels are often just awful as well. Janky controls and right-stick aim (instead of left-stick, which games across platforms have been using since the PS1 days) just makes the shooting unintuitive, and the over-reliance on that fucking sixaxis gimmick means that if you want to use the guidance (and sometimes you pretty much need to) you have to hold the controller JUST SO when firing, and then waggle it around unnaturally when guiding the arrow in. It realy feels like horrible gameplay tacked onto a new console feature just to keep the overlords happy – in this case Sony – by ticking off a marketing dot-point. Much as in the same way that every 360 game for the past few years seems to have “better with Kinect” and some token functionality tacked on. Except in this case you can’t really avoid this bullshit and are forced to participate.

There’s even a Kai level where the enemies hide behind barrels and crates of fireworks, just waiting for you to put one of your own arrows through one of the dozens of braziers conveniently located right next to the fucking fireworks and into one of the crates or barrels. Yes, this not-quite-Dynasty Warriors game set in Feudal Asianistan features a series of red exploding barrels that you need to shoot. Videogame tropes 101, amirite? At least the shooting-only Kai levels are okay (after awhile).

Oh yeah, the game bugged out on phase 3 of the Flying Fox boss fight for me and I had to restart it from scratch. Luckily it didn’t save me in a mess-loop, so it’s not entirely game-breaking, but it’s a known bug from the game’s early days, was never fixed and was pretty annoying to encounter.

A nice vista, spoiled by Quicktime Gameplay.

Full Disclosure: I didn’t actually manage to fully complete the game. I got up to the final boss fight(s) and eventually gave up. The final boss fight is made up of three phases, where the boss becomes increasingly cheap. I’m not a fan of the design philosophy where the final boss in a game like this is wildly disproportionately difficult in comparison to everything that’s come before, and to me it strikes me as a cheap way of adding to the “longevity” of the game. It felt more a test of patience than skill, to be honest, and while I won’t claim by any means to be incredibly skilled at this game, it simply wasn’t fun, and once again was tedious. So just now I’ve thought “fuck it, I don’t have time to waste on this.” Instead of dedicating more hours of my precious Christmas break to defeating the challenge of this game, I chose to just look up and watch the final cutscene(s) on YouTube (not that great anyway) and now I will play another, different game.

*Spoiler Alert* The game naturally has Serkis and Roach show some human emotion and therefore be ever-so-slightly sympathetic, so Nariko naturally lets them go. Because real “bad guys” never have human sides and compassion? Not to get too far off-track here, but Hitler thought he was doing good for his race, and loved children and animals – especially his German Shepherd dog, Blondi. Does that mean he should have been let go? Goering loved his family, and Saddam loved his sons. So we should forget the atrocities they committed when they were finally caught and just let them go, right? Genocide and mass-murder are okay and forgivable if you have a little cry when you’re finally caught/undone? Sorry, but that particular over-used fictional trope really shits me./spoilers.

Ultimately, it’s a first-gen PS3 game that wears its influences very much on it’s half-naked sleeves. Dynasty Warriors, God of War and Onimusha/Devil May Cry. While I can’t say I enjoyed this game, now on the eve of 2015, I can see why people liked it 8 years ago, and why it was generally considered a very good game at the time. Sadly for Heavenly Sword, it simply hasn’t aged well. It’s not something especially unique to games – I’ve been culling my CD collection over the past few months and it’s incredible the amount of stuff that hasn’t held up well from the 1990’s to my ear. (And I was into, you know, the cool alternative music!)

Verdict: Skip it.

(Unless you want to play a game with 8-year old design ideas that haven’t aged well, or are desperate to ogle a half-naked redhead while playing videogames, there are better games these days that do much the same kind of thing.) 

On a related note, Ninja Theory is bringing a new game to PS4 called “Hellblade” featuring a female protagonist and a powerful mystical sword. (Not Heavenly Sword – do you see what they did there?) “Entirely unrelated” they claim – which makes sense given that Sony as the Publisher of HS own the IP, and NT are wanting to keep the ownership of HB themselves by the look of things. One thing for sure is that I’ll be looking at reviews of this new game veeeery carefully before I even consider buying it.