ron, Jul-27-2007

Goddess May Gaidenathon

Every once in a while, we'd like to be excused for being actually interested in something current … modern … graphically impressive. Like just now.

After playing a lot of God Of War, a bit of Ninja Gaiden Sigma and a hearty chunk of Devil May Cry, we feel like we now have some semblence of a grasp on all this third-person action business. When Hayashi lumped together all non-Ninja-Gaiden games as "combo games" (as opposed to action games), we weren't quite sure initially, but now we know that he was a little, err, wrong. And now, after spending quality time with the Heavenly Sword demo, which German residents shall never play unless they fake their account information btw, we are pretty sure that those who have marginalized Heavenly Sword by calling it "Goddess Of War" were a little, err, wrong, too. We think its gameplay system has enough of a unique touch that it can stand alongside these other games, doing its own thing, and living its own life.

How do we even start ….
These four games of course share the principal concept of you versus a flood of enemies of all sizes, at different ranges, in different group compositions. And it's safe to say that they all at least give you the basic ha-ha-yaa combo when you mash the attack button. But still, they play quite differently and expertise at one of the games does not directly translate to another. Success requires different things.

God Of War

If there is one gameplay element that separates God Of War from its peers, it would clearly be blocking and evading. Being able to break through enemies' guards becomes crucial at later stages of the game, and Kratos's block is also his own most powerful technique: it protects from almost any damage, to the point that even in boss battles you can just stand somewhere, blocking, without ever taking damage; by timing the block just right, your enemy will also stagger and you enable fast and powerful counter-attack combos.
God Of War also has a vast and well-balanced system of canned combos, and knowing which one to use against what, at what range, is a significant skill for the game, but it is always the blocking mechanic that decides when to attack at all.

We allow ourselves to over-simplify for the sake of brevity, but when we think about that one battle near the end of the game, that so many players find overwhelmingly difficult, we do feel confident about our reduction. If you think about why that battle is so hard, it is because it is one of the two occasions in the whole game where you are timed, and as a result you have absolutely no leisure to block. A moment spent blocking is a moment not spent on attacking. These two battles must be fought balls-out, like Devil May Cry, but after ten hours of playing God Of War, that's simply not what you're trained to do.

A very significant but often overlooked aspect of God Of War is the free-form evasive roll. By making the automatic camera system good, the developers have successfully freed up the right analog stick, and using it for an evasion is a brilliant decision. The entirely acceptable trade-off to make for an evasive roll is to take the thumb off the face buttons, which are used for attacks and jumping.

Devil May Cry

It doesn't have many canned combos, but there are guns and many different weapons (God Of War has just two melee weapons), so that makes it different already. But what really makes the play-style different is the absence of blocking – granted, DMC3's Royal Guard style puts a dent in this; but then many consider that overpowered and game-breaking –, which forces you to 1)move quickly and 2)stun your enemies. As it has become standard for the genre, there are cues for every impending attack, either through enemy animations, sounds or both. You have long preparation times to react to these cues, but you cannot simply react by blocking and waiting until it's all over. Even the Royal Guard block will break under repeated attacks, even by bog-standard weaksauce trash enemies.

So you can do one of two things: hop/backflip/roll out of the way, or preempt the attack by knocking over the enemy. The only trouble is that your guns won't knock anything down, and of a combo only the last hit can do it. So you have to break out of the standard mashing and perform a special attack on a specific target. What, how, if depends on range and your current weapon.

Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden has a combo system comparable to that of God Of War. It also has a block, but it can't withstand multiple hits. We'd go so far and say that the blocking mechanic is stacked against the player, as the enemies can block much more effectively than Ryu.
There are many different weapons, and you can mix in ranged weapons at any time with your melee attacks, which is more similar to Devil May Cry.

Unlike the aforementioned two though, what is striking about Ninja Gaiden is how vulnerable you are to crowds. Dante's sword and particularly Kratos's blades of chaos can hit enemies in a wide arc in front of you, and if you do a full combo, you'll knock multiple enemies off their feet with one swipe. It helps that the enemies in these games are relatively predictable, with long warning times before they attack you.

In Ninja Gaiden any single enemy is unpredictable and hard to control. Due to the way the weapons work it is also quite unlikely to damage, let alone knock down, many enemies at once. This makes battles against crowds extremely dangerous, and the basic skills you will have to acquire are herding enemies around rooms, and separating targets. Once you have that nailed, the next thing you will have to learn is how to counter. Just because God Of War's defensive patience doesn't work, doesn't mean Devil May Cry's aggressiveness is the correct idea. Just starting any combo, hoping for the best, is not going to work. Your attack strategy must constantly be adapted to the enemy. Not just the type of enemy, mind you, but to what he/she/it is currently doing.

Heavenly Sword

Heavenly Sword has the complex combo system like God Of War and Ninja Gaiden, it also has God Of War's instant evasive roll mapped to the right analog stick.
The first stand-out difference to any of the other three games is that there is no jump button. You can pull off aerial combos, mind you, and Nariko seems perfectly capable of hopping around when the need arises, but you still cannot just jump at will. Seems like a big deal, but the only combat-related impact this actually has is that you can't evade an attack by jumping.

Nariko blocks automatically whenever you don't attack, and this includes walking her around. I.e. whenever you start dishing out combos, you are the most vulnerable. Actually there's a stance element to blocking, too, but if you really want to keep blocking (i.e. not busy dishing out attacks), that's quite manageable. In a way this safety resembles God Of War's abuseable blocking system, but the enemies will throw in attacks that require stance-switching to block regularly.
Your own attacks work more like they do in Ninja Gaiden, in that you can't stun/control multiple enemies at once. The combat, at least once you stop blocking and actively engage, feels very one-on-one, even when many enemies are swirling around. The range stance attacks do allow you to cover a wider area, but that seems more like a way to whittle down enemies slowly; it won't stop them from attacking.

We have of course only seen a very small snapshot of Heavenly Sword gameplay, but if we take away the elements that seem overly familiar from some other game, the things that remain as unique are 1)the counter-attacks; they are initiated with a precisely timed button-press, not unlike God Of War's just-in-time blocking to gain the upper hand, but the counter-attack is limited to the one enemy you out-witted (and immediate). Exceeding precision is rewarded by an even stronger counter-attack.

The second defining element is actually the scenery interaction. With a quick switch into ranged stance, pressing/holding triangle allows you to hurl loose scenery objects at your enemies. You can also pick up debris or defeated enemies and throw them around. This is something that none of the other three games allows you to do. In Heavenly Sword, once you start using the scenery to your advantage, it seems to matter much more where you fight. Hurling stuff around does give you the ability to harm and drive back small groups of enemies, and that's something you'll find very hard to do with just your melee attacks.

It would be kind of silly if Heavenly Sword had multiple weapons for you to use and switch around, like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, but then the instantly accessible alternative stances compensate for that lack in an elegant way. It is apparent even from the small demo that the stances will have their adequate uses throughout the game.

Oh. What?

The point of the excercise is that Heavenly Sword is not one of these other games wrapped in a different presentation, but that it is something that can stand on its own. Something that might have the potential to knock off socks even, if the content is consistently good.
It is pretty obvious that lessons have been taken from genre peers. From Devil May Cry perhaps not so much, but the feel of combat is somewhere between God Of War and Ninja Gaiden with a relatively safe blocking mechanism and high rewards for well-timed counters, but a low ability to control crowds. Unlike both of these though, Heavenly Sword makes scenery matter much more. Standing near a heap of defeated enemies or a pile of (soon-to-be) debris can help you out a lot.

Coupled with what we know about the setting and the story, we think that's enough new ideas for a game to come forward without shame and be respected. It's not Goddess Of War. Its name is Heavenly Sword.

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