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Review: Heavenly Sword

Posted Mar-31 2008 by ron, created under common review policies
For Playstation 3. Mandatory harddrive installation: 2304MB (takes around 3 minutes 40)

Every PS3 owner recognizes Nariko. She is perhaps the most iconic character introduced in the current generation so far, and this is no accident. Everything about Heavenly Sword's presentation, from design and narrative to animation, voice acting and character performance was to set new standards, with significant expertise brought over from the film industry. The results are indeed astonishing, but it begs the question, if so much attention was paid to the look and sound, can it also be a great videogame?

Nariko's face in the chapter selection menu

The chapter selection menu. This is actually already a fully animated real-time version of Nariko. Right when you start it up, the game immediately hits you over the head with its wonderful character art and pristine image quality, but of course visuals aren't, and shouldn't be, everything.

Heavenly Sword is a third-person combat game roughly comparable to God Of War, but of course with its own style and its own gameplay quirks. Most of the time, you control Nariko, the female lead, and take down the waves of enemies that try to stop your progress along the linear path through the game, using a wide range of melee moves and the occasional thrown object. The setting is roughly low-tech Tibetan mountain-cloisterish, so you'll see mostly swords, clubs, bows and spears wielded by her enemies.

Nariko and a cannon versus a whole army

The highest-tech object in the game is this cannon, which Nariko wields on two occasions, outside of her usual melee combat routine.

Nariko herself is more a sword kind of person, and by stringing two basic kinds of attacks – light and heavy, just like in God Of War – together into certain sequences, she can perform a wide range of combos with different properties, such as strength, range, recovery time and area of effect. Some combos can also break through the defense of blocking enemies.
Nariko can also block herself, and here we touch upon the first unique twist of Heavenly Sword's combat system: blocking is automatic. If you're not currently attacking, or recovering, all incoming melee attacks will be blocked. But not all melee attacks are equal, and now it's time for twist #2: using L1 and R1, Nariko can switch stances at any time (mid-combo even), which allows her to perform either slower, but more devastating attacks, or attacks that are weaker than in her default stance, but hit wider and further to compensate. Some enemies do the same, and perform attacks, either exclusively or mixed in sporadically, that require you to be in the "power" stance to block them, but of course then you won't be able to block normal attacks.

An attacking enemy surrounded by an orange aura

The orange aura around the enemy indicates that he's getting ready to perform a heavy attack that can only be blocked in power stance. For lighter attacks, that can be blocked in the default ("speed") stance, the aura would have been blue.

Each stance has its own set of combos and specialities. Power stance combos have a somewhat higher chance to be block-breaking, and even do damage through blocks, and the ranged stance enables Nariko to whirl around debris, dropped weapons and even bodies and fling them at her enemies. It can also be used to lift up an enemy to initiate an exclusive aerial pummeling session, undisturbed by other bystanding enemies.

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