Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: Fall 2007
Since first shown in playable form at E3 last year, Heavenly Sword has been playfully saddled with the “Goddess of War” nickname. It’s no wonder, really – based on what has been shown, the game appears to be a hack-and-slash action game with several timed button-press segments. In essence, it’s God of War, albeit with a female lead.
I’d love to be the one to say that the playable demo at Sony’s Gamers Day event challenged that assumption, but it did nothing of the like. Following a brief cut-scene, crimson-haired protagonist Nariko leaps onto a massive rope, one of many tethered to a suspended platform upon which a slew of goons await. As she grinds towards her destination, the warriors sever the ties, forcing the player to press buttons or issue directional commands to make Nariko leap to the nearest taut rope. Based on the demo sequence, Heavenly Sword appears to be much more generous with timing than a game like Spider-Man 3.
After brawling with a pack of enemies, Nariko slices the final rope, sending the platform and the pillar beneath it crashing to the ground below. Though not the first fight of the demo, the battle that follows offers the best opportunity to get a sense of the battle engine, as the large circular environment is teeming with debris and a heap of aggressors.
The defining characteristic of the combat engine is the ability to switch between three very distinct fighting stances. The Heavenly Sword can morph into three forms, and as such, each stance revolves around the size and abilities of each form. Speed is the default stance, and it is the deepest and most complex of the three stances, allowing Nariko the ability to counter and evade attacks. Holding the L1 button switches her into the Range stance, which attaches her blades to chains and allows her to knock back waves of oncoming opponents. Finally, the Power stance, activated by holding the R1 button, increases the size of the blades and the strength of her attacks, and is best suited for finishing off weakened foes.
Though all three forms come down to some form of button mashing, there is an undeniable benefit to learning how each stance works and knowing when to switch between them. During my first attempt through the demo, I was punished for my haphazard use of the stances, eventually succumbing to a flurry of blows. On the second go-round, I paid closer attention to the advantages of each style. When surrounded by numerous adversaries, a ranged attack quickly gave Nariko space to work with. After wearing down my rivals with a bevy of Speed attacks, I quickly swapped to the Power stance and finished them off with ease.
What was shown may maintain that “Goddess of War” moniker for some time, but what was said during the Gamers Day presentation may ultimately set the game apart from its supposed spiritual predecessor. According to Nina Kristensen, chief development “ninja” at Ninja Theory, Heavenly Sword takes place in a “highly reactive world” that allows for “destruction on an epic scale,” both to the environments and the unfortunate enemies. Kristensen said that the game will allow players to “[take] the fight to the clouds and through treetops,” though the only footage shown was either from the demo or within a man-made structure.
Combat scenarios in the game will vary from one-on-one battles against advanced boss characters to sequences in which Nariko must take down entire armies comprised of thousands of enemies. As players battle through the waves of enemies in Heavenly Sword, Noriko will earn style points, which can then be used to execute cinematic Superstyle moves with the circle button. Nearly every object in the game, from crates to corpses, can be used as a weapon, and the game will also apparently feature “ancient bazookas.” Well, I suppose it is more plausible than giant enemy crabs.
Heavenly Sword has been designed as a showcase title from the start, but milking the power of a next-generation console is about more than detailed character models. To improve the quality of the cut-scenes and character interactions, Ninja Theory enlisted the talents of Andy Serkis, the actor/director who portrayed King Kong in the film of the same name, as well as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Serkis directed and starred in six weeks of motion capture shooting at Weta Digital in New Zealand, where the team was able to simultaneously capture face, body, and voice data for up to five actors at a time.
“What it enabled us to do was capture the true and full performance,” said Kristensen about the expanded motion capture process. “In Heavenly Sword, we want to emotionally engage you and draw you into a really intense experience, and believable and passionate acting is absolutely key to this.”
Also key to the experience is advanced sound design, which starts with an original score by prolific composer Nitin Sawhney, who recently scored the feature film “The Namesake.” Ninja Theory also tapped the sound effects team at Play it by Ear in New York, who previously worked on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Mission: Impossible III.” Working alongside those with feature film experience is no coincidence, as a theatrical sensibility informs every aspect of Heavenly Sword: “It’s engineered so that you feel like you’re taking part in a big-budget action movie at all times,” claimed Kristensen.
Developed exclusively for the PlayStation 3, Heavenly Sword is expected to ship at some point this fall from Sony Computer Entertainment America. Though the Gamers Day demo had some light slowdown and clipping issues, the small segment of gameplay is quite playable and also rather enjoyable, though the brevity of the available content is somewhat disheartening. It sounds like Ninja Theory has a lot of sharp ideas on how to improve the action experience, but until more of those ideas show up in a playable build, Heavenly Sword is unlikely to shed its image as the supposed feminist alternative to God of War (as if that was really a bad thing).
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