"With such a high standard set, it shouldn't come as a surprise that gameplay doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. It does come close, though. The main problem is that Nariko spends most of her game carrying a sword capable of standing against the most powerful beings in the world, yet primarily battles simple soldiers. Even when an environment is crawling with troops, there isn't much to offer resistance. She's simply too powerful."
An old prophecy predicted a child's birth. Pure of heart and full of courage, the infant would grow in strength before finally reaching adulthood and leading his people to the Promised Land. With the Heavenly Sword at his side, no adversary could stand against him and his people would find peace and prosperity. Years passed, and at the appointed time the child foretold was born. There's only one problem: he... was a she.
Heavenly Sword tells the story of that child perhaps twenty years later, now a proud young woman named Nariko. Raised by a village that resents her for spoiling the prophecy and a father who mourns the wife he lost on the fateful day the prophecy went awry, she depends on inner strength to carry her through life. It's an uncomfortable situation, but it could have worked if not for King Bohan.
Picture the most outrageous egomaniac you've ever seen and you have King Bohan. He's a man with limitless ambition and an assortment of minions at his disposal. He's accustomed to getting what he wants, and what he wants is the Heavenly Sword. If he has to wipe out a small tribe to get it, that's just fine.
As Nariko, you're the fly in the ointment. The game opens amid an epic battle against Bohon's troops, a final clash of good against evil. Carrying at your side the very sword he seeks, you'll defy the odds and carve your way through the evil king's troops, only to collapse at his feet as runes etch themselves on your skin. You let out an anguished cry and darkness consumes you.
Five days ago...
...the game begins properly. The trip back in time is the sort of narrative device you'd expect from a novel or maybe a good film, not a game. As the plot unfolds through amazing cutscenes that truly capture human emotion, you might well forget that you're expected to play a role in the proceedings. The tiniest details are perfected, from eyes shifting and brows furrowing, to yellowed teeth dangling from rotten gums. From sweeping views of a roaring crowd of soldiers to a close-up of the conniving king's face, the cinematic direction is astounding.
Outside of the story sequences, Heavenly Sword remains beautiful. Environments are rendered with stunning detail and nothing feels out of place. The world is cohesive and credible. Banners flap in the wind, waterfalls cascade over rocky cliffs, tables laden with fruit and baskets line marketplace streets and snow collects along fortress walls overlooking frozen tundra.
The many characters you'll battle are rendered with similar proficiency. Soldiers duck behind overturned tables and barricades. Men pour out of the barracks, then seek cover from low stone walls as they prepare their next moves. More frequently, warriors swarm over battlefields wielding swords and spears or pushing flaming barrels of explosive powder to blast down stone walls. Whoever was in charge of the game's artistic design deserves a cookie.
With such a high standard set, it shouldn't come as a surprise that gameplay doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. It does come close, though. The main problem is that Nariko spends most of her game carrying a sword capable of standing against the most powerful beings in the world, yet primarily battles simple soldiers. Even when an environment is crawling with troops, there isn't much to offer resistance. She's simply too powerful. The developers included special moves--they look great--and three levels of attack strength for normal combat, but you can get through most of the game by just holding the 'L' or 'R' button and mashing the 'Square' button. Nariko will lash her sword about like a madwoman and anyone who gets within range will almost certainly fall. If somehow a few soldiers are surviving, rolling around behind them and then striking will clean up the stragglers. It's all so easy.
Boss battles are the primary exception to that rule. You'll spar with several generals on your way to the final showdown. Even the first special encounter can prove difficult until you have a solid strategy in mind. You'll likely come to appreciate such moments, if only because you finally have to do more than mash buttons. Beautiful story sequences throughout really add an extra level of excitement to such confrontations, to boot. I could have done without Nariko calling the snake woman 'sister,' but the banter that takes place elsewhere definitely makes up for it.
The game also offers numerous moments (often whole stages) where you must abandon your sword in favor of a bow or a cannon. A quick press of the 'X' button will fire a shot in these instances, but things really get interesting if don't let go. Remember how the Six-Axis controller has motion sensitivity? Heavenly Sword puts that feature to significant use with the introduction of the 'after touch.' Once a shot is released, you can tilt the controller to guide your projectile's progress as time slows to a crawl, Matrix-style. Suddenly, arrows that were going wide now find their mark with your guidance. Head shots (and testicle attacks, if you're particularly mean) become much simpler. It might not sound fun on paper, but the first time you start picking soldiers off a castle wall, you'll see the charm.
Unlike the brawling segments, the shooting also tend to be challenging. In later areas, they can prompt numerous 'game over' notices. That brings to light one of the game's most obvious flaws: load times. Most of the time they're not an issue. The minute you have to retry a challenge or a difficult boss fight, though, you might as well make that refrigerator run. The wait is often close to 40 seconds, even if you're in a simple area. It's frustrating.
Heavenly Sword's other main flaw is its brevity. What's here is really good, but you'll likely arrive at the closing credits within ten hours. You can replay stages (there's an art gallery to gradually reveal) and unlock an additional difficulty level, but even then you're looking at maybe 20 hours.
Because of the length consideration, it's hard to recommend a purchase at full price. It's a heck of a ride while it lasts and one of the most enjoyable action titles in years, but the game simply feels too short. If you want amazing production values and a really fun adventure that remains fresh and exciting the whole way through, you'll probably be satisfied when the credits roll. Massive epics usually outwear their welcome, anyway. For the gamer on a budget, though, this has 'rental' written all over it. Like Nariko, Heavenly Sword isn't quite the savior that was predicted, but it's still a pretty sweet package.
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 15, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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