"Heavenly Sword is a curious game. It's made from scriptwriting in the tradition of throwing the viewer into the story, and then avoiding the temptation to update you regularly about the events as they happen. So as opposed to having the writers gloat endlessly over being in a position to bore you to tears with their brilliance - you can listen to the short and few character interactions instead, if you wish to decide the story should interest you. "
Heavenly Sword is a curious game. It's made from scriptwriting in the tradition of throwing the viewer into the story, and then avoiding the temptation to update you regularly about the events as they happen. So as opposed to having the writers gloat endlessly over being in a position to bore you to tears with their brilliance - you can listen to the short and few character interactions instead, if you wish to decide the story should interest you.
So how successful is this approach to making a video- game? Well, the style is similar to your average samurai flick, complete with a ridiculously evil villain, dramatically overplaying henchmen, as well as impossibly complicated insults and taunts that no one understands. And it is not a coincidence that after playing the game, you have a similar impression to having just browsed an extended director's cut of a movie, one scene at a time. But can the type of story- telling from a movie really be interesting enough to stretch over ten, maybe fifteen hours? Or in the same way, can it continue on without becoming terribly boring?
In Heavenly Sword - the most excessively brushed up hack and slash game I have ever played - the attempt to achieve this magically correct pacing is done through two things: first, a major plot line that can be summed up in two sentences (which it is in the opening sequence). This is done so you should not need to play for ten hours with power- up gathering before seeing a groaning anti- climax, and I approve of this very much. Also, the chapters flow from one point to the next in the main character's very predictable drama for the same reason, to avoid losing the audience during the play- through. Also, since the game is spawned from classic Asian flicks, the main character will go from dutiful to vengeful and into remorse, while it all ends in horrible heroics. This is not where the game will surprise you, and that is not the intention either.
The surprise comes in the second part - the short sub- plots and side- characters, that sometimes are brilliant. Not just because they are used to illuminate the main character's internal drama well - but because they thoroughly take over the scene when they enter. And maybe that combination: somewhat independent side- stories that still silently put up the stage- props for the main event - is what avoids making this game simply a linear trek. As well as maybe fooling the player into seeing the chapters as a variations on the main theme, that in the end will create different and interesting angles to the otherwise trite main story.
Of course - had this actually been a movie, the drawn out sequences that veer off would've been excrutiating. The same would be for the reuse of bullet- time physics, and the multitude of appalling bosses you have to defeat. But since you play one chapter at a time, it's the kind of game that can be picked up once in a while, and enjoyed every time without a 5 hour history review before you start. There is some replayability as well, if you want to go back and unlock all the different moves. And the level selection mechanics encourage you to do so. But I have been too distracted by the extreme level of animation quality and scene- direction to really bother.
Another strange thing about this game is that the fighting mechanics are not patched on, or only work towards particular situations - as well as that unlocking a particular move, or using a specific combo never ends up breaking the game. Instead the game rewards you for not button- mashing, and only gives you the long combo- multiplers if sets of blocks, counters and combos flow beautifully. In addition the animations of all the models are very good, the heavy and light modes both you and the enemies have even mesh well when they interact - and the pain- animations are dependent on where and how hard blows hit. In the end I kept looking for an example of a bad- guy repeating the same "aargh" over and over again, just to get in a mention of how "this is not a film, and there are moments where that is perfectly apparent". But it's not really there. In fact the developers have taken care to give some of the guards a personality in small nudges and shakes of the head, or different approaches in combat. And thanks to this it's easy to keep finding patches of extended game- time that work unexpectedly well as part of a cinematic. Instead of being just breaks from the cut- scenes.
Not all flows well in Heavenly Sword, though. The fact that all the main characters, as well as the Heavenly Sword, will be captured at one point - naturally without distorting the approach to the main event in any way - is one thing that describes how difficult it was to renew the story- telling as the game story progressed. The same when the arch- villian is launched into a third degree cackling early on, so insane that everything that happens later seems normal in comparison. Certain areas are also slapped on because they looked nice - but have absolutely no conceivable reason for existing in the game- world. The "cinematic" sequence from the demo- level being one excellent example - with pillars suspended in nowhere, by morings that happen to be placed in a way so they can be magnificently run across as they are all eventually cut. Upon which the pillar - apparently an important part of the intricately created levitating entrance to the high seat of the King - falls down into a sunset... or a waterfall with a rainbow, or perhaps a mountain piercing the clouds - I really don't remember which. But have no fear - presently, a new set of roads magically appear between your goal and your current location.
Still - it's a hack- and slash game.. how critical can I really be here. Specially when the majority of the scenes don't suddenly have a cavalcade of impossible camera- angles, even though that would've been easy to do - and no doubt tempting when setting up action sequences. But, in generally avoiding this, and instead creating traditional rolling shots - as well as using the camera- angles for something else than annyoing you while you play - the gameplay becomes much closer to a film, and flows easier from gameplay to cutscene, and stage to stage.
In the end Heavenly Sword is a hack- and slash game in the same vein as games such as Onimusha, Matrix: The Game, or Devil May Cry 3. But what sets it apart from those games, other than the main controllable characters all being women, is the unbelievable success they've had in incorporating actual film- art into a playable action- game. Even if some details prevent it from being a perfect title, the original solution Ninja Theory offers to the "movie as game" trope is unusually good.
Community review by fleinn (July 29, 2009)
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