Back in the early days of the PS3 when fanboys spat out the pathetic insult of the system having no games, Heavenly Sword was usually a title mentioned by as a defense. I wouldn’t blame them. From the female protagonist to the visual style and action, it was a title worth at least a glance because of its will to look different. Heavenly Sword was dubbed “Goddess of War” by some and, at the surface, that is an apt comparison. That comparison crumbles, as they usually do, when you get hands on the controller when it becomes clear that the action can’t even compete with any of Kratos’ handiwork.
The non-playing aspects of Heavenly Sword seem to be where the title has focused its energy. Nariko, the brash redheaded main character, stumbles upon a heavenly sword called the Heavenly Sword, an armament possessing an obscene amount of power… but at a cost. Any wielder of the blade will be granted said power, but their life will begin to dwindle away slowly. In a heated decision, an evil King Bohan pressures Nariko into using the sword, giving her the power to save her father, but putting her life on a clock. Now she has the power to finally put an end to Bohan but only a limited time to do it in.
Detailed character models and convincing, motion captured animation both do a huge favor for the narrative at large. Regardless of what is being said, such emotion is conveyed through this technology and gives every scene a meaning. Heavenly Sword has its hipster glasses on, with the ability to say it was one of the first heavily advertised mo-capped games, and it has surprisingly held up well against the test of time.
A similar statement can be said for the visual style. Colors have a broad range from orange to bright green and allow Heavenly Sword to stand out and shine, despite it being a half decade old. Technically speaking, it may not confuse many dedicated viewers, but the timeless art style is slowly proving that that is a better solution than super-textured browns and grays.
Performances work in a mutual relationship with the motion capture, letting each character look and sound appropriate to their emotional level. King Bohan is a terrible person, yet an awesome villain because of his vocal disdain for everything and disgusting thirst for absolute power. Kai is charming and a total oddball, quickly becoming the game’s only source of comedic relief and subsequently my personal favorite character. A few of the tertiary main baddies are convincing at the time, even if they forgettable in the grand scheme of things.
Since you are a smart person, you have figured out that Nariko isn’t my favorite. She’s still a standout due to her destructive selflessness, unquestionable determination, and passionate performance, but she doesn’t hit a variety of emotions. This fiery redhead is more of a one-note wonder, hitting melodrama far too often and not actually rounding her out as a character. During cutscenes, she usually spurts threats and intellectual arguments, but her dramatic performances really come through during her monologues between chapters where she looks you, the player, directly in the eyes and gives her speech. It’s mesmerizing to see her convincingly pour out her soul, but the it demonstrates how serious the game takes itself. Better contrast would have made moments like these, and the story at large, more affecting.
While the narrative package is hit and miss, playing it can’t hold the same positive or neutral tone. On the surface, it looks like a combat game that some would shorthand to Goddess of War, but it doesn’t play anything like the titles it is being optimistically compared to. Switching between the three sword styles is neat first step in a good idea and countering is a mechanic that I felt worked well, but almost everything else about the swordplay felt drastically underwhelming.
Just to get it out of the way, thirty frames per second rarely delivers a worthwhile combat experience that deserves to a name mentioned when bringing up melee games. God of War, Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta, and (the old) Devil May Cry will continue to be the mental vocabulary grab bag with Heavenly Sword not being added to that collective list because of its lack of control responsiveness. Melee strikes, dodges, and counters are not interruptable or responsive in an instantaneous way that you’d want, a facet that drags the combat down to a more methodical, not fun level. It just doesn’t have that feel.
Control-wise it isn’t fast, but brawls are also bogged down by the enemy’s willingness to block nearly every move. Especially in the later levels, every blow is met with an unsatisfying clang of an enemy’s defense. Because of this, you’ll end up spamming the block breaking techniques, leaving every other move to decay by the wayside because it doesn’t have a practical use anymore.
These moves also don’t feel very cohesive. While God of War mostly focuses on juggles to make you feel powerful and Ninja Gaiden ditches that mindset and makes pure survival an addicting attraction, Heavenly Sword doesn’t do either or something new, which only leads to a dual failure. Moves don’t link like Ninja Gaiden, but it fails to become that thrilling, fast-paced action where life is precious. Attacks also don’t combo into each other like Kratos, which forces Nariko’s move set to feel like a list of singular moves rather than an arsenal where choice and combos overrule everything. All of this leads to a game about swordplay where the act of actually hitting something is grossly unsatisfying almost every time.
All of this would be a little easier to overlook if there was much to do outside of fighting. Kai gets her own shooting segments and while they mix up the pace a bit, they are the only distraction outside of lackluster melee combat. “Puzzles” only require throwing something and can instantly figured out if you have some sort of education higher than a second grader. Heavenly Sword doesn’t have that secondary mechanic like platforming to fall back on, making it a shallow game with not much to actually do. Sword fights are followed by more sword fights, with a boss fight or shooting segment tossed in every hour for good measure. It just isn’t enough to be gratifying.
Heavenly Sword is something I want to see more of, even if this is a flawed first outing. The world, themes, and idea are all interesting and solid enough for a first effort, but not even that excuse can justify the shallow, boring combat that follows the entire game in its relatively short run time. Such praise isn’t easy to give out, but hopefully with all Ninja Theory has learned from their subsequent experiences might allow for a game that is fun to play and watch. Until then, if that’s even possible, Heavenly Sword is just memorable for its performances and squandered potential.
+Beautiful visuals and colorful environments
+Captivating performances by all major characters, including a fantastic villain
-Relatively shallow game with not much to do outside of the less-than-ideal fighting
-Story feels too melodramatic for its own good at times
Final Score: 6.5/10