- If you were to look at Heavenly Sword in a series of glimpses -- or, say, videos that appeared online prerelease -- you'd be forgiven for not knowing exactly what kind of game it is. Clearly, it's action and features a lot of fighting, but is it a God of War clone? Is it a Dynasty Warriors clone? A Sniper Elite clone? In short, yes. But the long answer is a little more complex....
A good half of Heavenly Sword is reminiscent of God of War -- you run through dramatic environments, hit enemies with flashy attacks, participate in button-pressing minigames, and even follow an oddly similar plot. Another quarter of the game ramps up the number of enemies, so the experience feels more like Dynasty Warriors. And then the remaining portion of Heavenly Sword involves long-range arrow and cannon attacks using the PS3's tilt controls. There's where your sniper skills come into play.
It's a pretty compelling package, especially when you consider that there aren't many games of this sort on PS3 yet, and that Heavenly Sword's visuals are arguably the best the system has seen to date. I can't talk up the graphics enough -- not only are the characters and environments incredibly well detailed, but there's very little of that typical (and easily abused) next-gen gloss applied to them, so you get a much cleaner-looking game than fare like Gears of War or Virtua Fighter 5.
This focus on presentation carries through a lot of the game. From the well-acted cut-scenes to a handful of picture-in-picture cinema sequences that play out while you run around to the camera angles during some of the game's more violent maneuvers, it's clear the developers know their game looks good and want you to know it as well. On occasion, Heavenly Sword moves so quickly that it feels like the framerate can't quite keep up, but if you're looking for a gorgeous PS3 or 360 title, there's not much that can compete at this point.
It's also important to note just how well the game handles its tilt-control features. Whether you're using arrows to take out single enemies in the distance, protecting an ally by picking off enemies around him as he tries to cross a bridge, or shooting a cannon at thousands of approaching soldiers, the ability to twist your wrists to make the perfect shot works extremely well once you get accustomed to it -- and it never becomes too easy or unfairly difficult.
When you look at Heavenly Sword as a traditional action game, however, it doesn't stand up to criticism quite as well as its contemporaries. There's the surface-level stuff, such as how you can't jump -- which, while not inherently a flaw, just feels out of place in a game where combos cause you to hop all over the place and where you jump in cut-scenes all the time -- but it's the details that stand out the most.
Such as how you can run past a group of enemies, then turn around and watch them get caught on an invisible wall, not able to follow you. Or how the button-pressing minigames pop up at unusual times and rarely seem to be connected to the buttons you press (think Indigo Prophecy, not Shenmue). Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is the way enemies get funneled your way. Whether you enter a room or just a blocked-off part of a level, it's not uncommon to stand in the middle of an area fending off 10 waves of not-so-smart enemies.
It feels like the designers tried to make up for not having intelligent enemies by having a ton of them -- an interesting trade-off, but one that doesn't always work in the game's favor, especially once the freshness of the three combat styles wears off and each battle you enter starts to feel heavy (not being able to jump doesn't help). Though the combat fluidity and combo variety match up well with a game like God of War, the fights often feel more like battles in Dynasty Warriors because of the seemingly never-ending number of virtually mindless bad guys. Quantity over quality seems to be the approach here -- though, I should clarify, not nearly to the degree present in Dynasty Warriors. Heavenly Sword knows when to cut you off, but its combat slows the pace down quite a bit.
Which -- given the overall length of around 10 hours -- may not be an accident. If you were to take this game as is and thin out some of the heavier arena battles, it would become too short, so it's a shame that there aren't more intelligent enemies to go up against to keep the battles engaging through to the end.
For those looking for the next big triple-A action game, Heavenly Sword is close, but not quite there. To its credit, there's a scene near the end of the game where you essentially go bowling through crowds of enemies -- it makes you realize just how epic games like this are going to be a few years down the road. But for now, Heavenly Sword does one better than hint at the future. It's an example of developers doing a good job being inspired by good taste, rather than looking up the recipe and coming up with something that's a bit different, but not quite as good as the original. Heavenly Sword is on the positive side of that line: solid in its own right and definitely worth playing.
Besides, can a game that lets you pick up a body, throw it, and tilt it with the PS3 controller as it flies at other enemies be bad?