Sony’s latest top tier game exclusively for the Playstation 3, “Heavenly Sword,” is a modest game elevated by extravagant production values, helped immensely by New Zealand special effect house WETA Digital and a band of talented actors headed up by Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.” For better and worse, the experience is more akin to watching a good fantasy movie than playing a good fantasy videogame.
The collaboration between actors and animators is “Heavenly Sword’s” strongest point. Serkis, who can do more with his voice and body language than many actors can do in person, serves as the game’s “dramatic director”, and also plays one of the scenery-chewing villains. The actors’ performances were motion captured by WETA and then turned over to some talented animators to give the game’s pre-animated cutscenes lively, life-like performances that rival the best work from Pixar and DreamWorks. These range from over-the-top silliness among the four villains to touching interaction between the two female leads: the fiercely defiant Nariko and her weird little sister, Kai.
The setting is a vaguely Asian world, brimming with historical trappings but also complemented by crazy toys like a cannonball shotgun, an arrow-firing mini-gun, and the eponymous magical sword. The gamer controls Nariko as she hacks and slashes her way (in a tastefully T-rated, mostly bloodless way) through wave after wave of bad guys. Unfortunately, the animators chose to give Nariko long flowing red-hair at a time when computer-rendered hair isn’t quite ready for prime time. At times, Kai steps in for some shooting sequences.
The actual gameplay is predictable and not particularly inspired. It’s also repetitive, unlike mega-hit “God of War,” with which Sony is obviously eager to draw comparisons. But “Heavenly Sword” doesn’t have the imagination, variety, or grim spirit of that classic. Most of the game consists of arena battle after arena battle: Kill ten bad guys. Now kill ten more. And then ten more.
The combat system is easy, accessible, and relatively superficial compared to other fighting games. Storing up enough “energy” allows for cinematic kills, complete with quick camera cuts and gravity defying acrobatics that even wire-work would make impossible in a live action movie. As a fighting game, “Heavenly Sword” is easy – perhaps a little too easy – to enjoy.
Game’s most notable and irritating twist is that thrown items can be “steered” in mid-air using the tilt sensor in the PS3’s controller. But there is no system of skill progression or character development to change up the gameplay as Heavenly Sword gallops apace, briskly moving from cutscene to gameplay to cutscene, scarcely giving the gamer a chance to stop and put down the controller. And then suddenly it’s over, offering no replay value whatsoever. In the end, the average player will find only a couple of evenings of entertainment in exchange for his or her $60.