Heavenly Sword is Ninja Theory's upcoming action adventure for the PlayStation 3, and stars a red-headed heroine named Nariko, who, equipped with incredible acrobatic moves and a pair of nifty blades, must prevent her own death and change her destiny. Heavenly Sword is on display and playable at E3 2007, and we checked out the demo and came away very impressed. We were also lucky enough to sit down with creative director Tameem Antoniades to check out some never-before-seen later levels and gameplay mechanics from a late-in-development build of the game.
First, the demo. It opened with Nariko high atop a cliff with no apparent place to go. That quickly changed when we approached a small, glowing icon and pressed the X button, which is a context-sensitive action button. This caused Nariko to leap onto a series of long ropes that were attached to a small, rocky landing area filled with enemies far below. As Nariko slid down the ropes, her foes cut loose with arrows and we were prompted to press a direction on the D pad to avoid getting hit. That worked great, until an arrow broke the rope, forcing us to run faster by mashing the X button to avoid falling. You'll actually be able to flub these cinematic "hero sequences" to a small extent. For instance, when Nariko leaped to the ground below, we had to hit one final button to successfully attack an enemy just as Nariko landed. Missing this last button, however, would cause her to miss the enemy and land unceremoniously in a heap on the ground, losing a tiny bit of health in the process.
Once she reached the end of the rope and was on solid ground, Nariko began to dish out the pain. Using the square and triangle buttons, we chained together some fearsome-looking attacks that were immediately reminiscent of God of War. Eventually, however, the circle of bad guys around Nariko was so thick that we had to press the L1 button to switch to her speed stance. Heavenly Sword will give you three distinct fighting stances--speed, power, and ranged--that you can switch between instantly. In fact, rapid, on-the-fly management of these stances will be crucial to your survival, since using certain stances and maneuvers will leave you open to other kinds of damage.
It's essentially a system of checks and balances that manages your own attacks and those of your enemies. You'll have to be in power stance, for example, to block enemies who are using power attacks themselves. When you're in speed stance, Nariko will block automatically--but again, you can only block speed attacks in this stance. In ranged stance, you can't block at all, so you'll want to keep your distance and pick off your enemies from afar. Antoniades said the team thinks of it as an "action-puzzle game" that requires you to match up your own style with incoming attacks. That description seems even more apt thanks to a recent design addition that shows attacking enemies surrounded by a colored aura that indicates which stance they're using. This change was necessitated because the game's action moves so fast that players will purportedly need a more immediate visual cue as to which sorts of attacks they should be defending against.
Once we had gotten ourselves a bit of breathing room with the quick but relatively weak attacks of the speed stance, we tapped R1 and switched to the power stance, which let Nariko really cut loose. The differences in stances are very apparent. In the speed stance, Nariko whips her dual blades around on chains, keeping foes at a good distance while attacking. In the power stance, Nariko combines the two blades into one large sword, and she puts every ounce of herself into her attacks, jumping into the air and winding her blade as far back as humanly possible before striking. Standard attacks outside of the stances revolve around quicker, up-close strikes that can be strung together into some lengthy and exceptionally cool-looking combos.
Much of the appeal of Heavenly Sword's combat really seems to be tied into its stylish presentation. Nariko is as nimble a minx as you'll ever find. She flips like crazy with every combo she lands, and her hair and the tails of her bandana flail around in the process. It's beautiful animation work that flows wonderfully as the action gets hot and heavy. You'll even be rewarded for fighting with style and grace by Heavenly Sword's glyph system. Though Sony admits you'll be able to get through most of the game by button-mashing, you'll accrue points for using flashier and more diverse maneuvers against your enemies, and these points will unlock up to three glyphs per level. Each glyph will give you some kind of new goody, whether it's a basic attack combo or a making-of video you can access from the main menu. Stylish combat performance will also build up "super styles," which are cinematic one-off, one-hit-kill attacks you can unleash when you build them up through fighting. The super styles have three levels, and if you keep building up to a level-three move, you'll be able to use it like a smart bomb, unleashing an attack that takes out all the enemies around you.
The foes we fought in the demo were actually pretty adept at fighting back. We ran into a combo of shield-wielding baddies and slightly weaker, unguarded grunts. Taking out the grunts was a fairly easy process, but the shield-wielders proved a challenge. They'd block many attacks, and had some tough charge attacks of their own, which we were able to evade by pressing the right analog stick in the opposite direction of the attack. The enemy AI didn't appear incredibly intelligent or anything, but they could hold their own in battle and gave us a run for our money.
After dispatching the group of enemies atop the platform that sat at the end of the rope, Nariko cut one of the remaining ropes, which caused a cascade effect, detaching all the ropes from the platform and sending it toppling toward a group of enemies on a lower cliff. In order to survive the fall, we had to rapidly press the X button to make Nariko run down the side of the falling platform and leap into the scattering group of enemies. From there, we battled through a new group of baddies, only to have a new type of foe with spears and intimidating armor burst through a nearby door. But before we could fight them, the demo came to a close.
Nariko won't be the only character you'll control in Heavenly Sword, though. For about 20 percent of the game, you'll take control of her "little sister," a kooky girl named Kai with vaguely clown-like makeup and a bizarre manner. We saw a sample level in which Nariko has been imprisoned by the game's villain, King Bohan, and Kai had to traverse the walkway around an arena to find and rescue her big sis. Kai will have no melee attacks, though she's very agile and will have a chance to acrobatically evade enemies that get too close.
Luckily, Kai does have a rather nasty crossbow that you can fire from an over-the-shoulder perspective. You can also hold down the fire button to make the camera follow directly behind the arrow as it seeks its target in slow motion. While you have this chase camera engaged, you can tilt the Sixaxis to steer the arrow's path ever so slightly, and in our demo with Antoniades, we saw this "aftertouch" ability put to good use. Kai was wielding her crossbow against oncoming armored enemies whose heads were their only weak points, which naturally made them tougher to kill. Instead of picking each enemy off individually, the player fired an arrow at a large torch hanging over the arena, using the aftertouch to send the arrow directly through the flame (setting it alight) and then into a cache of powder kegs along the wall that neutralized the oncoming guards with explosive aplomb.
Even when you're playing as Nariko, you'll occasionally take a break from the frenzied hacking and slashing to get into some other styles of gameplay. During one impressive sequence, Nariko had to help defend a fort that was being assaulted by a massive army traversing the plains below the fortress walls. This army had a number of huge catapults in tow, but luckily the player took control of a turret-mounted cannon atop the fort wall and began to fire massive balls of lead back at the approaching siege engines. These catapults had specific weak points that had to be struck in order to demolish them entirely, and luckily, this cannon sequence gave the player the same chase-camera and aftertouch capabilities as Kai's crossbow, allowing him to slowly guide the projectile directly to the machine's sensitive area.
After these demonstrations, Antoniades moved on to discuss the game's cinematic component, which was directed by none other than King Kong and The Lord of the Rings' Gollum, Andy Serkis. Antoniades' brother actually served as Serkis' mortgage advisor and introduced the actor to Heavenly Sword, which he immediately wanted to get involved in. Serkis signed on as the director of the game's cutscenes, and he helped cast the other actors involved, as well as playing the role of King Bohan himself. Ninja Theory was lucky enough to use the state-of-the-art motion-capture facilities at Weta Digital in New Zealand to record the body movements, facial expressions, and voices of the performers simultaneously. In a behind-the-scenes video we saw (which will be included on the Heavenly Sword disc), Serkis and some other actors said the process of "filming" the game's cutscenes felt very much like acting in a play, since they had to use their basic physicality and emotional intensity to convey meaning and feeling in the absence of sets and costumes.
In practice, judging from the couple of nearly final samples we got to view, these cutscenes are among the most expressive and realistic we've seen in recent memory. One quick scene had Kai speaking impishly and enigmatically directly into the camera, while another depicted Nariko's arena fight with the bulbous, disgusting Roach as his father King Bohan looked on. The characters' movements, vocal delivery, and especially facial expressions were almost startlingly lifelike and certainly far above par for cinematic scenes in most video games, and such high-quality presentation of the storyline made us all the more interested to see how the game's narrative arc will play out.
Though the playable demo was sadly brief, the time we spent playing Heavenly Sword was well spent, and we got even more interested when we saw all of the skill and artistry that Ninja Theory, Serkis, and Weta Digital have brought to bear in creating the game. This is a very promising game, both for its engaging combat system and spectacular visuals. Luckily for us, Sony says we'll be getting a demo version containing all of the game's second chapter a couple of weeks after E3, so look for more in-depth, hands-on impressions and lots of media to follow very shortly.