It's been an age since we last heard a peep about Heavenly Sword. The UK-developed game made a splash when it was shown running on the PlayStation 3 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo two years ago, and it continued to impress us at last year's Tokyo Game Show. Things have been pretty quiet since then, though, with a recent appearance on NBC's Heroes being the only sighting of heroine Nariko's exploits. Sony and developer Ninja Theory finally showed off more of the game at a recent press event, which featured a dedicated presentation and a new playable demo. Though the presentation and demo were brief, the game still managed to show very well and leave us wanting more.
During the presentation, Ninja Theory cofounder Nina Kristensen brought the assembled press up to date on how the game's development was going. Though much attention is focused on the game's wicked cinematic combat, Kristensen spent a bit of time highlighting the game's story, which follows the fiery-haired Nariko on her very personal journey of revenge and redemption. The game's intro will apparently begin with Nariko's death, while the proper game will follow the recently deceased lass as she attempts to change her past to safeguard her future. Yes, Star Trek and Doctor Who fans, we know that's totally not cool, but Nariko's pretty driven, and she's got one heck of magic sword, so it's not like anyone's going to question her. To sell Nariko's story, Ninja Theory has hooked up with none other than Andy Serkis--yes, that's the Andy Serkis of Gollum and King Kong fame, to direct and star in the game's cinematics by serving as the motion-capture model at WETA Digital.
As far as gameplay goes, combat looks to be the heart of Heavenly Sword's action. Standard melee combat is mixed with more twitch-based controller input, but it's not necessarily a button masher. Melee combatants can also choose to mix up their means of attack by switching to different stances. You'll be able to shift to ranged, speed, or power stances, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, to find the best way to defeat foes. If you're fast, you can trigger a super attack that's cinematic and devastating. One thing to note is that you'll also find areas to interact with using the X button that will trigger twitch-based sequences, which require you to hit specific button or D pad presses to progress through them,
The controls are laid out nicely on the Sixaxis controller. You'll move with the left analog stick and evade attacks by using the right stick. Square is your default attack, while you can also use triangle in combos or to counter. Circle triggers your super attack as well as lets you drop an object. The X button lets you pick up, use, fire, and throw objects. The top shoulder buttons let you switch to Nariko's range stance when you hold L1, while holding the R1 button lets you change to a power stance. When neither one of the stance-modifier buttons is held, you'll default to the speed stance. All three of the stances figure in to the combos you can perform and are key to victory. Thankfully, the game's already solid controls make that possible.
Even though you can kick butt, you'll still get plenty of trouble thrown your way. Thanks to the troubled state of the world, you'll bump into many a surly foe who Ninja Theory is hoping will be asking you for a whupping from Nariko. Fortunately, this is something she can do, with style. Whether you're facing a single foe, a boss, or a combination of the two, Heavenly Sword is on its way to capturing the satisfaction of Kratos' hook blades from the God of War series.
The visuals in the game are shaping up well and still impress since the last time we saw them in motion. Animation is still rough in places, but the game certainly knows how to make a spectacle of itself. The two set pieces for the action sequences offered two eye-catching locales. The large rock pillars that you fought on offered a stunning vista, thanks to the game's draw distance. At the same time, the battle arena you're dropped into was just the opposite and had you fighting in a claustrophobic area with a good degree of interactive objects. Enemies were plentiful and died nicely.
The audio in the game was a little tough to make out in the din of the demo kiosks, but what we heard seemed to be on the right path. The music blended what sounded like a proper cinematic score with some interesting uses of silence, thanks to what will be a reactive score that reflects your performance. The sharp sound effects in the game are very prevalent when Nariko is kicking much butt with the sword, and they're mostly excellent already. The voice acting seemed to be OK, albeit a work in progress.
Based on what we played, Heavenly Sword still has quite a bit of promise. Though the comparisons between God of War are inevitable at this point, the game's combat system could be a key area of differentiation between the two games. The three different styles, the combo system, and the style actions are in the same spirit as the most excellent testosterone-fueled franchise but may wind up making the game it's own beast entirely, which would be grand. But even if the game winds up being "goddess of war," there are worse ways to kick off a potential series. At the moment, we're anxious to see what it evolves into as its fall release nears. Look for more on Heavenly Sword in the months to come.