It looks like PlayStation 3 owners will be in for a dose of sword slashing action when Heavenly Sword finally arrives. Everyone has already played the demo, and earlier this month we took a look at the entire second chapter of the game, but a near-final version just landed on our desks. Here's a look at what to expect when the game finally hits shelves in early September.
We had previously only played the second chapter, so we were in for a surprise when we booted the game up for the first time. It plops you right down in the middle of a huge battlefield in which Nariko, the game's heroine, is surrounded by thousands upon thousands of enemy soldiers. (This appears to be taking place near the end of the story; the title card for this section reads "The Final Battle.") With nothing but her sword to rely on, she wades into the troops all by her lonesome, chopping them down by the bushel. The game's scale is breathtaking here, though it does have some frame rate chops that are no doubt caused by the hundreds of onscreen troops and catapults.
Although Nariko easily dispatches her foes, her fortune quickly takes a turn for the worse: the curse embedded in the eponymous sword that she wields overwhelms her, and she falls to the ground while mystic text burns itself across her body. When she awakens, the sword is gone, and she's been transported into a large, tranquil field where she implores an unseen, silent interlocutor to let her return to the battlefield. This area acts as the level select for the game, and you return here after each chapter to continue Nariko's pleas. You play through the game in a series of flashbacks that relive the last week or so of Nariko's adventure, presumably until you reach the current moment and continue from where you collapsed on the battlefield.
During the first of the flashbacks, which takes place five days before the events on the gigantic battlefield, Nariko and her clan are being hounded by Bohan, an evil general who wants the Heavenly Sword for his own. After being chased into an abandoned fort, Nariko has to help fend off attackers with nothing but a plain sword; at this point in the game she's fairly weak, and can only use a few simple combos.
The next morning, the fort falls under fire from massive catapults that storm across the field outside. It's Nariko's job to provide cover while the rest of her clan escapes across an icy river. She does so by taking control of a massive cannon that can fire on the advancing troops, thousands of which flood across the field. You can rapidly fire the cannon to attempt to hit the troops, but you need to use the game's aftertouch controls to guide the cannon shots into the catapults' weak spots to destroy them.
Aftertouching involves pressing the fire button, then guiding the projectile in slow motion toward its target. You can do this with the Sixaxis controller's motion-sensing capabilities if you like, but if you don't hold the controller correctly as you fire, the shots veer off course very quickly and are difficult to reorient. However, switching motion sensing off lets you use the analog sticks, a much easier solution.
After the catapults are destroyed, your clan takes off, but you still need to destroy the invading army to make cover. You have to reach 700 kills here, but luckily the battlefield is strewn with mines that, when hit with a cannonball, kill everything around them. The enemies are so densely packed that it almost takes effort not to reach the 700-kill mark within the time frame allotted.
Later in the game, after Nariko is imprisoned by Bohan, you have to take Kai out for a whirl. Kai is Nariko's endearingly crazy friend who appears as an immobile sniper in some parts of the game, using her rapid-fire crossbow to pelt enemies. In a change of pace, after Nariko's imprisonment, Kai has to embark on a journey to free her, which entails infiltrating Bohan's castle and killing a large number of guards. Kai herself can't engage in sword combat, so she needs to use her agility to jump over barricades and avoid soldiers before plunking them with crossbow bolts.
One of the recurring themes of Kai's levels is the use of explosives. If you use the aftertouch feature with Kai's crossbow, you can navigate a bolt through a torch to set the projectile alight. If you then send the bolt into a pile of explosives, which are (somewhat improbably) scattered around Bohan's castle, you'll destroy anyone nearby. You'll be doing quite a bit of this over the course of Kai's levels, but luckily it's a lot of fun--provided, again, that you don't attempt to use the Sixaxis' motion detection for all of it.
Kai's goal here is to recover the Heavenly Sword from Bohan's armory. Although the wisest thing for Bohan to do would probably be to kill Nariko and her clansmen, he instead chooses to become a Bond villain by throwing the lot of them in a fighting arena, leaving the sword relatively unguarded. While Kai searches, Nariko is forced to actually fight against her clan. Bohan promises the 16 soldiers in the pit that, if they fight each other, the last man left standing will be set free. Although Nariko doesn't wield the Heavenly Sword at this point, the rest of her clan still believe that she's the most dangerous of the lot, and so they betray her, attempting to take her down before finishing the fight among themselves.
Despite the disappointment of being double-crossed, Nariko can still save the lives of her clansmen if she wishes to do so. You have the option during this fight of attacking and killing the other soldiers, which, even though you're armed with only a regular sword, isn't all that difficult to do. Alternately, if you counter their attacks, you can perform a special martial-arts move on them that will leave them paralyzed and immobile on the ground. Presumably this will let them fight on your side later in the game.
While this isn't a retail copy of the game, Heavenly Sword has improved a bit since we last saw it. The frame rate could definitely still use some tweaking in spots, but Kai's levels look like they'll supply a welcome break from Nariko's swordplay-heavy adventure. (Kai's crazy antics are also a wonderful source of comic relief.) Graphically, the game is still looking amazing, with some wonderfully expressive motion-capture animations and voice work. Stay tuned to GameSpot for a full review in the coming weeks.