We've been hearing about it since the PS3 launched late last year, and throughout the course of 2007, we've continued to hear nothing but good things concerning Ninja Theory's flashy action title, Heavenly Sword . The game garnered plenty of attention and positive press due to a stellar showing at E3 a couple weeks ago, and now, the hugely anticipated demo has landed on the PlayStation Store. It's a whopping 996MB, which means the time to download and install will probably clock in at about 55 minutes. Of course, it's free, so you shouldn't have any qualms about sampling the goodness, but…you may be a tad disappointed in its length. While excellent, you will still complete this demo within 5-7 minutes. But at the very least, you get a look at how this game will operate, and can see if it's something you'd be interested in picking up this September.
You're introduced to the main character, Nariko, and her odd little cohort in a brief cinema at the start. The fire-haired Nariko may boast many of the typical qualities favored by male game developers, but she's hardly a slight phantom of a woman with a huge chest. No, this girl is clearly very sturdy, and one wonders if the developer didn't take their character design inspiration from Amazon warrior renderings. But back to the cut-scene, the first thing you'll notice is that it's very pretty, complete with beautiful color, wonderful detail, and a vibrant and sparkling artistic flair. Better yet, we noticed something else important: the voice acting is solid, but the impressive part is that those voices are almost perfectly synched to the movement of the character's mouths. Too often in this new generation do we see gorgeous character design and good voice acting, only to be lessened by the poor visual synching. That is not a problem here.
After the cinema – when it becomes clear that Nariko is about ready to whip some tail – you leap onto a series of ropes spanning a vast canyon. Enemies atop a pillar on the other side cut the ropes will you're running down them, forcing you to flip back and forth at the appropriate times. Here's where you'll notice a significant God of War influence, because those real-time button prompts (initially pioneered by Sony's action spectacular) are in full effect. The "X" button pops up, and it clearly shows you have to press it quickly for Nariko to run faster down the rope. Then, a left or right arrow prompt shows up when you have to leap to another rope, and at the end, you press the Square button to launch a flying kick at one of the baddies on the pillar. Once you've landed, you know you're in for a fight, and you'll immediately notice some interesting things about the combat mechanic in Heavenly Sword . Whether you like them or not is up to you, but at least they're relatively fresh and new.
First off, as far as we can tell, there is no blocking button. Nariko automatically blocks attacks provided she's facing her opponent and if she's in the right stance. For example, the Power Stance will block Orange attacks, the Range Stance blocks nothing, and you'll have to evade the Red attacks, because they are unblockable. Get the picture? It adds a great deal to the strategy in this way, and forces the player to observe their enemies more closely. Rolling around forever may not have the desired effect; you might actually have to use some reactions and know-how to deal with particularly difficult foes in the final version.
Furthermore, the enemy soldiers aren't lamebrained drones, and they don't drop very easily. They'll fly off the sides of the pillar but grab the edge an instant before falling to their deaths, clambering back up to face off with the heroine once more. At your disposal is a large variety of attacks, and this includes both short range and long range attacks. You hold the L1 button to get yourself in a "long-range stance," thus allowing you to unleash a flurry of strikes with your far-flinging chain-blade type weapon. When in close, you can hold down the R1 button and unleash some hard-hitting fury with that giant sword she carries. Obviously, the latter style is slower, but more powerful. This offers multiple opportunities to take advantage of the situation, but it doesn't end there.
When timed correctly, Nariko can execute a special grappling maneuver that silences her foe once and for all. If you pull it off, you'll switch to a brief cut-scene where she slams him to the ground and delivers several bone-crushing hits. We don't know how many different grappling maneuvers she has (remember, they're not interactive), but we saw two during our time with the demo. You use the Square button for light attacks and the Triangle button for heavy attacks and counters, which can be extremely effective. We looked around for projectiles to toss at the enemy – Arnold was apparently able to do that when he went hands-on at E3 – but we couldn't find a way to make that happen. Perhaps we need more time with it, but hey, it only takes a few minutes to complete so there really isn't too much to miss. But we were still able to toy around with the numerous battle techniques afforded us, and we were certainly impressed with the game's depth and fluidity.
Once the battle on the pillar is over, you cut the ropes and let the pillar fall and crash into the town below. Of course, you land directly in the middle of more enemies, and another fight ensues. This one is similar to the first fight, except you'll notice all the stuff you're busting up in addition to your opponents. Tables, barrels, and stools get thrashed to kindling, and we appreciated the great effort paid to even the smallest details. An enemy's shield would fall and clatter to the ground, for example, and that goes hand-in-hand with many of the other impressive environmental interactions. When you've completed the second battle, which is only marginally more difficult than the first, a bunch of seemingly more capable enemies blast through a wooden door, holding some truly nasty hardware. At this point, though, the demo ends. Like we said, it won't take more than a few minutes for you to complete the demo, but at least you'll want to go through it several times to fully associate yourself with the controls.
The only problem we had with the control was that Nariko's momentum when moving was a touch cumbersome. It's a good idea to use a character's physical movement to impact their movement, but it was tough to move slowly and accurately when using the left analog outside of combat. For instance, when the pillar battle is done, you have to hit the "X" button at a certain point on the ground, so Nariko can cut the ropes. You have to be very careful about moving her to that spot, as it's easy to run right over it and miss the prompt. But other than that, we really didn't have any issues. Evading attacks with the right analog again makes us think of Kratos in God of War , and it operates very much the same way (the roll here might not be as heavily exaggerated, though). We love the look and feel of Heavenly Sword ; there just seems to be a ton of possibilities in that combat mechanic. And while we had hoped for a demo that was just a bit longer, we still come away with the conclusion we were hoping for-
Heavenly Sword is primed to be a top-notch game, and at this point, we're almost ready to say it's a must-buy for September. …almost. We needed a little more time with it, Ninja Theory!