In middle school, we were taught to look for the underlying theme of a work. The search for meaning through the analysis of artistic expression was supposed to make us better human beings. The newfound appreciation and insight would aid us through high school and beyond. That’s what my reading teacher would tell us when we asked why we had to “read that stupid book.” I don’t know if gaming makes you a better person, but I do consider it a form of art. Being art, there is a theme to be found in Heavenly Sword. That theme is fusion.
Nariko is the central character of Heavenly Sword. Her eyes have Asian features, but she is otherwise a skimpily-dressed white redhead. Her clansmen have exaggerated Asian eye features and are dressed in a way that vaguely resembles older East Asian culture while defending forts that are mixtures of European and Asian styles. Her father, Shen, who is the initial leader of the clan, looks straight up like the wise kung-fu master with the hanging goatee and ponytail. The hybridization doesn’t stop at the good guys. While the good guys are a hybridization of cultures, the bad guys are a varied cast of human-animal hybrids. King Bohan has a secret to his power, but otherwise looks like a king from Lord of the Rings. That reference will come in handy later. Whiptail is a sensual woman-serpent hybrid. His son, Roach, is a giant baby with an exoskeletal backbone. General Fox is a very shady dude with insect-like wings.
I put an emphasis on character design because this game is gorgeous. The movement of each character is fluid and distinct, sometimes following the rules of physics and sometimes not. In between battles I would stop and take in the scenery, partly because it was breathtaking, and also because that is how the camera controls are best used. The game looks so amazing that it’s difficult to tell when you can and can’t pick something up to throw. For example, the tall blade of grass swaying in the wind can’t be plucked from the ground. Almost everything else, such as the bodies of fallen enemies, is fair game for chucking.
Still, beautiful games, like beautiful people, need more than looks to get by. The developers have put some thought into the story presentation. This is a linear action/adventure game, so it is the developers, and not the players, who control how Nariko and Co.’s story unfolds. When we are first introduced to Nariko, she is a bona fide badass, slicing through King Bohan’s army. Who is this King Bohan? Why is this woman fighting a whole army by herself? What the heck is the Heavenly Sword? Well, eventually, the sword consumes Nariko and the story unfolds.
The early take on this game was that it was going to be very similar to another game that Sony Computer Entertainment of America released. It was a game involving confused knives or the Olympics or something. Anyway, based on the original preview and the hyperactive gamer forum community a lot of people bought into the rumor that Heavenly Sword was going to be that game, but with a girl. It’s not. It doesn’t have the largeness of the other game. Heavenly Sword focuses on familial struggles and humanity instead of the grandeur of the gods. Also, there is an additional playable character: Kai, Nariko’s adopted sister, is a strange girl suffering from arrested development.
The gorgeous scenery is a sight to behold.
Besides being playable characters a video game, Nariko and Kai have a lot in common. Both have lost their mothers, both grow throughout the game, and both only have each other to love (a familial love). Though they have their similarities, Nariko and Kai play differently. The difference in styles makes the game more interesting, because it gives the game two perspectives. Nariko is the main character, so most of the game is played through her and she is the one telling the story after being taken by the sword. She wields the Heavenly Sword and has all the cool and destructive combos, while Kai is strictly a long-distance dialer. This and some cannon-based levels add variation to what could otherwise turn into a run-of-the-mill beat ‘em up.
It is nice to see a game led by two girls for a change. Usually it’s a girl/guy type thing, but since games are so dominated by men, it is refreshing to see a game where the girls get to kick butt in a land where everyone else, aside from the serpent lady and maybe some ninjas, is male. It’s all about the guys. Even Nariko’s father and clan were disappointed that she was born a girl instead of a boy, because the prophecy said that she was supposed to be a he and that he was going to be the one to wield the Heavenly Sword and restore glory to the clan. However, since it can be assumed that most people who are going to be playing this game are males, Nariko has been sexed up. Bohan notices her sexual appeal throughout the game, making comments like, “…beautiful girl…” and basically asking her to make babies with him.
While Bohan is all about power and forcefulness, Nariko plays best when acting swiftly and defensive. Kai plays best when enemies are far away, which makes the less spacious levels difficult. Though challenging at times, the game is short. It is divided into six chapters, one chapter for each day Nariko possess the sword, but the chapters are short and some of them seem to last a mere few minutes. If there was more game to be played, it would have been easier to get immersed in the story. Sometimes things would just happen, such as Shen being captured. I would just accept it for the sake of move along in the game, not because I wanted to kick some butt and get revenge for the capture of Nariko’s father.
Obviously, Nariko’s a fan of 300.
Wait, did someone mention Lord of the Rings? Great, because Andy Serkis, the voice and motion capture actor for Gollum, voices King Bohan. The voice acting in Heavenly Sword is good all around, but Serkis’ voicework shows the difference that great voice acting makes in a game, especially now that the facial expressions of characters are becoming so realistic.
There is not any online content, so maybe if there was an arena fighter element, there would be a higher replayability value. This is a bit ironic because one of the things that people worried about was that this game was going to be an arena fighter before they started worrying about Heavenly Sword being a God of War clone. There, I said it.
That said, Heavenly Sword is a very good game and the developers should get props for putting this sort of effort into the writing and making the presentation gorgeous and then making the gameplay so smooth. Besides length, we haven’t been shortchanged on any front, and that is something to say when so many games recently (like a certain one involving a dragon) have been disappointments.