hat ever happened to the brawler? I can remember whiling away hours in grade school playing great games like Double Dragon on the NES and Golden Axe on the Sega Genesis. From their simple control schemes to their approachable play lengths, these games were the perfect way to spend a chilly February afternoon. For some reason, however, this genre all but died following the 16-bit era. Companies like Squaresoft attempted to bring brawlers to the next level, but the handful of gamers who actually played The Bouncer know how that worked out. I was starting to lose hope that we'd ever see the likes of these games again – then I played Heavenly Sword.
Perhaps some will take issue with me classifying Heavenly Sword as a brawler. I'll be the first to admit that a number of that genre's standards are absent: there's no cooperative play, there are few power weapons to pickup throughout the levels, and the game's button-press segments are more akin to the straight-up action found in games like God of War. Still, from Heavenly Sword's first level onward, I couldn't help but compare it to the likes of Golden Axe or Streets of Rage – there's something distinctly arcade about this game's experience. This is partially due to easily digestible levels, though overall polish and high production values also do their part.
I'm assuming we have Andy Sirkis to thank for most of the great storytelling that's present in Heavenly Sword. Best known for his role as Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sirkis is credited as dramatic director on this title. Throughout the game, dialogue is spot on, the story never gets bogged down with meaningless tripe, and many of the camera angles used during the cinematic sequences are simply captivating. If game makers want to be respected as true media producers, they really need to be less hesitant to hand over scriptwriting duties to Hollywood vets – kudos to Ninja Theory for having the courage to do so.
Even if you ignore its great script, Heavenly Sword is one of the most approachable games I've seen in a long time. Though it's possible for less experienced players to button-mash their way through the earlier levels, success later on depends on mastering the game's intuitive counter system. Nariko, the game's protagonist, has three separate combat stances at her disposal: a basic speed stance, a slower power stance, and a weaker ranged attack. Depending on the color which highlights an enemy as they strike, the player must be in the corresponding stance in order to pull off a parry or counterattack. Only two buttons are used in combat, and Nariko's stance is changed with a shoulder button modifier. Though the introduction of these stances seemed daunting at first, by game's end it was second nature. Nariko's melee levels are supplemented by sniping segments featuring her adopted sister Kai. Though the play mechanics in these levels were a bit harder to grasp, one eventually discovers the best implementation of the PS3's SIXAXIS controller seen to date. A single button press fires bolts from Kai's crossbow, which, once airborne, the player is able to guide mid-flight with gentle tilts of the controller. Trick shots abounded, and though the actress voicing Kai at first seemed over the top, the story revealed the reasons behind this young girl's tormented mind in due time.
I wish I could say that all was well with Heavenly Sword, but there were a few hiccups. With so much happening onscreen, the game's frame rate occasionally took a hit. More disconcerting was the loud bit of audio feedback I received once as the game transitioned between a pre-rendered sequence and game play; I don't care how good a game is – it's not worth a few thousand dollars in speaker repairs. I was perplexed by the low quality of the codec used by Ninja Theory to compress Heavenly Sword's cinematics – macro blocking plagued every pre-rendered sequence, and though cut scenes were of the utmost quality as far as storytelling was concerned, these graphic artifacts did distract on more than one occasion. None of these criticisms is a deal-breaker, but they do lower Heavenly Sword's status from "near perfect" to merely "spectacular".
All in all, Heavenly Sword is an outstanding game and exactly the title that PS3 gamers have been waiting for. Despite a few technical issues, the game play prevails. Ninja Theory has proven itself to be a truly great developer, both in modernizing an all-but-forgotten genre and by having the wherewithal to partner with great Hollywood talent. If you've been looking for a game for your $499 Blu-ray player (ahem... I mean, PS3), I can't recommend Heavenly Sword enough. Here's hoping this marks the start of great things to come on the platform.