The visuals and characters in Sony's "Heavenly Sword" are top-notch. Too bad the gameplay is repetitive and the controls are frustrating.
By contributor
updated 9/17/2007 9:09:41 PM ET 2007-09-18T01:09:41

If Sony’s “Heavenly Sword” were a film, it would be great entertainment. It has compelling characters, great acting and stunning visuals that utilize all the muscle the PlayStation 3 can muster. But as a video game, “Heavenly Sword” falls a bit short.

The T-rated “Heavenly Sword” ($59.99) has a solid, but fairly typical medieval fantasy storyline revolving around a mythical sword, which slowly drains the life force of any mortal who bears it. The small clan that harbors the sword comes under heavy attack from the evil King Bohan, who wants the weapon for his personal collection. Nariko, a long-haired, scantily clad warrior, manages to escape with the sword and, along with her deranged adopted sister Kai, embarks on a mission of revenge on the war-mongering King.

The story unfolds through a series of amazing cut scenes that would make any Hollywood animated flick jealous. The cinematic look of these bits combined with the solid voice acting (led by Andy Serkis — Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films) results in some incredible eye candy. Players will want to get through the action sequences just so they can see what happens next.

And that’s the problem. The playable parts of a video game shouldn’t be secondary to the stuff you sit back and watch. Unfortunately, it feels like Sony’s game-makers put more thought into the cut scenes than the gameplay. The battles are repetitive. You face the same type of enemies over and over. And the button controls are downright frustrating.

Players have three different fighting stances in “Heavenly Sword:” one apiece for quick, powerful and range attacks.  Each stance has its own distinct color, which is accessed by pressing various button combinations, sometimes in conjunction with the shaking of the motion-sensitive Sixaxis controller.

What you don’t have is a button to block enemy blows. In this game, blocking is done automatically — that is, as long as you’re in the same stance as your attacker (who also emits a distinctive color). If you’re in the wrong stance… bam!

Things get muddy later in the game, when there are multiple enemies coming at you simultaneously. Since you can’t be in two stances at the same time, most players will end up resorting to button mashing for self defense. Having a proper block button would have helped gameplay immensely, as would better camera control.

You can glance to the left or right by pressing buttons, but you can’t position the camera around to better see objects or enemies, or to aim your weapon. This lack of camera control is incredibly frustrating during battles.

But fighting with swords isn’t all you do in the game, which is a little surprising given the game’s title. A large chunk of “Heavenly Sword” revolves around mini-games, solving puzzles and shooting projectiles, like arrows and cannonballs.

The mini-games will have you quickly pressing corresponding buttons on the controller as indicated on-screen. They’re easy, as are the puzzles, which generally require you to hit strategically placed gongs with objects thrown using “aftertouch.” Aftertouch shifts the game into slow-motion mode and lets you to steer the object around in mid-air by physically moving the controller. It takes a little to get used to, but soon you’ll find it quite effortless to control, which is good since you’ll use aftertouch a lot, especially in the sections where you play as the arrow-slinging Kai.

“Heavenly Sword” has some great elements, like the engaging Kai and Nariko, and the stellar performance Serkis gives as King Bohan. Ultimately, though, the game's weaknesses drag it down. Though "Heavenly Sword's" cinematic appeal is undeniable, I want my video games to be more than just fun to watch.

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