Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I have WAY too much to say about video games...

When a video game gives you the option of choosing from a variety of characters I select a female every time. Yeah, I'm THAT guy and yeah, you've hit on my night elf fire witch outside the Caves of Despair enough times, thinking that I'm some tight little gamer-betty who might be the one who "gets you."

Many games are played in the third person and seeing as you're liable to be looking at the character for hours on end it's fitting that games come with some level of customization so that you become more involved and thus less bored with your digital avatar. Sure this results in buxom blondes snowboarding through blizzards in hot pants or Japanese schoolgirls chainsawing their way through zombies wearing a leotard and fairy wings but isn't this the kind of free-form creative cauldron from which high art springs? Perhaps I should just get on with a review...

Heavenly Sword is a title exclusive to the PS3 and developed by the somewhat new and little known Ninja Theory. This game was literally given years of hype and was to be a console mover for Sony's pricey new game machine. After completing the game I would say that Heavenly Sword isn't the must-buy Sony promised but I'm really quite glad to have played it through.

The box art of this games tells it all, this is a fighting fantasy adventure story featuring a sword-wielding heroine named Nariko - who I would have selected even if they gave me other choices. Nariko also looks like she is just dying to be played by Angelina Jolie when the rights get picked up to make a so-so movie. From time to time you shift from playing Nariko to her delightfully deranged side-kick, Kai. The story; one of curses, vengeance and redemption is a good one being well told and dramatically executed. The characters are excellent with a minimal amount of cliche, something that sadly plagues even the highest end of video game entertainment to this day.

Andy Serkis of Gollum and King Kong fame was heavily advertised while this game was in production and his inclusion was featured as a major selling point. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he is also the game's Dramatic Director, meaning he had control of the cut-scene acting throughout the game. For this and his actual performance Mr. Serkis should be commended. The cut-scenes (usually a source of impatience and scorn for game players) are the best I've seen. The evil King Bohan is a lively villain and his cronies are at times even more so. Flying Fox in particular is a fantastically perverse character who is truly unique and gives a performance to rival iconic bad guys like Darth Vader. Seriously, he's just that wack!

The overall presentation of the story itself is so wonderful that a merely serviceable control scheme and game mechanic becomes forgivable in my mind. Nonetheless Nariko handles somewhat spongy and soft with just a bit of delay between commands given and action taken. The fighting system, while intuitive and effective enough is rather simple. This is unfortunate because a tighter control scheme and a more involved combat matrix would have elevated this game into a complete and epic package. Deeper fighting/adventure game franchises such as Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry will still appeal more to the hardcore gamer because there is more to do, more to learn, and more to exploit. If Ninja Theory didn't want to make a combo-heavy fighter then they should have paid more attention to the perfect God of War, a game that mechanically outshines Heavenly Sword on all fronts while running on a console with only a fraction of the power.

The game breaks up the melee fighting with an archery/ballistic mechanic that utilizes the Sixaxis controller with a spot of time dilation. You get to steer your shots, correct your aim, and even avoid obstacles before striking your target. Getting the knack is tricky but once you do it becomes a boatload of fun! You can throw a barrel or even a body at any time during melee to utilize the mechanic but when missile fire is given the spotlight it truly shines.

While this game might appeal more to casual or new gamers rather than experienced hands there are a few other wiggles that detract from the overall experience no matter what end of the spectrum you are on. It's short for game, like really, really short. Everyone is going to run through this story in about five or six hours and when you account for lengthy cut-scenes it leaves you with a relatively short amount of play time. This makes Heavenly Sword one of the more expensive games on a dollar-per-hour of entertainment ratio and it seems to have left game players wanting. Ninja Theory should have given us more and I think they could have.
Visually the game while in-play is reasonably good if a little heavy on light effects and short on textures. The cut-scene CGI is very strong and is able to do subtle things like convey emotion with the eyes. There are several sweeping vistas that do a nice job enhancing the environment with cinematic flair. When there is a lot going on however the frame rate hits the dirt and there is some tearing, slowdown, and flicker. Not a good thing, especially when it's a game made exclusively for a machine boasting to destroy the competition when it's not curing cancer.
Heavenly Sword is ambitious and to its' credit I think it hits more than it misses. The gaming community in general gave it a 'good but not great' rating which caused Sony to lose a bit of face after all the hype it slathered on the title in the run-up to the Console Wars. It's a game that hits such high notes on its' peripheral aspects: the cut-scenes, the music, even the menu screen, but they didn't nail down the meat and potatoes, the actual game itself to make the experience consistent. In the beginning I was underwhelmed with the gaming but so impressed overall that I thought Heavenly Sword was more like a great movie in which you get to play through some of the scenes. The pace and involvement improves towards the middle and by the end it redeems itself to the point where I think the gaming community was being too critical. I'm glad I made the purchase and will play it again just like I would pull out a favorite movie on a rainy day.
I hope the game is successful enough financially to not scare developers away from lavish, highly cinematic games and I hope that Ninja Theory gets another chance to tell a story and tune up in the places where they need to improve. It's short running time make it beyond attractive to the renter but to those who like me are disciples of the medium it certainly belongs in the collection.


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