Game Title: Heavenly Sword
Development Studio: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Heavenly Sword is a proprietary platform game only available for the Playstation 3. As the gaming industry seems to be moving towards multiple licensing agreements for many new games, which makes them available for Xbox 360, PS3 and sometimes PC, proprietary licensing appears to be saved for instances of special established franchises (although even those are starting to be available on multiple platforms, e.g. Mass Effect 2 & 3), or for smaller independent studios such as Heavenly Sword’s Ninja Theory.
In terms of what differences in gameplay another platform would illicit, I honestly can’t say with any certainty. I have next to no experience with Xbox or Xbox 360, apart from the odd Halo session, and therefore can’t in good faith comment. If I had to guess, I would say that the gameplay for an Xbox port of Heavenly Sword would have to be adapted to the differences in the Xbox controllers, thereby either adding or subtracting some of the game mechanic options in the game.
The official published genres for Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword are Action-adventure and Hack and Slash (Beat’em Up). These categorizations are highly appropriate, as the game does not exactly bend genres in any major way. Gameplay is strictly linear, with side quest and unlockables limited to combos and video, as well as two game ‘movies’ which can be viewed in the Art Gallery along with cool concept art.
After playing through the game I would add a small platforming sub-genre to the list. While platforming and puzzle solving isn’t by any means the bulk of the gameplay experience (that is reserved for hand-to-hand and weapons melee combat), a majority of the stages incorporate either a small puzzle solving or strategic element.
For example, in many of the linear exploratory sections where there is not an overabundance of combat, Nariko is capable of throwing shields at far off buttons or levers. The interesting part of this incorporation is that when thrown, the player must hold down the square button, which transfers the camera perspective from Nariko to the shield or disk, allowing the Playstation 3 SIXAXIS motion sensor to be fully utilized.
Heavenly Sword is strictly available in single-player mode. This limited capability, along with the games relatively short play-through time, is one of the often voiced complaints about this game.
However, despite this ‘deficiency’ the story is interspersed with several missions where player control is temporarily switched to previously non playable characters. These interludes, or shorter missions, are focused on using the controllers SIXAXIS capabilities to ‘snipe’ a large number of targets, usually accompanied by a time limit and real-time score keeping.
As a wholly linear action adventure game, Heavenly Sword was played almost entirely in real-time. However, as I stated above, there are interspersed game missions which either switch player control briefly to side characters, or in a few cases at the beginning and end of the game put Nariko at the helm of a cannonball turret. Each of these interruptions from the linear gameplay was still played in real-time, but with added time-limit and SIXAXIS controller elements.
In retrospect, I would categorize these missions more in the line of mini-games, but still within the main storyline (as opposed to say mini-games in Mario Party). Even though there was a time limit on these missions, it rarely became a problem to beat them in the allotted time frame. In this way I think they still felt like the regular real-time missions, incorporating strategy and not so much the rush to beat the clock element to the gameplay.
The intended target audience of this game in my opinion is clearly defined by the story, character design and gameplay system. The story is centrally focused on the conflict between the purity of the main character (representing good) and the unwholesome evil of the antagonist (representing bad). This kind of straight forward struggle between such clearly defined polarities to me suggests that the game is targeted towards audiences with clearly defined psychographic tendencies towards seeing ‘good’ overcome ‘evil’, and subsequently seeing ‘evil’ suffer its rightful consequences.
From a general perspective the character design of the protagonist Nariko and the heavy degree of continuous combat throughout the game points towards the target audience also being in a specific age range and of a certain gender. Nariko is beautiful, sexy and clad in almost nothing in the middle of winter for the entirety of the game. Even though her body design is not as overly dramatized as the female characters in the Ninja Gaiden franchise, she still represents a female ideal usually associated with attracting the attention of adolescent to young adult males.
This is not to say that there are not demographics of women who have enjoyed this game as much as I have, and in fact I feel sure there are, but the games preoccupation with portraying Nariko as a ‘girl-with-sword/gun’ character is obvious even from the games cover art and packaging.
There is no doubt in my mind that the game content is perfectly suited to its intended target audience and market. It makes to no pretense for what it is, and neither does it apologize for what it is not. Assuming that gamers on the whole are literate consumers of this chosen media, I would state that this game is exactly what it is marketed to be.
Heavenly Sword hold a T (for Teen) rating from the ESRB for blood, language, suggestive themes and violence. This is one of the few examples I can think of that fits so snuggly into the T categorization. There is no misunderstand, no mistakes and no room for argument that the rating is fitting and appropriate.
In terms of its specific rating attributes, there is violence and blood, but not gore. The violence is not portrayed in any over-the-top way, and there is no room for the gamer to abuse the combat system for mature kicks. Likewise, the blood and death aspect of the game is not overly apparent, as the melee combat system is focused on dispatching multiple enemies at once without a clear focus on exterminating one individual enemy. This leaves room for the player to focus on the combat landscape from an overall perspective as opposed to one-on-one.
As for the suggestive themes and language, they are for the most part attributed to the antagonist (the evil warlord trying to steal Nariko’s sword). This, like the violence, is not overt and actually serves to make the player want to put him in his place. In other words, it was not used frivolously, but for an increased level of player connection with Nariko’s struggle.
Challenge and Fun Factor:
Heavenly Sword is extremely fun, if repetitive, and offers three levels of challenge when playing. These differing levels come in the form of the grading system after each mission or level, giving the player up to three shields, or stars, based on combat efficiency and combo/chaining skill. I enjoy games with this kind of point system because its like trying to beat a test, trying for the three star perfect score. However, with this system the game also allows the player to proceed through the game with only a modicum of challenge, as you can progress with simply one star or shield per mission.
The entire story mode only took about 7 hours to complete, which is a shame since I enjoyed the game so much. That being said, there is an incredible amount of story and character development packed into those few short hours, definitely enough to allow the player to develop an empathetic relationship to their playable character (Nariko).
Dialogue and artistic style are two features of Heavenly Sword that I believe were implemented in very shrewd and successful ways. Unlike some games where dialogue and cutscenes are limited to beginning or ending chapters, or for some inciting incident or other, the dialogue in Heavenly Sword was used frequently throughout a majority of the missions. While not always long, these brief episodic uses gave real depth to the emerging narrative, something I look for in games, and were a big part of why I enjoyed the gaming experience with this title.
The second feature of the game that was largely successful in my mind was the artistic style behind not only the characters but the environment of the game. The landscapes and characters were so brilliantly rendered that the entire environment appeared to be bathed in greenish gold light, everything sharp and in focus, but to an extreme. However, the most successful use of artistic style in the game is reserved for Nariko herself. Her character is so incredibly vibrant, even in combat, that it is hard to imagine how the game would have felt had this not been the case. I can’t really explain it any better, simply that she stands out in the gaming landscape, not by use of color, or clothing, but by the energy her character seems to emit in the game space.