Truly if there was any game to date that showed the real power and potential of the PS3, then Heavenly Sword is most certainly it. Not since the PS3 release date and the release of Resistance: Fall of Man have PS3 fans had something to get wet over that Microsoft and the 360 can only dream of. The visuals in HS are stunning to stay the least. The vast landscapes are beautifully rendered and will keep you interested when you're not cleaving your way through hordes of enemy soldiers. The cut-scenes are so well done, and boast both voice acting and facial expressions that can only be rivalled by the Metal Gear Solid series.
To give you an idea of just how good the cutscenes are, I started the game and watched the intro cutscene. A vast army of soldiers awaits on a large plain, similar to the Helms Deep opening from LoTR. The camera pans behind your character - Nariko - and seems poised to dazzle us with a spectacular display of slashing swords, dynamic jumps and blood splattered bodies. There I was all set to play, and next thing I know the game has started. The transition from cutscene to gameplay is so perfect that it was only when I realised that Nariko was just standing there as hundreds of enemies charged toward her that I was actually in control.
Speaking briefly about load times; HS adopts a system where the only actual load times are those when you put the disc into the console. When you switch it on for the very first time, the game takes about two minutes to create a save file....and why wouldn't it, the file is over 2GB in size!! It is this sole fact that means you don't have to wait on another single load time in the whole game! Once you finish a level, you start straight away into the next, no pause, no momentary dark screen, nothing! Perfect transition, and this goes the same for cutscenes going to gameplay as I explained earlier.
I'll briefly mention the story or plot, with no real spoilers at all other than the very obvious one that your character Nariko wields the Heavenly Sword, which has always been in the protection of her father Shen's clan. Nariko is entrusted with protecting the sword when King Bohan's (voiced by Andy Serkis) forces attack, seeking the sword. Nariko is then forced to use the sword in order to battle Bohan's forces which surrender, and thus the main plot of the game begins from there. The person who wields the Heavenly Sword is slowly killed by the blade, as to use the blade costs you your life energy.
Taking a look at controls, HS is the first game I have for the PS3 that really explores the potential of the SIXAXIS. The back buttons L2 and R2 can pan the camera left and right respectively, L1 and R1 engage different combat modes (which I'll discuss shortly) and then the face buttons involve your two styles of attack (Square and Triangle) whilst X and Circle govern picking up items. The first new trick you learn from the SIXAXIS is that when you are knocked back by an enemy, you can flick the controller upwards before you hit the ground. Doing this means Nariko will perform a counter-KO attack, usually resulting in you facing the back of the enemy, and as you get better this attack will affect multiple opponents. The other main thing the SIXAXIS uses is an effect called "Aftertouch" and this perhaps is the best example of motion sensitive technology. Where the Wii forces players to depend on motion sensitivity, the SIXAXIS allows players to add an extra element to the gameplay that they can choose to use or not. The aftertouch allows you to direct an arrow bolt or other projectile after you've fired it using the directions of motion built into the controller. This took a little time to get used to, but once you get the hang of it it can be quite enjoyable. What's better is that if you don't like using the SIXAXIS, you can switch it off in the Options menu!
Now we get to the best bit, the gameplay. There is no doubt that the fighting here is HS's finest strong point. It's fast, dazzling, free flowing and really shines the PS3's processing power and speed. Generally speaking you will fight enemies in a closed area, and won't be able to proceed until you've killed them all. This is probably the only criticism I have of the game, as I prefer much more dynamic and non-static-area-related-fighting. Nevertheless, that sole reason is not enough to spoil the game in any regard. The environments are failry destructable, usually allowing you to pick up bits of debris and fling them at enemies aswell.
Once you begin to use the Heavenly Sword, you have a choice of three attack stances: Speed (which is default), Ranged (triggered by L1) and Powerful (by R1). Heavenly Speed Stance attacks are blue, do moderate damage and are reasonably fast. If Nariko is standing still in Speed stance and an enemy uses a speed stance attack against her (blue colour), she will automatically block it. While using Speed stance, she cannot block powerful attacks (orange) or ranged projectiles. Similarly the range and powerful stances allow you to block ranged and powerful attacks respectively but nothing else. This encourages the player to be conscious of the types of attacks enemies are making and at the same time let's you know what types of attack the enemies are unable to block!
Weapon combos are made from combinations of the Square and Triangle buttons. At points the game becomes a bit of a button basher, but it fails to matter as the moves performed by Nariko are so dazzling and spectacular that you really don't care so long as you can see her sword sliding through the air and followed through with an appropriate blood spray. Naturally there are combos for all three stances. Personally I love the Triangle x3 combo in ranged stance, as Nariko swings the blades at the end of the chains in a cyclonic manner, whipping up debris on the floor which hits enemies, as well as the actual blades hitting the enemies too. More combos are unlocked by how well you play the game, how good your style is. A little bar and hit count appears at the bottom of the screen when you start landing hits. The more you make in succession without being hit yourself, the greater the chance of you unlocking more stuff.
Nariko's adopted sister Kai is controlled for some portions of the game aswell. She is armed with a crossbow, and her missions usually revolve around sniping and sneaking. Unlike Nariko who is a close combat warrior, Kai is more nimble, so she can stun enemies and hop over terrain instead.
The other beautiful part of the game is the special attacks and dynamic touch-button fight sequences. There are several times in the game where you will be forced to engage in a much more dynamic form of gameplay, where the camera angle will change drastically and the visuals of the game come to fruition. One good example is when you have to run down about a 1/4 mile length of rope to the top of a natural pillar. The guards see you approaching and so they cut the rope. You need to tap the X button rapidly when prompted so Nariko will have a good running jump, and then move the analog stick as prompted so she can jump to an adjacent rope. If you wait too long she'll miss the jump and die. Another is in one of the boss fights, where after pressing circle, you become engaged in a button sensitive combat. Whether its to move the analog stick or tap X, Square or Triangle, your speed is essential. Should you take too long the move fails and the Boss recovers 50% health and you must try again. It's moments like these that allow the programmers to really show what they can do!
In conclusion, HS offers you a fast paced action packed beat 'em up game with incredible visuals and jawdropping action scenes. Definitely a keeper! What's more is the Ninja Theory have said they have a trilogy in store for the series, which means there's more lovely goodies to come!