a review of Heavenly Sword
a videogame developed by ninja theory
and published by sony computer entertainment america
for the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
In a riveting scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “Magnolia”, William H. Macy’s character, teeth broken out of his skull, tells someone he just met, “I have so much love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” Ignoring the fact that it makes you objectively gay to actually express sympathy for the man portrayed in said piece of cinema, we can move right along and say that each and every human being at Ninja Theory, developers of this videogame called Heavenly Sword, would probably say the same thing if they’d fallen off a metal ladder and had their teeth broken in. Heavenly Sword is a big, lush game, crafted with careful and deliberate attention to what’s popular in videogames these days, and it’s also just about jaw-droppingly boring.
I have wracked my brain, and the brains of many innocent and unwilling civilians, and pored over the cat-burglar-calling-card-like clues that plopped all around the PlayStation Store in the months leading up to the game’s release, and I have come to the Sherlock Holmesian conclusion that Heavenly Sword is in no way the videogame that anyone working on it actually wanted to make. You can tell by the way the nice-enough developers chat about the game in the making-of featurettes, you find scraps of evidence in the shiny two-minute “anime” episodes.
Exhibit A: the PlayStation Store description for the making-of featurettes touts the game as “with a budget rivaling a Hollywood blockbuster”. So games are at war with Hollywood now? And whoever spends the most money is the winner? That settles that debate.
Exhibit B: the anime episodes are actually called “anime” — they’re obviously trying to sell the game to the anime-liking crowd, via wholly optional episodes of “anime” that look good and go nowhere plot-wise, just like, hey, most actual anime.
Exhibit C: I see these anime episodes and think, “If the game actually looked like this, I’d probably buy it”, which is exactly what they want people to think. As far as the marketers are concerned, the next step from here is “Well, the game doesn’t actually look like this, though I guess I’ll buy it anyway.”
Exhibit D: a video I saw on YouTube around two months ago, comparing the way this game ended up looking on PlayStation 3 to the way it used to look when it was in development on Xbox. Back on Xbox, the main character was a large-headed China-dress-wearing kung-fuing she-freak. This must have been because the developers knew that another popular game on the Xbox was Dead or Alive, where characters looked just about exactly the same. Now that the game’s on PS3, the main character is something like the daughter of a supermodel and the hero from God of War. She has some kind of ambiguous friend, who’s about halfway mentally &^#$#ed, who wears a cat ear hood, because, as we’ve established, someone on the game’s staff both watches and likes anime. It’s safe to say that the oriental trappings were chosen because someone had a hunch that east Asia was marketable and no one could prove him wrong. And while the game isn’t nearly as offensive with its setting as Jade Empire, which painstakingly recreated a “mythical fantasy world” that looked a whole heck of a lot like Ancient China and then hired an actual linguist to create some hokey-as-stuff-sounding “Ching-chong ching-chong” Chinese apery and/or scrawl disgusting scribbles on scrolls in temples instead of just, you know, using actual Chinese and being done with it, it has these jarring, groan-worthy moments in which large Asian-looking men will scream at our red-haired femme fatale, “I’LL TEAR YOU A NEW ONE!!” I’m pretty sure that coloquialism didn’t exist in any one of the many imaginary Japanese historical periods. And I’m pretty sure there aren’t actually any Japanese girls named “Nariko”.
How is the game, then, you ask? Who gives a heck? Read IGN, for God’s sake.
Heavenly Sword screams focus-tested, market-safe, screenshot-approved. The graphics are nice enough, with more bloom than a rose garden. The music is brassy, boring Bruckheimer-film-score stuff. There are big, meaningless heaps of collapsing architecture and things that break just because something needs to break. There are enemies who block every attack you throw at them, because otherwise, you’d never press any different buttons. If you want to just keep pressing the same button, however, you can do that, and you might get away with it. It’s actually not that terrible to play, when you’re fighting things. You dial in combos and hit the right button when you see a flash on the screen, to perform a “spectacular” “finishing move”. After seeing these a hundred times or so, you won’t care less, though as a core game system, I guess it’s not too terrible. There are boss battles, and a story that I suppose is more interesting than taking a stuff without a magazine to read, and while it’s easier to follow than the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” film’s screenplay-by-the-numbers, it sure as hell isn’t Tolstoy. It’s just . . . there.
Should it be trying to be Tolstoy? There’s the rub. Games that, in the past, have tried to be Tolstoy have included Sin and Punishment, the pre-written English script of which scared so much stuff out of so many marketing directors that the game, spectacular as it was, never got released outside of Japan. Heavenly Sword is made by British people; Britian is a country that has produced many proud people who hecked the system and did whatever the hell they wanted in the name of rock and roll, though Ninja Theory is acting bizarrely Japanese, like one of those aching Japanese developers who avoids showing off by clinging to one tired license for twenty years. Except they don’t have a license. They just have Heavenly Sword. And after playing Heavenly Sword, I’m neither convinced nor not convinced that they could make a great game, that they could put all their love somewhere without frightening us or putting us to sleep. I’m not going to rule out the possibility that it might be nice if they try, though I will be (slightly) unfair and insist that, with Heavenly Sword, they didn’t try, really. There’s the occasional scene where you control a semi-&^#$#ed girl whose method of “attacking” involves pressing the appropriate button to counter an enemy’s attack and swerve around them; I could try really hard to spin this out and call it a subversion the modern trend in “stealth” segments in videogames, though when I consider how heavily the game relies on quick-timer events (press X rapidly to run down a chain!), and how utterly bland the rest of the game is, I have to go ahead and consider the actual cool concept an accidental one-off.
Tomonobu Itagaki, producer of Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden, when asked what he thought about this game for some reason, said that the quick-timer events were boring, and that he would never make a game with such things in it. Itagaki is known for saying some jerkweed things with diarrhea frequency, though sometimes you really have to hand it to the guy. A spokesman for Ninja Theory, clearly on the defensive because he has Dead or Alive posters on his wall, was quick to say that they put these button-rapping events into the game because it allows players to experience an unparalleled level of cinematic excitement that they can’t experience merely through playing the game. I thought about this answer, knew deep in my heart that it was a cop-out, scoffed, and spoke to my computer monitor: “Maybe you just need to make some more interesting games!” There was no one around to high-five me, so I got a little depressed for a bit, and I got even more depressed when I realized that the Ninja Theory dude’s statement had been, essentially, a confession — he was apologizing for not being able to think of more interesting concepts for a game. All at once, it dawned: this is why Treasure bases their games on one tiny core concept, explored and mutated throughout the duration of the game; this is why Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden lets the player run up walls: without these little crunch-pockets, your videogame is not a videogame. Man, I don’t even like Ninja Gaiden, and here I am defending it. I guess that says about all there is to say about Heavenly Sword, then.