Developed by Ninja Theory (formerly known as Just Add Monsters), the developer behind 2003's Kung Fu Chaos, Heavenly Sword is the latest in the action brawler genre - made famous by Sony's own God of War franchise.
The concept is simple enough - a third person action adventure (with a fixed camera) where the player must guide the heroine (and, occasionally, her friends) through a number of chapters in the game's story. Most of the time this involves attacking enemies in melee combat with the titular Sword - enemies that often outnumber you ten to one, and sometimes thousands to one.
There's some added complexity in the combat itself, in the form of the stance system. Hitting square or triangle will perform quick attacks (quick stance) whilst modifying your stance by holding L1 (ranged attacks) or R1 (powerful but slow attacks) will change the type of attack that pressing square or triangle will pull off. There's also a combo system, where chaining together certain attacks will perform combos which achieve greater damage, kick the player up in the air or break through their block - making them vulnerable.
On top of that, the enemies will also be using one of these three types of attacks - the same types you can use. Which attack they are using is clearly identified in the enemies’ movements, which are colourised to clue in the player as to what is going on. The reason you need to know what type of attack they are using is simple - to effectively block an attack, you must be in the same stance as that attack type. So to block a powerful attack, you need to be holding R1 (you will automatically block when attacked so long as you yourself are not attacking).
This stance system sounds like a cool idea until you find yourself in a fight with ten or so people, each of which are attacking you using different attacks. It's at this point that it falls apart somewhat and you resort to using the right thumbstick to get the hell out of there (the evade function).
Not all of the levels are of the third-person brawler variety - from time to time, you'll be put in charge of a character that is fixed in place but has a ranged weapon to take out the bad guys which are, as you might expect, up to no good. Whether controlling a bow & arrow or a fixed cannon, the controls are basically the same. You can fire using square at will - if you hold square, however, the camera switches to follow the projectile, time slows down (think: bullet time) and you can affect the trajectory of the projectile using a SIXAXIS (motion) controlled aftertouch.
These levels are painful. The controls are weak (adding waggle where waggle doesn't work won't impress anyone, developers - just don't do it) and they highlight (particularly in the case of the crossbow level) how ludicrously inappropriate first-person shooter type controls are on a thumbstick controller. Halo gets around it with clever autoaiming / aim assist - Heavenly Sword figures "let ‘em suffer”, and suffer you will. Fortunately it doesn't seem to be possible to fail these levels, no matter how many of the bad guys you miss.
Another variation to the levels that appears in the third person action levels is the now familiar "quicktime event" sequence, where you have no control over your character as they execute a suite of moves, but must push a button or push the thumbstick in a certain direction at key points in what is otherwise a cinematic sequence. These sequences, like the rest of the game, are well directed - you'll quickly forget that you're essentially playing Dragon's Lair as you get caught up in the drama of it all.
Graphically Heavenly Sword is spectacular. The character models, textures, weapons, animation (particularly facial animation) is amongst the best ever seen - anywhere. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) was closely involved (along with Wellington's Weta Digital) in making this animation and general cutscene direction the great success that it is. You can see Andy's face in most of the bad guys, in fact. The general production even has a Peter Jackson-esque quirkiness level to it, although we don't believe he was involved in any way.
This is not a long game. Most players will be able to finish it in under six hours - and that includes something like two hours of non-interactive cutscenes. If you're a God of War fanatic you'll have no problem completing it (a friend of mine clocked it in under five hours, dying only once). If you're not familiar with that sort of mechanic, however, the game can be pretty daunting in the difficulty department. Not because of any one enemy, but because of the game design - if you die on a boss, you'll need to re-clear all of his henchmen (Flying Fox, the first boss, has 30 or so) before you can have another crack. If you're not familiar with this sort of punishing mechanic you could be forgiven - we thought it died out years ago.
So: we've got a pretty, short, next-generation God of War-alike with quirky gameplay. Should you bother? If that sentence appeals to you, then sure, go for it. If this is a genre that's new to you however, steer clear. It's a nice showcase for your $1200 console and your $3000 television, sure, but something like God of War or God of War II makes for a much better experience. The one thing Heavenly Sword did achieve is to whet the appetite for the (yet to be announced but sure to be coming) God of War III. Now that will be heavenly.