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Critical Reception: Sony/Ninja Theory's Heavenly Sword

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Heavenly Sword, an anticipated PlayStation 3 release that critics say is "an impressive, epic hackandslash adventure" that "may not realize its full potential."
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Heavenly Sword, an anticipated PlayStation 3 release that critics say is "an impressive, epic hackandslash adventure" that "may not realize its full potential." Billed as an action title that combines gameplay elements from the God of War and Dynasty Warriors series, PS3 owners and critics alike pinned high hopes on Heavenly Sword. Its success seems especially important for the PlayStation 3 at this point in time, given that the highly anticipated Lair recently debuted to a spate of below-average review scores. However, while Heavenly Sword's average rating of 80 out of 100 is described as "generally favorable" at Metacritic.com, many reviewers note dissatisfaction regarding its gameplay. Joe Juba at Game Informer scores Heavenly Sword at 8.75 out of 10, explaining that its style and graphical flare make for an engrossing experience. "Ninja Theory’s PS3 debut is about more than just action – it's also about presentation," he begins. "Each aspect of Heavenly Sword, from the fighting to the art direction, comes together to create one of the most engaging titles on the PS3." However, according to Juba, this attention to detail does not always apply to gameplay. "The action is stylish and satisfying," he writes, "but it has a few gaps that keep Heavenly Sword from reaching the same heights as some of its illustrious peers." Juba explains: "Button-mashing alone won’t get you through, but the enemies (even the bosses) lack sufficient intelligence to require true calculation. It feels like Ninja Theory was trying to create a strategic and intricate combat system that anyone can play, but that mixed focus occasionally muddles the fighting." "It may not realize its full potential, but the combat in Heavenly Sword is frenzied and entertaining – more than enough to justify giving the game a try," Juba concludes. "It may invite comparisons to other action titles, but I can safely say that Heavenly Sword is a unique and captivating adventure with a style all its own." 1UP.com's Matt Leone also finds that Heavenly Sword's presentation quality weighs heavily in the game's favor, awarding it a score of 8 out of 10 despite noting many flaws. "It's a pretty compelling package," he argues, "especially when you consider that there aren't many games of this sort on PS3 yet, and that Heavenly Sword's visuals are arguably the best the system has seen to date." Leone is particularly impressed with Heavenly Sword's graphical quality. "I can't talk up the graphics enough," he praises. "Not only are the characters and environments incredibly well detailed, but there's very little of that typical (and easily abused) 'next-gen gloss' applied to them, so you get a much cleaner-looking game than fare like Gears of War or Virtua Fighter 5." "When you look at Heavenly Sword as a traditional action game, however, it doesn't stand up to criticism quite as well as its contemporaries," Leone warns. "There's the surface-level stuff, such as how you can't jump [...] but it's the details that stand out the most." He cites several examples: "Such as how you can run past a group of enemies, then turn around and watch them get caught on an invisible wall, not able to follow you. Or how the button-pressing minigames pop up at unusual times and rarely seem to be connected to the buttons you press." "For those looking for the next big triple-A action game, Heavenly Sword is close, but not quite there," Leone summarizes. "It's an example of developers doing a good job being inspired by good taste, rather than looking up the recipe and coming up with something that's a bit different, but not quite as good as the original." Kristan Reed at Eurogamer notes dismay at having to assign a rating of 7 out of 10. "The most disappointing games aren't the low-scoring Driver 3 out of 10s - those are just the road crashes we point and laugh at," he begins. "No, the really gutting ones are always the ones that just fall short of greatness, where you feel sure that with a bit more polish and refinement that they could (and perhaps should) have been amazing." "Heavenly Sword is that sort of game: your sense of disappointment is amplified because it's clear that Ninja Theory handled so many elements exquisitely," he continues. "It really did have the potential to be the PS3's first must-have title - yet, somewhere along the line it doesn't quite deliver. For PS3 owners, the wait for the killer-app goes on." Though Reed acknowledges that Heavenly Sword's presentation is without peer in its genre, he emphasizes that its gameplay doesn't stack up. "The crux of the matter is that the combat never quite feels as gratifying or assured as you'd hope," he says. "Lacking the hardcore depth of a Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, nor as wonderfully accessible as, say, Onimusha or God of War, it sits in a kind of unsatisfying no-man's land between them, and goes its own way to the ultimate detriment of your overall enjoyment. "While there's no denying that the combat can be brutally thrilling to watch," Reed explains, "at no time during the game did we ever feel fully in control of our actions. Wild, random slashing would often be just as effective a technique as studying the combos and attempting to follow them to the letter." While Reed admits that Heavenly Sword is a likable game in many respects, some may not be able to look past its lackluster gameplay. "As it stands, Heavenly Sword is still an impressive, epic hackandslash adventure, and one that's full of memorable moments that keep you engaged right to the end," he says in the game's defense. "But inevitably, no amount of lavish technical polish and drama-filled cut scenes can disguise how it feels to play, and the fact that at its core, the combat doesn't quite cut it." Heavenly Sword's high scores conceal the disappointment that characterizes many reviews. Few call Heavenly Sword's presentation into question, but its underdeveloped gameplay has the potential to leave many gamers' high expectations unfulfilled. Critical opinion recommends Heavenly Sword to those in the market for a showcase of the PlayStation 3's graphical prowess. Otherwise, buyers should exercise caution.

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