July 27, 2007 - Today at the office, we were fortunate enough to receive a preview build of Ninja Theory's greatly anticipated title: Heavenly Sword. The build essentially spans all of chapter two, which is made up of a variety of levels, including a short segment where the player takes on the role of Kai, Nariko's strange young friend. Although the build took only about an hour and a half to complete, there was a great deal of new material (at least for me) to analyze, and we're going to map out our experiences for you.
Does anyone else think this looks like fun?
The opening of chapter two was quite familiar to us, since it's the same material to be found in the PlayStation Store demo. Although, there is one additional cutscene that takes place prior to all the action. It features Kai in a pitch black environment, crouching on the ground. We're not entirely sure if this is meant to be a mental projection or some metaphorical representation, but regardless, Kai listens to Nariko's worried questioning and responds in surreal, whimsical speech. The quality of this cutscene is astronomical. The directing and voice work is simply top-notch, and I personally have never seen in-game graphics present such startlingly convincing facial animation.
So, after fighting the first two battles that you're probably familiar with by now, if you've played the demo, Nariko makes her way through the gate and must fight through several more waves of enemies. One particularly fantastic segment of the level features Nariko on a bridge, where she has to use her range stance combos to deflect oncoming arrows as she makes her way across (very reminiscent of Jet Li in Hero). There were also, surprisingly, puzzle-like segments to speak off, which involved throwing the enemies' circular shields at targets (though there were actually gongs) in order to open doors and gates. This dramatic shift away from combat was refreshing for me, and encouragingly suggests that the game won't be purely combat oriented. After all, breaking up the action in an action game is critical to a good experience, and Ninja Theory seems to have taken that into account.
There are also two boss battles to fight, which were particularly enjoyable (I'll return to those in a moment), but the cutscene that introduces King Bohan and his generals is priceless. Andy Serkis not only helps direct the cutscenes in the game but also plays the role of Bohan, and his immense talent easily shows. The eccentric humor and viciousness of Bohan is a must-see. His brow, eyes and mouth move almost perfectly to convey the subtlest of emotions, and seeing him interact with other characters is quite possibly worth the price of the game. Furthermore, the design of his two generals (so far) is superb. Flying Fox, a (literally) insane blade-wielder, and Whiptail, a twisted, serpentine seductress, are perfect characters to compliment Bohan and his disfigured child, Roach.
Wouldn't want to be him... of would I?
In the preview build, Nariko must face Flying Fox and Whiptail as she attempts to rescue her father, Shen, from Bohan's maniacal clutches. The battle with Flying Fox isn't particularly challenging, as long as you stay agile and avoid getting caught in the furious whirlwind of his blades. What was more enjoyable for me, actually, was watching Flying Fox speak. He's crazy. Demented, even. And I look forward to seeing what the general populace has to say about this eccentric villain. He should spawn a good number of threads on the boards, I can assure you.