Cynical. That's how fighting with Nariko feels. Comparisons with Devil May Cry and God Of War might be justified, but there's none of the former's showmanship or the latter's sadism. And Heavenly Sword's heroine isn't exactly fighting for her life: the curse on the blade she's swinging means she's a corpse come the closing credits no matter what. No, it's simple. The king has to die. So does anyone on his side. And Nariko's going to kill them all.
Ambitious doesn't seem like a big enough word for Heavenly Sword. We've all heard whispers about how Nariko's hair uses more processing power than a small infantry division of lesser games. Playwright Steven Berkoff - yes, General Orlov from Octopussy - stars as a boss. The Prague philharmonic are doing the music. It's a big project, a PS3-exclusive console-shifter, and it shows. Everyone involved talks about interactive movies, pushing back the boundaries of motion-capturing, how much they've spent. But none of this says what it's like as a game.
White girls can't jump
The first thing you notice about combat is that there's no jump button. DMC devotees will be used to pogoing out of trouble; in God Of War, leaping around is all part of the fun. Being rooted to the ground feels strange, but works because they've used the spare button sensibly. Square is your basic attack, X deals with blocking and picking things up. The key is triangle - prod it when an enemy lunges in and she'll reverse their attack with extreme prejudice, jamming a sword through their guts or snapping their legs like breadsticks.
Holding down o sends Nariko into a whirling flurry of chain attacks - also useful for deflecting arrows - and holding R1 makes her swing with heavy, guard-breaking slices. As more enemies appear, it feels like a Jet Li film - first they circle cautiously, attacking one by one as Nariko counters with ease. Gradually the tempo rises until she's spinning like a tornado, killing everyone who gets in her way. Most enemies are good at blocking, so God Of War style aggression is out of the question. The pace is very different - definitely a good thing.
Anyway, the lack of a jump button doesn't strictly mean that Nariko can't leave the ground. circle is reserved for her special attacks - built up by doing reversals and available in one of three flavours. Level one is a basic man-killer - best used on heavy-set bad lads, it sees Nariko perch on their back and pop their spine. Level two sees her jump into the air with her victim, then hurtle to the ground and take out all the enemies in the vicinity. Level three? Nariko whirls furiously, killing everyone she hits. Also available are traditional air-launcher moves, which can be followed by flicking the Sixaxis skywards to leap after an airborne opponent and beat them up before they hit the ground. Finally, of course, there are quicktime events.
Heavenly Sword manages to beat God Of War at its own spectacular game. In the opening sequence, she runs along a set of gigantic ropes being cut by her enemies, leaping between them like an Olympic hurdler. After all the enemies are dead, she slashes the final rope herself, sending the pillar it's attached to hurtling into a bustling square before yet another massive fight.
You might have seen the scrap with Steven Berkoff already: as Nariko takes on Flying Fox, the pair duel in the air like Chow Yun Fat and Zhang ZiYi in Crouching Tiger. It's spectacular. During boss battles, close-ups show the facial detail on the bosses as they taunt you, while you carry on battling enemies on the main screen. It's atmospheric too - clever scripting and sound has enemies that feel like more than just disposable grunts. "Join the army, they said, have fun, they said," grumbles one, trudging forward to meet a pointy end. "She's coming!" squeals a group of archers, as Nariko deflects their arrows and sprints at them. By contrast, Sword's heavy hitters are quiet and stoic.