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The Strange Tale of Heavenly Sword
January 13, 2012Posted by on
It’s pretty safe to say the PlayStation 3 launch was an unmitigated disaster. No, November 11, 2006 was not the brightest day for Sony. Ridiculously high launch prices, multiple SKUs, a weak lineup of games, a year behind the Xbox 360, and in direct competition with the Wii, which sold over a hundred million consoles despite not having ten games worth playing. Oh, and Sony pushed BluRay onto the consumer, whether he or she wanted it or not. Yes, looking back on the PS3’s launch must be pretty difficult for Sony execs.
In hindsight, it was a good thing that Sony helped usher in the age of BluRay. It may have delayed their console launch a year and added a hundred bucks to the launch price, but DVD began showing its age around 2005 or 2006, and BluRay ended up being a better format than HDDVD. Sony was also ahead of the curve in the harddrive division. Featuring at least double the HD space as an Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 is the perfect system for easy firmware and software updates. The cheapest model of the PS3 offers at least 120 GB of HD space nowadays; the Xbox 360 offers a mere 4 GB in its basic model. The difference? A mere $50.
So where does that rambling, editorializing first few paragraphs lead us? Here at the Culture Cast, we rarely so often delve into the world of videogames. Personally, I’m not a fan of media podcasts and blogs that occasionally delve into other forms of pop culture. For the third time in our 50+ post existence, however, the Culture Cast will fall back on videogames in order to talk about the strange tale of Ninja Theory’s 2007 PS3 cult game Heavenly Sword.
Those first few PS3 years seemed pretty rough at times. There was a dearth of first party exclusives. Third party publishers seemed to place their best resources and time into developing the 360 versions of their games (in many cases this problem still exists). Outside of the launch titles MotorStorm and Resistance: Fall of Man and the holiday 2007 title Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, there was only one other triple A first party title released in the first year or so of the PS3’s life. This game was Heavenly Sword.
Developed by European studio Ninja Theory and released in September 2007, Heavenly Sword is a third-person action game in the vein of God of War. The story focuses on Nariko, a fierce and deadly warrior princess fighting for her country, father, and adopted daughter against the forces of evil. Nariko must use the mysterious Heavenly Sword in order to defeat the malevolent Raven King and his minions, thus freeing her warrior clan of a terrible curse and saving the kingdom.
So what makes Ninja Theory’s title so strange? The game’s characters and settings are an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese, and other Pan-Asiatic cultures, but the story, writing, and performances are uniquely British. Character actor extraordinaire Andy Serkis hams it up as not only the villainous King Bohan, but also as the game’s cinematic/m0-cap director. It’s like the crazy is cranked to eleven. The beautiful Nariko isn’t a typical early 20s Hollywood type either; she’s an adopted mother, clan heir apparent to a leadership position, and extremely complicated.
Heavenly Sword also has Kai… Kai is Nariko’s adopted daughter and she is twee as fuck. Just check out this cutscene, perhaps my favorite part of the game:
Now that cutscene may make entirely no sense to anyone outside of context. But the great thing about Heavenly Sword is that there is no context. The entire game is exactly like that. Kai is illustrative of the game at large: playful and fun but also almost unnervingly, impossibly weird. It’s no wonder this game couldn’t “save” the PlayStation 3. Who exactly did it appeal to?
Heavenly Sword was expected to sell in the millions and millions. Who knows how much Sony paid Ninja Theory to develop it exclusively for the PS3 (it started out as a 360 title)? It sold just over one million copies worldwide, most of which were probably sold in Western Europe. It didn’t help that Sony gave the game little promotion, expecting the game to appeal perhaps on the fast-fading “Cool Japan” fad. It also didn’t help that Sony seemed to refuse to lower the price of Heavenly Sword. Years after the game’s release it was still nearly as expensive as new releases. As late as November 2010 the game was still listed for $40 in GameStop.
Despite poor sales, the game met with some critical acclaim, garnering a 79 on Metacritic and an 81% on Game Rankings. The game was also nominated for several awards, which was perhaps some kind of validation for developer Ninja Theory, who would go on to create the colossal flop Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010 (they are currently working on the Devil May Cry reboot for Capcom, which fits their sensibilities perfectly). Main character Nariko fell short of becoming a beloved female gaming icon, but her long, red hair and distinctive fighting style and her Heavenly Sword weapon nearly accomplished just that.
There were a ton of reasons why the PS3 failed that first year, and still struggles despite more than making up for the lack of great first-party releases in 2006-2007. Heavenly Sword may have been one of those reasons. But I feel it’s a bit unfair to call it an out and out failure. It’s pretty character design, awesome mo-cap direction, and overall weirdness give it a special place in my heart.