Developer – Ninja Theory
Publisher – Namco Bandai
Release Date – October 5 2010
Ninja Theory’s follow-up to 2007’s Heavenly Sword is a loose adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West where instead of being set in ancient China the game is set in a post apocalyptic future. People no longer inhabit the big cities which are now overgrown with vegetation, and robots are roaming the land enslaving any human they encounter. The game itself is like Ninja Theory’s past game, an action adventure game with a heavy combat focus but still fairly shallow when compared to Japanese developed action games.
The big draw of the game is the story which was written by film screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) with motion capture by Andy Serkis. The game has great production values but doesn’t reach the heights of video game story telling that you would expect from such talent. Not much really goes on throughout the game and although there is an interesting ending I felt there was a lack of scope. The story succeeds more on a broader level in terms of the contrast between tech and nature.
The voice acting and motion capture however is top notch with some smart audio design decisions. The art direction is also consistently appealing giving a perfect sense of an overgrown post apocalyptic world devoid of human activity. The game starts off on a slaver ship which the two lead characters (Trip and Monkey) barely escape from. Trip was abducted from a self sufficient wind powered colony while the origins of Monkey are unknown. When they crash land Trip puts a control device on Monkey compelling him to obey Trip’s orders. When Trip dies, Monkey dies so Monkey is forced to help her return to her colony. The game play hook here is that Trip is capable of distracting enemies but is out of the way when combat occurs. Trip serves as a guide for the most part moving you along on a linear path.
The combat of the game starts of pretty basic and while it does get better there isn’t much variety and depth I have come to expect from character action games. As Monkey you have a staff which you can use for physical combat or shoot projectiles from. There are counters, charge attacks and evading but even playing on hard I just relied on blocking while waiting for an opening to attack. The platforming of the game is similar to Uncharted in that there is a lot of climbing with the same sort of cinematic style. And for a twist Monkey has a hover board (which Monkey calls a cloud in reference to the source material) which he uses later in the game to change up the platforming game play.
While this game was lamented as one of the most overlooked game releases of last year, I could see why there wasn’t much momentum behind the release. It isn’t a blockbuster game and the lack of depth in the combat let it down. It did however deserve to sell better and not fall to deep discounts a couple months after release. I still have good confidence in Ninja Theory and hope they will truly make a critical and commercial hit with their next game, a reboot of the Devil May Cry series for Capcom.
Developer – Ninja Theory
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Release Date – September 12th 2007
British based game developer Ninja Theory released Heavenly Sword a year after the launch of the PS3 and was lauded at the time for its animation, acting and graphics. It is a game that still holds up very well and has a sense of scale that is still very rare in modern video games. Sure at times it had hundreds of enemies on the screen but I would say the dramatic music and sound effects along with the theatrical style voice and mocap acting gave the game its great sense of scale. It is very much like a video game version of a grand epic movie like The Lord of The Rings, although I have to say the story could have been better (I got just as much story and plot from the 2 animated shorts that were bonus unlockable content). It has some of the most entertaining cut scenes in a game with realistic facial expressions and interesting movement animations that gave the characters a unique persona.
Like the God of War series it a character action game and starts of pretty similarly in that there is an amazing opening to the game and straight away you can tell it is going to be very cinematic with high production values. The gameplay is solid although it is definitely antiquated now since in the past 2 years excellent games of the same genre like Bayonnetta, DMC 4, and GOW3 have come out with much more fluid action. It does have some innovations that have not been replicated since such as being able to pick up and throw a lot of the objects in the environment and an automated guard mechanic that triggers if you are not pressing any buttons. The standard defensive options are a roll evade (which is dedicated to the right analog stick in Heavenly Sword but has evolved to a button push + left stick in more modern games) and countering (which is harder to pull off than in most other games). The main aspect of the combat that was lacking was the small amount of combos. The game has three stances (ranged, speed and power) which basically acts as three different weapons but there is little variety within them. Heavenly Sword also doesn’t have a jump button which also reduces the variety in combat (although you can hit enemies into the air and perform different combos that way). Weapon pickups are restricted to be solely additional throwing material and there are no items. The game is broken up into five chapters and you alternate between close combat action and shooting segments (bow and arrow, cannon) where you use six axis to guide the projectile in slow motion. I kind of like the shooting segments but it really depends on how you view the motion control of the six axis controller, it you think it is very gimmicky then this game will frustrate you. It took me a while to get a handle on the motion controls but once you do it is satisfying guiding arrows & cannonballs into enemies.
Pick it up if you see it cheap anywhere (I picked it up for $20 AUD), since it is a roughly a 5hr game. Included are some interesting behind the scenes videos that are a must watch if you want to appreciate the amount of work that went into the game in all departments (sound effects, music, voice action, mocap, art design etc.).
Ninja Theory’s next game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is due to be released this year (October 5th 2010) and will be published by Namco Bandai Games. It is being described as a tactical action adventure and looks to be based on two main characters working in tandem. The same lead game designer Tameem Antoniades returns and screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) is working on the screenplay for Enslaved. It looks to a promising project with my only fear being the change in publisher from Sony to Namco Bandai and whether they have the same amount of resources available to them to release a polished product.