Heavenly Sword: Exclusive PlayStation 3 Interview

Sony’s not exactly had the best showing of late. First there was the announcement of a delayed PS3 launch in Europe. Then there was the reduction in launch-day PS3 shipments in North America and Japan. And last week Nintendo announced its Wii would ship two days after the PS3 for $250 — half the price of a base PS3 and $350 less than Sony’s “souped-up” unit.
Coupled with Sony’s overall PS3 silence, it’s easy to think the next-gen console will be dead on arrival for all but the hardest of hardcore gamers. But as Sony is fond of saying, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the company and its developers are moving ever closer to their mid-November launch and the first leg of the next-gen race.
One of the games Sony hopes will carry its PS3 back to the top of the market share hill is Heavenly Sword, a stylish action game that wowed at least as many gamers at E3 as the first-person shooter Resistance: Fall of Man. Since E3, Resistance: Fall of Man has garnered most of the media’s attention, but the developers at Ninja Theory continue to plug away at Heavenly Sword to ensure that when their game ships, it will showcase the power of the PS3 just as well as Insomniac’s FPS. We had a chance to interview the producer of Heavenly Sword, Mat Hart, about Ninja Theory’s PS3-exclusive launch game. Here’s the transcript of that conversation.
Heavenly Sword PS3 screenshot
DailyGame: One of the things that’s so intriguing about Heavenly Sword is its fighting sequences. We imagine you were influenced a bit by fighting games, but where did you draw the most inspiration for the gameplay?
Mat Hart: We were inspired mainly by film, to be honest with you. Wushu films, things like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, that kind of thing. It’s that over-the-top, cinematic, beautiful ballet that builds up to the fighting that really gave us our inspiration.
The combo system, though, with juggling enemies in the air…there’s not exactly a lot of juggling in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Well, I’m not sure if that’s really true, actually. I think I’d have to disagree with you on that. I think our combat is an expression of the unique worlds that are in some of the Wushu films. There are fantastic elements to those films, and certainly there’s a cinematic element, but we recognize that for our game, the important thing is that the combat system be accessible and yet deep. So we’ve worked long and hard; the combat system has been in development for about two years, completely from scratch. We’ve got an amazing combat designer, and he’s basically put this system together.
Now you’ve got guys who’ve never played this game before kicking ass, doing cool moves, looking really great, feeling powerful….You know, you go into power stance and you feel the weight of the weapon, and you’re hitting people across the room, but then you flip over into speed stance, and you’re dancing all over the place, spinning the blades around, just whacking guys up into the air. It’s all really cool, and it flows together well, and we’re really excited about it.
Heavenly Sword PS3 screenshot
So you’ve been working on the combat system for two years. Is combat the first thing you looked at in the development cycle, or what was the first aspect you looked into while developing Heavenly Sword?
The first thing was the combat system, yeah. One previous game our studio worked on was Kung Fu Chaos for Xbox, and we learned so much from that game, so much. This system sort of evolved from that, from the lessons that we learned, and some of the ideas we had while we were working on Kung Fu Chaos really formed the genesis of the combat system you see in Heavenly Sword.
Well then your inspiration from films makes total sense now; Kung Fu Chaos was all about film parodies.
Absolutely. We’re really media driven.
So you’ve had quite a while to work on the PS3 hardware, and you’ve probably learned a lot even just since E3. How has the experience been developing for the PS3?
It’s been great! To be fair, I’ve not had anything to compare it with, because we’re only developing for PS3, this is a PS3 exclusive. I can’t comment on other SKUs or anything like that. But certainly we’ve found Sony to be a fantastic partner to work with. The actual architecture of the console, the power of the PlayStation 3, is what gives us the ability to give you an environment that’s alive, a combat system that gives a unique experience, and a story, an emotionally driven, character-driven story, that pulls you through the game.
Heavenly Sword PS3 screenshot
So as players are going through the game, are there different weapons they can use? Are there ways to upgrade the character or weapons, or are we pretty much set when the game kicks off?
From the get-go you are who you are, and I’ll give you a bit of background on just who that is. Basically, Nariko, the heroine, is part of a clan who are custodians of the Heavenly Sword. They’re there to protect this divine weapon that was given to them by the gods. Basically, it was foretold that a chosen warrior would come to take control of the sword and do something amazing with it. The slight flaw in that plan is that when Nariko was born, they were expecting a boy. So the whole clan is sort of “wait, you should’ve been a guy. We’re doomed, this is such a bad omen. What’s going to happen?”
Well, this king comes along many years later and just rapes the land. In a moment of desperation, Nariko takes the Heavenly Sword, but since it’s a divine weapon, it’s too powerful for a mortal to carry indefinitely, so it’s slowly killing her as she uses it. We didn’t show Nariko’s life force counting down at E3, but [in the final version] the player’s constantly aware of the very small window of time that Nariko has to wreak as much chaos and as much destruction on the opposing army as she can before the Sword consumes her. So it’s truly a race against time.
So to answer your question, the player uses the same weapon all the way through the game, but there are three forms of the weapon: there’s a ranged stance, a speed stance and a power stance. They all have different looks and feels to how they play. There’s also a bit of player progression, so Nariko’s abilities with the Sword will change and evolve and grow, so players will be able to do more with the Sword as the game goes on, but they’ll always be using the Heavenly Sword.
Heavenly Sword PS3 screenshot
OK, so in terms of her depleting energy, will that happen within every mission or level, where her life bar gets lower like a timer?
To be honest with you that’s still being finalized. We have a concept down, but above all we want to create a sense of urgency in the players and make them feel like “I’ve really got a limited amount of time to do as much as I can.” But similarly, we don’t want guys just rushing through the game, so it’s a real balancing act.
What we saw at E3 was obviously an arena type area. Can you talk at all about the single-player portion of Heavenly Sword, and maybe some of the other levels we might see?
Basically you’ve got a half dozen chapters, and they tell the story of Nariko through her journey with the Sword. The environments are all very different, very varied. The chapter that that particular arena was in is part of a vast level built in sort of a water garden with waterfalls and beautiful scenery all around you, mountains all around, that sort of setting.
Heavenly Sword PS3 screenshot
In the E3 demo there wasn’t a player-controlled camera. How much work have you put into the camera to make sure it doesn’t get in the way?
We take camera very seriously, we’ve put a lot of effort into it. We’ve used in-house tools that we developed ourselves and given them to our designers for maximum flexibility and maximum tweakability. To give the player a really cinematic feel, just a little tweak of just a couple of degrees makes all the difference, and our designers are able to do that, and they go through and make sure every single camera is great. Now having said that, the power of the PlayStation 3 controller, with the motion control, has opened a massive amount of possibilities, and we’re really excited about those and are going to exploit those. Eventually, camera could be a very intriguing thing with motion control.
And with that, Mat rushed back into crunch mode.