Movie Review: Heavenly Sword

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Of all the games in Sony’s impressive stable of exclusives, Heavenly Sword makes complete sense as one of the first to be adapted into a full-length animated film. The PlayStation 3 action-adventure game already plays like an interactive movie, featuring noteworthy voice acting talent, high production value and dramatic directorship provided by the voice and motion capture star behind Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, Andy Serkis, who also voiced the game’s lead villain, King Bohan. It’s a bit strange that it took seven years since the game’s release for its movie counterpart to come out — a full console generation has passed and a new one has begun — without any sign of the sequel PlayStation gamers and Ninja Theory fans crave to bring the Heavenly Sword name back to relevance (although Hellblade does look like it’ll be a worthy spiritual successor). But here we are, on the day of the straight to DVD/Blu-ray/Sony Entertainment Network digital download release of the Heavenly Sword movie. I don’t know if it was worth such a long wait, but it is a fun watch nonetheless.

For the most part, the 85-minute Heavenly Sword movie holds true to the storyline of Heavenly Sword the game. In fact, snippets from the cel animated prequel mini-series released online in five episodes prior to the game’s launch are weaved in with the CG animation early on in the story to authentically establish the foundational lore. Nariko, the graceful yet fiery red-haired heroine of this tale who also just so happens to be a kickass swordswoman, was born in the year when prophecy foretold that the divine warrior would be reborn to claim the legendary Heavenly Sword and bring peace to the land once more. However, as a female in a male world, her birth, which caused the death of her mother, was seen as a curse, as she could not possibly be the “Chosen One” protector of the mythical blade that drains the life force of anyone who wields it in battle, and thus growing up she became shunned by not only her clan, but even her own father. However, with the tyrannical King Bohan seeking the sword at all costs in servitude of the dark Raven Lord, Nariko must make her own choices, against the will of her father and clan, in order to protect them.

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All of the villains and “boss battle” scenes from the game are represented here, including Whiptail, Roach, Flying Fox and the ultimate showdown with Bohan. The narrative flow is pretty much the same as the game as well, except for a few liberties taken and a couple new, completely bland and unnecessary characters that were added to the script for reasons I don’t understand. One of these characters, Kyo, who is voiced by Nolan North, is introduced early on and plays a role in an inconsequential twist late in the movie, but overall he’s a nothing character who looks out of place in this setting with a design that is more like some emo character from Final Fantasy or some other Square Enix JRPG. And then there is Loki, the son of Master Shen, brother to Nariko and Kai, and the true “Chosen One.” Yes, Nariko has a brother, contrary to the game’s storyline. Loki’s introduction serves as a plot device to propel Nariko and Kai’s journey to find the brother they never knew they had and give him the sword to fulfill the prophecy, but his presence in the film is a throwaway. It’s as if the producers only added him so they could get a Hollywood actor — in this case Thomas Jane — to voice the role and highlight his name on the cover for more star power appeal. It sure doesn’t help that Jane’s performance is lazy and disengaged, as if he dropped into the voice-over booth for a couple hours one afternoon without any knowledge of the game and recorded a few lines just to earn a quick paycheck.

Fortunately, these tangents from the game don’t have as much impact on the core storyline as you might think. Actually, the changes to the story arc give more screen time to building the relationship between Nariko and Kai, the odd, seemingly harmless, sort of Gollum-esque girl who talks like a child but is a deadly markswoman with her crossbow and, as she puts it, likes to make things bleed. In the game, Nariko and Kai had their own playable missions, but the movie is almost like a buddy fantasy adventure as the two travel and fight together. For a lot of fans, Kai was as much of a star from the game as her big sis, so seeing her have a more constant presence here is only a plus.

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Jane’s sleepy performance as Loki aside, the voice acting is solid. Anna Torv reprises her role as Nariko, and while her performance here isn’t as fiery as the game (it’s probably hard to rekindle the passion for an old video game character after seven years growing as an actress in larger TV roles), there is an attachment to the character that ultimately shines through. Beyond Torv, a lot of the voice cast has changed. Nolan North puts his diverse range on show as the new voice of numerous characters, including Roach, Master Shen and Kyo. Kai’s original actress, Lydia Baksh, has been replaced by Ashleigh Ball, but there isn’t much of a difference. The one major change is Alfred Molina as the new voice of Bohan. Due to scheduling conflicts, Andy Serkis wasn’t available to reprise his role. Fortunately, Molina fills in admirably as the maniacal villain, even if his voice doesn’t quite have the psychotic flair that Serkis brought to the role.

For the Blu-ray release, the extras menu is disappointingly light on content. In addition to some trailers, the only bonus footage is a 15-minute “Making of…” featurette. The behind-the-scenes doc does offer some interesting insight into the film’s production, in particular how the movie was originally going to be a 6-episode TV mini-series on the Syfy channel. But it’s a shame more bonus content wasn’t added to tie the movie back to its video game roots. The extras menu was begging for things like the full prequel animated series, motion capture footage, voice-over sessions, maybe even a cutscene viewer from the game. It seems like such a missed opportunity to not include bonus content like this.

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While not as much of a cutting edge visual feast as a video game movie like Final Fantasy VII: Adventure Children, Heavenly Sword looks marvelous and is far richer in detail and lighting than the game’s CG cutscenes. (It certainly has a more coherent storyline and far better acting performances.) The battle scenes are exciting, surprisingly bloody, and smoothly animated, fully capturing the graceful sense of motion and fight choreography that made the game a delight to play. Just watching Nariko’s flowing red hair whip around adds dimension and personality to every scene. Viewed by someone who never played the game, the movie will probably lack enough context and momentum to make it a memorable experience. Fans of the game who formed an interactive bond with the characters and have a deeper connection to the world should enjoy reliving Nariko’s tale of redemption and revenge, even if certain changes to the cast and story lessen some of the impact. A short but sweet mid-credits teaser scene is worth watching for as well.

Heavenly Sword is available now for $15-20 on DVD/Blu-ray, and from the PlayStation Store for $17.99 in HD or $12.99 in SD (digital rentals are $3.99 for SD or $4.99 for HD). A free Blu-ray copy was provided to VGBlogger.com for review.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!