Heavenly Sword's Thematic Resonance

(*Heavy spoilers for Heavenly Sword*)

Last week I lambasted Ninja Theory’s second major game, Enslaved, for being an unconnected, thematically stupid, waste of potential. What made this failure hit harder than most abysmal failures in the AAA game space was their previous game, Heavenly Sword. Whereas Enslaved was a thematic mess that couldn’t follow through on any of its set up (a post-apocalyptic, savage land, philosophical journey, relationship metaphor) and ended up with a muddled pile of unfulfilled promises and pointless distraction, Heavenly Sword is a streamlined, compact piece of work with all the pieces (a revenge and redemption story set in the mythical iron age in the style of a wuxia movie) going in the same direction. Ludonarrative dissonance (Though Enslaved was more of a case of ludonarrative-who-gives-a-shit.) is a term that gets thrown around a lot – most of the time misapplied – to the consternation of many, but its opposite, ludonarrative resonance, is an apt term for Heavenly Sword. It is a combat heavy game where its elements not only work well with the combat they demand it.

Heavenly Sword, at its core, is a game thematically about revenge and secondarily redemption. Both of these themes comes across during the narrative elements, but reinforced by the mechanical and aesthetic ones. All the elements of the game support an excellent story within the interactive experience. The game chose an aesthetic quality and worked with it to create a cohesive whole.

The theme of revenge is front and center in the game. We begin in medias res with the player as Nariko thrust into a battle against a vast army before succumbing to the titular sword draining her life away. From there we enter a frame narrative within the consciousness of the sword itself sending us back 5 days to see how we got to that point. We learn Nariko was a child of prophecy, but the prophecy called for a male savior to wield the Heavenly Sword and Nariko was deemed cursed because she didn’t fit the description and her mother died in childbirth meaning there wouldn’t be a second child. Her father is distant at best and she is held in contempt by the rest of her clan. Into this oh so stable situation comes King Bohan, a ruthless conqueror who wants the sword to his own ends. He does this by slaughtering and/or kidnapping everyone in an attempt for Nariko to give up the weapon. So she, along with her sidekick/friend/surrogate sister Kai go on a rescue/revenge mission against Bohan.

It is standard martial arts story arc with a few interesting twists. A martial artist looked down upon, rejected or otherwise disrespected goes on a journey to grow in skill and as a person. This is emphasized by the mechanics of game. We progress from sub-chapter to sub-chapter, entering new locals always moving forward for we are on a mission. The more Nariko fights the more combos in the various stances are earned, representing her growing in skill. Nariko is very ruthless person in how she dispatches her enemies before moving on to the next batch. They plead and back off not wanting to confront her, but the violent nature of the era and circumstances mean they are going to die regardless. She charges up to them and slaughters them by the dozen. They are the faceless fodder for the martial artist to overcome so that one may face the real challenges, the masters.

Revenge is a dirty business and a violent one at that. The game is filled to the brim with elements subtly and overtly reinforcing the conflict between Nariko and Bohan and their animosity towards one another. And this is not just a matter of war and survival; there is real animosity between Nariko and Bohan’s forces. She taunts both Whiptail and Roach to get under their skin, to psychologically harm them as much as physically harm them. She is outright cruel with her words and unnecessarily vicious towards them. This is not a war. This is hate. The violence of the combat is only one such element to emphasize it.

Heavenly Sword is an example of the wuxia genre. Ninja Theory based the game’s style on the filmic style of the genre, the most well known examples of which are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. These are all martial arts films with emphasis on fast, physics defying combat and acrobatics. The wuxia genre has its beginning in Chinese literature with the genre adapting into every medium since, but Heavenly Sword takes its stylistic cues from the movies. It build on the stylized fighting and generic archtypes of Asian cinema, as seen through the eyes of westerners, and utilizes those traits to its own end. The combat is fast and smooth, with one of the three fighting stances emphasizing the near impossible acrobatics (range stance) which are also represented at certain sequences through quick time events and makes some interesting choices with regards to secondary mechanics all grounding the mechanics as well as the narrative in the wuxia genre.

At the time of the game’s release Heavenly Sword was relentlessly compared to God of War because of it’s combat. It is important to note the differences between Heavenly Sword’s and God of War’s. God of War’s combat is far more brutal, emphasizing power and dominance through strength, while Heavenly Sword’s combat is based on speed and dominance through martial skill. Kratos’ movements feel heavy with weight behind them. He is heaving the Blades of Chaos with all his might to do as much damage as possible. The finish moves are brutal and gory to show his utter dominance over his foes. Nariko’s fighting by contrast emphasizes martial skill and a sense of timing in the button presses. Through most of the game, tells given by the enemy animations and the timing of Nariko’s own animations are the key to fighting. The style of combat represents her victory through ability rather than winning through a brute force mentality. This prowess of martial arts is taken to the ultimate extreme in the final chapter, where merely walking by one of the lesser enemies is more than enough to defeat them and single swing can send groups of them flying. Her ability has transcended mere mortals, even by the standards of game.

There are more than a few quick time events that display animations of gravity defying skill showing off maneuvers both in combat and out of it. When you build enough skill to fill the superstyle disc in the middle of your health meter you can execute a superstyle attack. These are special attacks that are an instant kill on the enemy you use it on and as you level them up by earning glyphs throughout the game they become more powerful and able to cause damage to surrounding enemies as well or finish off whole groups. The animations to the attack depend on which fighting stance you are in when you execute it. Were these moves stung together it could have been right out of a wuxia movie.

But what I think emphasizes the style most of all is the throwing/shooting mechanic. If one holds the button after unleashing a projectile the camera will follow its path and the player can control it through use of the PS3’s sixaxis. You can make arrows bend around objects, weave through enemies, or just adjust course however many times needed to strike the target. Time slows down, both friends and foes alike reduced to a crawl only to resume normal speed once you let go. In no other genre can I think of any examples where the shooter has control over his ammo through some mystical martial skill that is never ever explained. The control is meant to represent firing in such a special way causing it to change direction or the shooter being skilled enough to have the projectile ride air currents to the target. Many games ape filmic styles to give the player an opportunity to feel like they are in a movie of their choice. Here Ninja Theory chose a genre that fits the game mechanics and where the constant combat does not feel extraneous.

As I mentioned before the setting and chosen genre also fit into the mold of revenge. Even the color palate gets in one it, with the game full of golds, oranges and reds. Nariko herself has golden skin with a long rope of bright red hair. These are the colors of violence and blood. Even the non-red colors are sent through a rust hued filter to give the game a rather unique look and one that visually sends signals to the player of what the game is about. Look at screenshots showing these factors alone and you know what the game is all about.

Bohan’s raven, the bird of death, is another minor detail that reinforces the theme. It appears throughout the game along Nariko’s path and eventually grants her enemy the power of a god to become “the Raven King.” A king trying to kill her, the same one she openly declared to kill now represented by the bird of death. The reinforcement couldn’t be more obvious.

Kai is an interesting character when it comes to the theme of revenge. She is an emphasis of violence meant to contrast with Nariko. Where Nariko is an up close fighter with all her skill tailored to the sword, Kai, on the other hand, is a long-range killer whose skills emphasize hiding, evading and shooting. But there is an innocence about her. She is meant to be much younger than Nariko, possibly in her early teens, but unlike Nariko there is no weight to death or killing. It is a game to her, to the extent at one point to get a password from a guard she threatens him by shooting his “weak spot” for “massive damage” before he gives in. Her entire personality is playful and lighthearted. Cracks begin to appear, however, when she finds Nariko in prison. She “doesn’t want to play anymore” and “wants to go home” but it is no longer a game and she is starting to realize this. Then Kai comes face to face with General Flying Fox, one of King Bohan’s minions, only to have the memories of the day she was orphaned come rushing back to her and his face taunting her. Suddenly Kai’s behavior does a complete 180. Gone is carefree, strong-willed and, for lack of a better word, composed individual. Instead, we have a terrified screaming little girl trying to run away from her personal boogieman. She gets kidnapped and hung from Flying Fox’s boss arena. Here her innocence dies. It’s not Nariko who finishes off Flying Fox, but an awakened Kai with a single crossbow bolt to the head. She has gotten her revenge and lost a piece of herself in the process. Kai in a damaged person from the beginning as shown not just by her mannerisms, but attitude towards serious matters like running away from an army to which she prances along and runs in child like circles. Her revenge shocks her out of her oddness, but to what end. The childlike part of her has gone and knows only sorrow and upon awakening she is met by the final shock of Nariko’s fate.

While most of the game focuses on the journey towards and power of revenge, beginning with Kai’s revenge the game switches focus to the after effects. This is the end of the second act and shifts the thematic focus of revenge from the act to the personal effects. And out of revenge comes the possibility for redemption.

At the end of the first chapter Nariko is cornered and without any other choice she draws the heavenly sword and brings it to bear against Bohan’s forces. The sword eventually drains the life force out of the wielder. In an effort to save her father and fulfill her charge she becomes a dead woman walking all for the sake of killing Bohan. She does die in the end, but even more telling is that a part of her is lost even before the final confrontation. From her first use of the weapon she loses a piece of herself. A part of her soul is sucked into the sword to become a prisoner within. When the sword is taken from her in the third chapter she comments that she feels empty without it. We see this part of her being in the in-between chapter cutscene and at the chapter selection screen. Even after her body dies a part of her will forever live in sword reliving these same 5 days for eternity as we the player can go back and replay any section of the saga at any time. She waits there and can do nothing else, not even die or let go.

The damaging power of revenge to oneself and others in amply on display, but the game is not without its hopeful side. For with revenge the game also presents the opportunity of redemption. Following the standard story arc of wuxia genre stories, the protagonist who was disrespected will train, learn and get stronger before presenting oneself before those who had rejecting her. Often these skills are then used to defeat one’s nemesis. In the eyes of her clan, Nariko is redeemed, despite being female, by becoming the warrior of prophecy. Her inner strength shines forward and how she is viewed is changed in their eyes.

In Nariko’s eyes her father achieves redemption. When she was a baby and deemed cursed he wanted to kill her and be rid of her. This secret comes to light during the event so the game and forgiveness seems beyond Nariko at this point. But Kai’s injuries forcing her to return for their help and the heartfelt apology in face insurmountable forces she sees fit to fight by his side and forgive him. Then, at the final battle, Nariko achieves redemption for herself. The final sub-chapter of the game is called Redemption and here is the final stage of the boss fight against Bohan as the Raven King. Once beaten a cutscene plays with the raven abandoning him and his son, Roach, coming up to him and protecting his father in his arms, begging Nariko not to deal the final blow. After everything this man has put her and her clan through, glowing with divine energy, she relents. She has achieved total victory, killing Bohan would serve no purpose other than her revenge, but she lets go of her hate and allows him to go off peacefully. However, even in redemption, she cannot recover the piece of her lost to the sword only move on, just as her father cannot undo the wounds he caused her only heal them, or Kai recover her innocence only grow up to her new responsibility of protecting the Heavenly Sword. Even in redemption the damage still exists and the pieces are still lost.

All of these themes are in the story and the narrative elements, but here Ninja Theory’s combat systems work and don’t fly in the face of what they are trying to do with the rest of the game. Here they are necessary and add resonance that improve the base components to greater meaning in conjunction with each other. This is the type of thing that Ninja Theory is capable of and to fall so far with Enslaved.