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Heaven Star: Swords of Destiny
  opened by paleface at 03:10:20 03/10/05  
  last modified by paleface at 05:15:46 04/23/05  
  paleface [sys=PS2; cat=Beat_em_up; loc=JPN]
I got this game because it had some amazing-looking mystical-sword-action screenshots, and frankly I was prepared to be disappointed in the gameplay. Fortunately, this game kicks ass.
And the developer is Artoon? Huh. Also, I see now that it is supposedly getting a NA release later this year. I haven't heard the publisher's name before, so who knows. There is a lot of story, for an action game, in the form of CG cutscenes at the beginning of each stage, but, eh, I don't think I'd need to re-purchase in English if it comes out here.
Because kicking ass on monstrous freaks with a magical sword is the universal language. The control is interesting. My first impression was "crap, the character moves too fast and the camera doesn't keep up." Then "the camera is pretty jerky." Then "there's only one attack button and three dashy-type buttons." I thought it was heading for disaster.
Yet, while my early observations were true, once I found the lock-on button (L1), I found that none of them really mattered. The game goes something like this: you dash along, enemies pop in, you hold L1 to lock on one of them, press Triangle to air dash straight at them, press Square a lot to slash them up with your sword, and repeat until they're all dead.
Sounds boring, eh? Well, so far the game has thrown enough variation into the mix that it's kept me awake and interested. Some of the enemies, particularly ninja guys, will get in some good hits on you unless you dodge (Circle button), and it helps against them to double-jump up into the air first (X button) before air-dashing down to combo them. See how the controls start to work together? L2 switches targets, R1 throws a card that stuns weak opponents, and R2 does something I don't know what yet, but it looks like a big power burst in the manual.
As the title would imply, you get more than one sword, which your character stores in this winglike mechanical sheath on his back, so you can switch them on the fly in a menu screen. For a long time I had just one, and now suddenly I seem to have a dozen or so, and they each have three different stats, and the stats sorta shift when I choose them, so I'm still trying to figure out what that's about.
The game's presentation is rich. It's interesting, too, because it feels a little rough around certain edges (the camera, for instance), but this just lends it a cutting-edge feel, if anything--like the developers were too busy enhancing the ass-kicking aspects of the game to bother with little aesthetic details. But the big aesthetic detail they nailed: you engage in thrilling, swooping air and ground sword combat in a mysterious, dark, mystical world filled with evil sorceresses (sorcerii?), dragons, demons, deep misty canyons, glowy-eyed ninja, smooth medieval-Japanese jazzy riffs, and gigantic bosses that take a solid ten minutes of beatin' on to wear down.
Haze, smoke, particle and blur effects have been layered again and again, building up an amazingly visual atmosphere. The case says RenderWare on the back, but this must be the new, Burnout 3 version of RenderWare, because it looks gorgeous. Not sharp, but rich. The framerate isn't solid 60, I suppose, but it does well enough.
And that gets back to the initial impression of the camera and movement. They're both fast and jerky, but that's the feel of the game. You'll get it the first time you counter-attack at just the right moment to cue the awesome sequence in which your character smashes all the enemies up into the air, slow motion kicks in, then he jumps up after them, air-dashing from one to the next, his sword a whirlwind around him, then landing and, as slow motion wears off, the dead bodies of his foes crash down around him and dissolve in dark blue smoke. Oh man, is that a rush (and hard to screenshot, sorry about that). The game is about swooping and diving with ridiculous freedom and violence, and it doesn't strictly matter if you can see where you're going or your opponent at all times, since as long as you hold the lock-on button, you won't lose your target. The camera, then, is used for effect in combat, rather than navigation, and the combat becomes exhilarating in a way that few games have achieved.
And not to worry, you can't mash your way through the entire game. Aside from the aforementioned ninja, the bosses have nasty huge attack patterns that force planning and evasion.
Well, I could go on and on. This game has style, it has flair, it has big helpings of whup-ass.
I will say one thing against it, though: I wish the lock-on was a toggle, as in Shinsengumi Gunrou-den (see entry 763), because I use the lock-on so constantly that it's starting to cramp my finger up. Also, the lock-on doesn't flip to the next target after you kill the current one, like you think it would, but it also isn't obvious that it has sorta got lost, so it takes a while to figure out that you have to release the lock-on button for a moment after taking someone out, before you can dash after the next target. Easy enough to get used to, but it shouldn't have been necessary.
  paleface 02:37:05 03/17/05 [title updated]
The speed and slow-mo air combos remind me somewhat of Shinobi (see entry 250). I should also mention that the theme is medieval Chinese, sorta. The first part of the title, Tian Xing, babelfishes as "Heaven Star."
  paleface 03:07:45 04/14/05
Well now, this is embarrassing: seems I was wrong about Swords of Destiny. It starts big and bold and fast, with tons of promise, but after a good beginning few levels, starts to go gradually downhill, and at the end is downright dire.
The sword system never quite seems to pan out right: yes you get tons of swords, but they take damage and burn out pretty quickly, so chances are that, by the end, you'll have a large collection of nearly-broken swords. Neat!
The level design seems to get less inspired as you go, devolving into area after area of boxlike mazes and, finally, round arenas with columns that interrupt your lock-on, so you have to re-lock your target if a pillar gets between the two of you.
The first boss gets recycled over and over through the rest of the game. The final two bosses have almost no counter-attack window: most of their attacks don't give any counter opportunity, and when they do, they're split-second affairs surrounded by nasty area-effect attacks. I couldn't figure out how to get in fast enough to hit them, so I had to use all the magic beans I'd saved up to shoot projectile attacks at them until they were dead. Bluh. And while the second-to-last boss has two forms, the last boss only has one. And both of them are way smaller than, say, the second boss. How's that for an anti-climax.
The game as a whole is about seventeen stages, and took me probably somewhere around five or six hours.
Oh! Really annoying is now, after you save, instead of being advanced to the stage select screen, you have to sit on the save/load screen for several seconds while the game re-accesses your memory card so that it can list the updated stamp for the file you just saved. Frustrating and useless, thanks!
Well, I'm disappointed. The first few stages are great fun and show tremendous promise, but then the game just seems to run out of inspiration and ideas. Really, I can't think of any other game I've played that dropped off in quality like this the further I got through it. This is sad.
  paleface 03:31:30 04/19/05
Whoa! Once you clear the game, there's a "Game Plus" style thing where you can play back through again with all the stuff you collected, and lots of new, tougher levels opened up, apparently. levels in the early, non-sucky stages--I might have to try this out! I wonder if you ever get a way to repair your swords, though: lots of mine are nearly broken.
  paleface 04:58:55 04/23/05
Download added: sod_01_courtcombos.mpg (2181124 bytes)
  "Combos in the courtyard. Notice the baddies vanish once I break the Buddha."
Well, I think I've reached a stopping point again. I'm I think about halfway through game plus, and while some levels have new stages in them, others do not, and it is rather painful to go through the same mid-game mazelike corridors again. Also, while the enemies in the interpolated levels are beefed-up, the boss battles are not, which makes them kind of sad.
Oh, I found out how you can restore swords: just pick up more sword emblems representing that sword type from slain enemies.

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