Sunday, September 27

Heavenly Sword and Skill Bias

Heavenly Sword has proven to me that bias can exist in a game's review. I had previously been conscious of review bias and subjectivity, but I also believe that reviews should seek to present as much of an objective view as possible. And to their credit, I believe that most professional reviewers do aim to discuss games objectively. But through my experiences with Heavenly Sword, I have learned that, sometimes, objectivity just isn't possible.

Towards the end of Heavenly Sword, I was discussing the game's combat system with my brother. "Man, I can't stand this combat, it's awful," I said. "No, its not," he said. He had completed the game long ago, not to mention achieved gold medallions on ever chapter. He said, "I played that game a lot, and I was never annoyed by the combat. You just fail at it."

Well, it turns out that this was half-way true. By the time I'd beaten Heavenly Sword, I still was pretty terrible at the game, or at least, I did not enjoy it that much. I was all ready to rant about the game and its frustrating combat, but I realized that perhaps I should spend some more time with it. Maybe, with more experience with the combat, I would be able to understand its intricacies and would better appreciate the game. Was my frustration with the combat due to my misunderstanding of it, or was the combat just plain bad? Did I have a skill bias?

Having re-played a few chapters, I've become better at the combat and do, in fact, appreciate it more, but many of my original misgivings, reasons for disliking the combat still stand.

Combat in Heavenly Sword revolves around the balancing of three fighting stances: speed, range, and power. Each stance has an associated color: blue for speed, orange for power, and red for unblockable attacks. Range stance, meanwhile, allows Nariko to sweep through arrow barrages. Enemies' attacks are always highlighted with one of these colors, telling players how to defend them. When in the matching stance (e.g. power for an orange attack), Nariko will automatically block incoming attacks, provided that she is standing still and not in the middle of a combo of her own. The game has no dedicated block button. Players must be not-attacking and in the correct stance to block a given attack. One more very important feature of the combat system is the counter button, which, for some reason, every developer of an action game feels absolutely compelled to include. Just following or directly when blocking an attacking, pushing the triangle button will cause Nariko to counter that enemy.

In theory, this sounds great. But in practice it works considerably less well. There are several flaws in the combat system that serve to break the fluidity and fun. AI is one issue. Though Nariko will often be surrounded by ten enemies or more, rarely will any of them have the guts to attack until the moment the player chooses to. Apparently, the attack command orders the enemies in addition to Nariko. And since not-attacking equals blocking, Nariko will get hit the instant players decide to stop waiting around for enemies to be aggressive.

This AI deficit is compounded by the severe numbers of enemies who block (particularly towards the end of the game) and the means by which you break through enemy blocks. By the time you have the full list of combos available, many, many combos are able to break through blocking enemies, opening them up to further attacks. But most of these block-breaking combos don't even injure enemies, as it is the final hit of the combo that eventually breaks their block. Meaning you need to newly attack that same enemy again within the two-second window that he or she is vulnerable. Otherwise, you have to wait for enemies to attack so that you can counter with triangle. And in no galaxy I've ever visited is waiting even remotely fun.

In the meantime, the other dozen or so enemies finally decide to attack Nariko in the middle of her combo. Unfortunately, Nariko's attack animations are fairly sustained and switching stances isn't exactly responsive. Without a direct way to  interrupt combos, I would frequently get attacked mid-combo because there was nothing I could do to prevent it. I do not mind the lack of a block button, but extended combo animations and a delay in switching stances cause the combat system to buckle under its own weight.

My play-through of Heavenly Sword was frustrating, especially during the boss fights and any sequence involving quick-time events, both of which utterly fail. I very much appreciate the linearity of the game and constant switching between combat with Nariko and shooting scenes with Kai or with a cannon. I really like how the game was so concise in its offering, unwilling to offer any fluff just for play-length. It was cool going scene to scene, advancing closer and closer to the castle. However, the combat system for my original play-through was stressful and annoying. And though this may have been due to my failing at combat, ultimately, my enjoyment of the game suffered. For me, the  learning curve of the combat system was too great, causing me to dread playing the game rather than anticipate it. Even after playing the game post-completion and improving my skills, my complaints of the system still remain, in my opinion, something no amount of skill can conquer.

If I had been on a time schedule, had been forced to write this review immediately following my completion of the game, then my criticism would fair considerably less forgiving. A reviewer's opinion of a game is certainly influenced by his or her skill at the gameplay systems, as the reviewer may misplace his or her own failing on part of the game.

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