“Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die,” as the saying goes. For as much as we suffer, toiling away in our daily lives, we never want to leave things undone, to run out of time, or miss out on an opportunity. It’s not simply a matter of fearing death — but of all we lose by dying that terrifies us. Which is why I’m talking about 2007’s Heavenly Sword, an action brawler, during October of all things.
We’ve got a lot to be terrified about right now. I have no idea what the United States is going to look like in a few weeks. Everything could absolutely come crashing down into a miasma of madness. Yet I’m still here, writing a column about video games. Earlier this year, Vampire Rain helped remind me why we need entertainment in times like this — it’s a crucial way for us to process what’s happening in our lives and the world around us. Heavenly Sword, on the other hand, is less a game that helps one process and more of a somewhat ironic inspiration in these dire days.
Heavenly Sword isn’t a traditionally terrifying game. Harrowing? Absolutely. Breathtaking? Immensely. Yet the fear it centers on is far more primal, sneaking in without warning while adding a significant tension to the young warrior Nariko’s journey to save her people and stop the mad king, Bohan. You see, in order to keep the legendary Heavenly Sword out of the hands of Bohan, she’ll have to die. Only by taking up the blade, knowing that it will kill her in a week’s time, does she have a chance at stopping the end of the world as she knows it.
In a way, Heavenly Sword is a notable prelude among AAA gaming’s fascination with games that are more engaging than inherently “fun.” I mean, it is a ton of fun to alternate between combo moves in a simple yet deep combat system of fighting stances that’s essentially Arkham Asylum and For Honor combined despite being released years earlier than them. Yet for all the catharsis and dramatic setpieces the game offers, Nariko’s labors to restore peace are in themselves immensely strenuous.
Nariko was born impure in her people’s eyes, her mother dying during childbirth and marking her as a pariah. No matter how hard she struggles, she’s always been less than a person to even her father, and only her sister Kai has always offered her warmth. Nariko has no say in her life, as ordained by bitter, judgemental elders. For as viciously evil as Bohan may be, with his twisted monster generals in tow, this world has always been a cruel, unwelcoming place to Nariko.
With every attempt to appease her people ending in rejection, Nariko embraces the impossible decision to wield the Heavenly Sword. She chooses to find her own worth and destiny while still struggling to save the fools whose hearts were too hardened to see the powerful woman before them. To make something of her life before the end comes. For one week, accompanied by Kai as her sole ally, Nariko alone holds the power to change things.
That’s such a desperate framing for a story. You know that in the end, no matter what you do, you won’t survive this quest. Each step taken drains Nariko more as her bond with the Heavenly Sword grows stronger. Decimating Bohan’s generals only fosters greater bloodlust from the sword as she fights her way to confronting Bohan and the demonic Raven Lord he calls upon. Yet Nariko herself doesn’t lose sight of what she’s fighting for, always protecting Kai, striving to protect the innocent. She has every reason to turn into a cruel, savage warrior in the vein of God of War’s Kratos… but she doesn’t.
Nariko’s actions are always either in service to ending the war or protecting those who can’t safeguard themselves. Her sole moment of giving in to rage is when she’s misled to believe Kai is dead, and even then her goal is to ensure her killer harms no other innocent again. Though her means of achieving her goals are violent, she never engages casually. Even her takedown animations are brutally swift, ending an opponent’s life rather than dragging out the misery. She’s like a fantasy Sergio Leone protagonist, knowing her way isn’t the high road, but neither is it the lowly, evil road that Bohan has taken to amass his armies.
When the war is over and Bohan is beaten, she relents. He’s blinded, his armies destroyed, and he pleads with Nariko to spare his son, which is all that remains. Nariko knows she won’t live long enough to enjoy the peace she has created. Though she questions whether the sword is quite as heavenly as its title proclaims, she finds relief in knowing that those she loves will be safe, and she entrusts Kai to ensure no one misuses the blades in her absence as she departs peacefully.
Can you imagine being so certain in the course you’ve taken that you can rest easy at leaving the world behind? To have that sort of faith not only in yourself but the world and whatever you might believe lies beyond? As I look around my office, I can’t help but wonder — is this all going to still be here in a few months? Will the stories I’m working on see the light of day? Can I be half as certain about my life as Nariko? I try to be. It’s not easy — hell, it’s scarier than any ghouls or goblins a horror game could conjure up — but it keeps you going.
I realize now that’s what Andy Serkis and Rhianna Pratchett wanted to express when writing Heavenly Sword with Ninja Theory’s team. Nariko’s life is never easy. The odds are constantly stacked against her. But she doesn’t give up. Her victory is not solely over Bohan, but over fear itself. The world told her, every day of her life, that she couldn’t be more than a shameful, “cursed” offspring, and she proves them all wrong. She holds on, despite everything in her way, no matter the cost, to fight for what’s right. That’s something we all need the inspiration and courage to do right now.