This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/1VEzL1Gy2v4
This is a love letter to my favourite game studio. A studio that has, over the years, consistently produced captivating games that exist at the forefront of innovative artistic design and cinematic storytelling, and almost as consistently underperformed financially. This is a video about Ninja Theory.
For nearly 15 years I’ve been fascinated by Ninja Theory’s games and their combination of fast-paced action, stunning visuals and riveting narrative. Their games were always vibrant and exciting in a way I couldn’t put into words a decade ago — and even if I could, I didn’t have a Youtube channel then so what would even have been the point?
But things have changed. So I started a project that would end up taking months to complete — a project to re-visit every major Ninja Theory title. I wanted to chart the progress of the studio and their creative vision over the years. And to go on a personal journey, to see if the old magic was still there, to try and remember what it was like to play some of these games when they came out, and to finally try and find the words I couldn’t find all those years ago.
My journey spanned four games and 14 years of development. I chose to focus only on the major titles that Ninja Theory headed, because I figured if I was looking for the studio’s unique creative identity, these four games would be where I’d find it. But I ended up finding a lot more than I expected — disappointment, melancholy, controversy, hope, and a scathing indictment of the AAA games industry.
This is my journey through the fraught and fascinating history of Ninja Theory.
Heavenly Sword begins where we least expect stories to begin: at the end. With two thousand soldiers running straight at you, and absolutely no clue of what is going on other than that whatever it is, it’s epic as hell.
Here’s my immediate problem with Heavenly Sword. It does so many things equally well, I don’t know what to talk about first. The story? The gameplay? The graphics? Where do I start? I decided to start where the game starts: the spectacle. Because that’s how it chooses to introduce itself, with brazen spectacle — an astonishing in medias res opening, immediately exciting combat and an intriguing premise: at the end of the game, the main character will die. This opening scene is one of my forever gaming memories. Oh yes, I played this game when it came out on the Playstation 3 and I still vividly remember how bewildered I was at being thrust with no explanation into the game’s epic final act, watching the main character fall to the ground and die, before the story flashes back to five days prior and begins in earnest. Of all the many things this game delivers, the main one might be spectacle.
And not just spectacle, but fast paced spectacle. For the first three to four hours, Heavenly Sword races the player through short, intense levels with barely a pause to catch their breath. And when I say the levels are short, I mean it. Not only are the levels pacy but it seems like nearly every one has some new conceit to keep things fresh. Here’s some swordplay, now people are shooting at you, here’s a puzzle section, now you have a cannon, now you have a rocket launcher!
There are cool ideas pouring out of this game, not least of which is the swordplay which forms the core of the combat system. Your regular attacks are done with the square and triangle buttons, and this is called “speed stance”, but holding L1 will put you into “ranged stance”, in which your attacks will have more range but do less damage, whereas holding R1 while attacking will put you into “power stance”, which makes your attacks more powerful but also more slow. The result is a pretty deep and fluid combat system in which you’re constantly switching seamlessly between the three different stances, each of which has a list of unique combos to master.
And that’s just the beginning. You can pick up fallen bodies or weapons and throw them at enemies to stun them. If you’re thrown into the air by an attack, you can shake the controller for a quick recovery. You can counter-attack enemies, but some attacks can’t be countered, and enemies themselves will attack in either speed or power stance, and you have to be in the right stance to counter the corresponding attack, which requires some lightning quick reflexes. Chaining together attacks lets you charge up a “superstyle” attack which is an instant kill, OR you can save up those points for a level 2 superstyle attack, which is an instant kill AND stuns all the surrounding enemies, OR save up for a massive level 3 superstyle attack which basically murders everything in the area code. And each level of superstyle attack can be done in speed, ranged or power stance, each of which gives you a different animation.
Frankly, words alone can’t do justice to some of these combat animations, so allow me to present some highlights from my slideshow of pain. These aren’t the big superstyle attacks, by the way, these are just the regular attacks and counter-attacks you see throughout battle. To put it simply, the combat in this game looks good, sounds great and feels even better. When all its elements come together, Heavenly Sword is a glorious whirlwind of elegant, stylish combat that makes you feel like a human meat grinder. When you play as Nariko, you can’t help but be swallowed into a flow state as you leap and spin and slash your way to victory in a balletic dance of violence.
But it was playing as the ranged character Kai that made me fall head over heels in love with Heavenly Sword. This is where the coolest part of the game lives. Kai’s sections are played with the aid of the Playstation’s motion controls. You fire an arrow and then tilt the controller to gently guide it to its home in an enemy’s knee.
Every arrow you let loose is a heart-in-your-mouth moment as your little messenger of death glides closer and closer to your target until…oof! This is right up there with the best uses of the Playstation 3’s motion controls, and I don’t care what the killjoys in the Eurogamer comments section say.
Very few PS3 games even bothered to use the motion controls, and many of the ones that did kind of tacked it on as an afterthought. Ninja Theory not only used the motion control capability, but incorporated it into an impressive range of gameplay ideas. Throughout the campaign, you use the motion controls to guide not only arrows but cannonballs and rockets, deflected projectiles thrown by enemies, objects that you use to trigger switches, and even bodies and random stuff you’ve picked up and thrown during battle. It’s a tiny detail but I love that cannonballs move slowly and are hard to bend, making them feel heavy and unwieldy, whereas arrows feel zippy and precise.
There’s no shortage of clever ideas and loving touches in Kai’s sections, either. Kai gets to shoot her arrows through fire to blow up explosive barrels, which is insane fun. Enemies also react to your arrows depending on where you shoot them — hit them in the leg and they’ll fall, hit them in the shoulder and they’ll reach around for it, hit em in the butt and they’ll react… as you’d expect. Here’s a thing, remember that awesome bit from The Last of Us when Joel gets caught in a trap and you have to shoot dudes upside down? And remember when Jacob Geller raved about how Dead Space 2 did that same thing a whole two years earlier? Wellllll….Heavenly Sword pulled that move four years before Dead Space 2 did.
Now, I do realise that the last ten minutes have just been me listing out a bunch of things Heavenly Sword does, but I don’t know how else to convey what a box of fireworks this game is, full to the brim with creativity and joy and surprise. But. Here’s the rub — not all the surprises are good ones. The worst offender — the chocolate coated raisin in the proverbial variety box — is a section in which you’re inexplicably made to fight enemies up close with a character who only has ranged attacks, forcing you to spend most of your time running around trying to get enough distance from enemies to be able to hit them with your crossbow. While frustrating, this section wouldn’t have been such a disaster if it weren’t for the fixed camera. Since you can’t use the camera to help yourself line up enemies before you take a shot, you have to just turn in their general direction, blindly raise your crossbow and pray you’re facing in a good-enough direction to be able to land one or two hits before they catch up to you. It’s infuritating, which is a word I made up just to describe this section of the game.
There are other issues too. After the first few hours of excitement, the game’s breakneck pace slows down in the rather forgettable second half, relying on some repetition, including a second cannon fight not much different from the first and a couple more uses of the rocket launcher. Melee combat encounters also start losing steam with the introduction of heavily-armoured enemies who block your attacks, bringing the beautiful, swirling hurricane of death to a grinding halt as you repeatedly whack one enemy at a time with block-breaking attacks and hope that meanwhile another enemy doesn’t hit you from behind, forcing you to start the whole whacking process over again.
My other gripe with Heavenly Sword’s gameplay is that it suffers from that bane of mid to late 00’s game design: frequent and frustrating quick time events. I don’t actually hate all the quick time events here. Some of them exist just to add a bit of visual flair to a low-stakes action sequence and don’t involve harsh penalties for failing, but at their worst, they’re inserted into the middle of difficult boss fights whereby being one millisecond too slow to hit an arbitrary button will send your progress in the fight back and regenerate some of the boss’s health. It makes these fights feel cheap and overly punishing.
More than anything else, Heavenly Sword’s gameplay feels experimental, like the devs at Ninja Theory were trying idea after idea just to see if it would work. And to their credit, it mostly does. When I first played Heavenly Sword, it was at my friend’s house — he had a PS3, I didn’t. And the adrenaline-pumping gameplay is partly what made me rush out to buy the game for myself once I had a PS3 of my own. I say partly, because I haven’t yet talked about the other thing that sparked my love affair with this game. Something just as important as the gameplay, and no less spectacular. I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s go back a bit.
It’s 2007, I’m 20 years old and I’m participating in a most epic battle between good and evil. Nariko’s clan is being pursued by the evil King Bohan, who seeks the ultra-powerful heavenly sword. When he captures Nariko’s father, Nariko decides to take up the sword to save him, which she knows dooms her to die in a matter of days because the sword’s immense power drains the life force of anyone who wields it. Her journey to save her father and defeat King Bohan is threatened not only by Bohan’s soldiers and evil generals, but by self-doubt and the mistrust of her own people who have treated her as a curse her whole life.
This story alone would have been more than adequate, but Ninja Theory aren’t content with adequate. Some of the best story scenes in Heavenly Sword happen not in the main story but here, wherever “here” is. Between each of the game’s story chapters, we’re brought to this non-place somewhere between heaven and hell, where Nariko lingers at the end of the game, having just had her life taken by the sword. These scenes feel blisteringly personal, as we watch Nariko confront her own mortality and agonise over the things she’s been forced to do since she took up the sword. Is it the sword she’s talking to, or is it me? I don’t know, but it’s 2007, Nariko fixes her white hot gaze firmly on me, and I’m transfixed. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve looked into a video game character’s eyes and seen something recognisable, something human. Nariko and the other characters felt real in a way that game characters had never felt real before. The motion-capture technology that Ninja Theory used for Heavenly Sword was cutting-edge at the time, and it enabled facial expressions to be captured in more detail than ever. And I know this doesn’t compare to modern graphics, but I think this still looks pretty darn good.
These new technological affordances, combined with Ninja Theory’s flair for storytelling, make for some very emotionally affecting scenes and clever narrative design. For example, these sections also serve as the “chapter select” menu, which is a really neat framing device. As Nariko lingers at the end of her life, literally looking back over the events of the last five days, you also look back over your progress in the game.
With all that said, it might come as a surprise that there are times when the acting and writing in this game are so parody-level bad it’s laughable. I mean, I don’t know where to even begin with this absolute freak show. King Bohan has three generals who serve as mini-boss antagonists: Flying Fox, the snake lady and the fat one. I honestly forgot their names. Each one is defined by one ridiculously-exaggerated trait. Flying Fox is the campy weirdo, snake la- Whiptail is the sexy female, and Roach is the dumb-dumb fatso. These sections are where this game really nosedives into “Saturday morning cartoon” levels of silliness. Flying Fox’s performance is probably the cringiest one, although generally speaking it’s difficult to know whether it’s the acting or the writing that should take more of the blame. Andy Serkis is the only one of these goons who still somehow manages to pull off a great performance and he seems to be having the time of his life while he’s at it.
The tacky tropes and silly histrionics wouldn’t bother me if the game wasn’t also attempting to tell a straight-faced story. When it adopts a more serious and grounded tone, it tackles everything from infanticide to bigotry and revenge with a reasonable amount of emotional heft. But it’s hard to feel the full force of Nariko’s emotional journey when all the other characters are like, “woooooop woop woop woop woop woop woop”
And I simply can’t chalk this up to a lack of talent. Anna Torv, whom you might recognise as Wendy from Mindhunter, gives a searing performance as Nariko. The game was written by Rhianna Pratchett, who is an undoubtedly competent writer and has done excellent work on a variety of other titles. But I have to find a way to explain this to myself. If I had to guess, I’d say the schlockiness was a deliberate decision to try and appeal to a younger audience by embracing the popcorn movie vibe and not worrying too much about exercising any tasteful restraint.
The same is true for the game’s…ethnic…situation. The whole thing is a chaotic potpourri of half-baked Asian references. The characters — like Nariko and Kai — have Japanese names, except when they have Chinese names like their father Shen…and also the music sounds — Middle Eastern? I understand that this came out of a well-intentioned desire to reference a bunch of different things that Ninja Theory thought were cool, but it comes off as a bit jarring. Nariko’s clothing is also clearly based on a yukata or kimono type outfit, but it’s been super sexualised, and to put it plainly, this feels like a tasteless bastadarisation of a cultural garment for the sole purpose of giving the boys a pants tent.
That being said, I don’t think that we should judge decades old media harshly by today’s standards. Ninja Theory were clearly coming from a well-meaning place, and as fan service-y as this is, the gender representation was in some ways still a step forward. Studio head Tameem Antoniades talks in an interview about an E3 conference where, out of thousands of games being shown, Heavenly Sword was the only original IP with a female lead.
So I guess all that was a roundabout way of saying that my feelings about the story elements of Heavenly Sword are more mixed now than they were when it came out, not because the game is bad, but because times have changed and I’ve changed and I can now better appreciate not just how far we’d come but how far we still had to go. Re-playing Heavenly Sword is like gazing into a past that feels like just yesterday and also a million years ago. A time when a lot of us — myself included — just accepted that video games would always be cartoonish and silly, and there was no expectation for the writing and acting in games to be of the same calibre as film and TV.
Which is exactly why playing Heavenly Sword for the first time felt like a glimpse into a not-too-distant future of advanced facial capture technology, gorgeous photorealistic environments, and artistic talent that would bring us moving stories. And Ninja Theory really were at the forefront of these trends. Heavenly Sword got nominated for a bunch of awards including two BAFTAs, for story and character as well as artistic achievement. With Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory firmly established themselves as a studio willing to push the boundaries of what was possible in games.
But playing it today, Heavenly Sword also feels distinctly like a relic of the past, and maybe that’s no surprise. Looking back over the games that were released in that year, the impression I’m left with is that games like Heavenly Sword, God of War 2, The Witcher and Uncharted occupy an awkward but necessary middle ground in the evolutionary history of video game storytelling: dramatically compelling but not yet realistic or refined, just out of reach of being a serious artistic medium. And while God of War, The Witcher and Uncharted all got their chance to grow up, Heavenly Sword didn’t sell well enough to get its sequel.
And this fact has been baffling me for over a decade. It feels like Ninja Theory made all the right decisions, releasing a cinematic action-adventure game right when these kinds of games were taking off. I don’t understand how every single game shop attendant in the world wasn’t saying to mums — “oh, hey lady, your son liked God of War, did he? You should buy him Heavenly Sword! It has a female protagonist…but that’s OK, she’s half naked!”
Nevertheless, despite all its achievements, Heavenly Sword sold poorly, and there are a couple of equally plausible and unsatisfying explanations. Firstly, a full price tag seemed steep considering that the 5–7 hour long game was competing against many bigger AAA games in the same price range. This is especially unfortunate when you learn that Ninja Theory had only been pushed into the AAA space because it was so hard to find financial support for smaller projects that were not indie but not quite AAA. Because the games industry sucks. Secondly, the game released soon after the troubled launch of the Playstation 3, so that a lot of people held off on buying the console, leaving the newly released Heavenly Sword to languish on the shelves. It’s likely that by the time the PS3’s issues were fixed and the game’s price was reduced, gamers and their fickle attention spans had already moved on. And sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time Ninja Theory would make an under-selling, and under-appreciated, game.
Ninja Theory’s follow-up to the mythic fantasy of Heavenly Sword was Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a science-fiction adventure set in a future post-apocalypse America. The game opens with another compelling set-up — a man, trapped aboard a futuristic slave ship en route to something called “Pyramid”. He manages to barely escape the ship as it crashes, along with another survivor, a young woman. He wakes to find that he’s wearing a slave headband that the woman has hacked, which means he has to obey her commands and will die if she dies.
Thus begins the odyssey of Monkey and Trip, a journey of hope and revenge which will take the two lone survivors across a ruined wasteland full of hostile robots. Trip wants to get back home and needs Monkey’s help to get there, and so they fight through a ravaged city and cycle across the country to Trip’s village, where they find that everyone there has been killed or captured by the slavers. Trip vows revenge, and they travel to the West from where all the slave ships come. On the way they team up with Trip’s old friend Pigsy, who brings a bit of comic relief, and after a final climactic battle, Monkey and Trip reach Pyramid and… well, that’s for later.
While Heavenly Sword was a hack and slash made up of short, disconnected levels, Enslaved is a more cohesive, narrative-heavy action-adventure with elements of platforming, melee combat and shooting. But it shares Heavenly Sword’s rollicking pace and gameplay variety. If Heavenly Sword was a pretty darn satisfying box of chocolates, Enslaved is a whole Valentine’s Day hamper. Here are just some of the things you’ll be doing in this game: beating up robots, platforming around precarious structures — sometimes while avoiding hazards or being shot at — shooting stuff with your staff, manning turrets, fighting bosses, surfing, fighting bosses while surfing, solving environmental puzzles, running from enemies, chasing enemies — you get it. Every mechanic is kept around just long enough for the variety to start to wear off, and boom, we’re on to the next thing. Even when it reuses mechanics, it often mixes them up in ways that make them feel new. For example, you might have to fight mechs in a minefield, or while being fired upon by other mechs, or while trying to reach a time-sensitive switch on the other side of the room. The best fights are the ones that mix a bunch of different mechanics together, like this robo rhino that you need to dodge around, then shoot bombs on the ground to damage him, then shoot a gas canister loose and goad him to crash into it, then climb to the top of this pile of trash and squish him. Every individual mechanic is solid, but it’s their inventive combination that makes Enslaved a blast to play from start to finish.
This inventiveness was there in Heavenly Sword, too, but the mechanics didn’t often combine in interesting ways, and being an arcade-style brawler with no platforming meant that it was limited in what it could do. Looking back, these annoying quick time events feel like Ninja Theory wishing they could give the player cool traversal controls but instead having to shoe-horn them into these sequences. Enslaved, while still very much a linear game, feels like a natural progression to a more open environment with more gameplay opportunities, which Ninja Theory made the most of, and on only two thirds of the budget of Heavenly Sword.
And while some of Heavenly Sword’s arena fights could drag on a bit, Enslaved’s combat sequences are short and contain a decent amount of variety. Monkey has a slower and more hefty melee fighting style than Nariko, but the combat is still stylish, with attacks and counter-attacks chaining together beautifully and finishing animations adding some flair. Enslaved also has a more diverse roster of enemies containing turrets, regular mechs, mechs that shoot bullets, mechs that shoot high-damage energy beams, and bigger tougher mechs that hit hard and fast. In addition to this, certain mechs are faulty, which means that if you can get to them and perform a takedown, you can throw them at other mechs to blow them up instantly, or a mech might have an emergency signal, which means you have to take it down fast before it calls for backup. Turrets or machine gun mechs can also be taken down and used to shoot other enemies. And any type of mech can also have a shield that you need to disable with a stun blast before you fight it. Whereas Heavenly Sword’s combat felt fast and furious, combat encounters in Enslaved feel more tactical, as you prioritise and target certain enemies over others. It’s not as deep as Heavenly Sword’s combat system, and it did get some criticism for this, but the variety and brevity of combat encounters mean they never drag.
And right alongside Ninja Theory’s trademark gameplay variety, is Ninja Theory’s trademark narrative mastery and visual design genius. Enslaved was inspired by Journey to the West, a classic of Chinese literature, and there are cool little parallels everywhere if you know where to look. Monkey was clearly based on the character of the Monkey King, who is strong and agile and wields a magical staff. In the original story, he joins a pilgrimage to the West led by the monk Tang Sanzang, also known as Tripitaka. In the novel, the monk tricks the Monkey King into putting on a headband which causes terrible headaches when he misbehaves. And just like Trip, the monk in Journey to the West is intelligent but idealistic and naïve. The novel also features a character called Pigsy, who is a formidable fighter, but can’t keep his sexual urges in check, and is jealous of the handsome Monkey King, very much like the Pigsy character in Enslaved. Interestingly, in the Chinese story, Pigsy starts out as an antagonist, and then joins the Monkey King on his pilgrimage to redeem himself, and this character arc has been broadly retained in Enslaved, with Pigsy initially being a bit of an untrustworthy character and trying to put Monkey in harm’s way, but then nobly sacrificing himself for his friends at the end.
You can tell Ninja Theory had a ton of fun re-interpreting a Ming Dynasty epic as a post-apocalyptic odyssey with killer robots instead of demons and technology instead of magic. Monkey’s sash dangles behind him like a tail, and he swings, climbs and even crouches like some half-primate. The Monkey King is often depicted as riding a cloud and it’s here too, only this one’s a futuristic hover-board. Pigsy also has his own distinct and very fitting animations, and I love the depiction of him as this half-insane loner living in his own weird scrapyard-Disneyland.
It all reminds me of the visual design creativity in Heavenly Sword, from Flying Fox’s retractable blade wings to Whiptail’s freaky cheek scars. It’s like the artists and story designers at Ninja Theory were allowed to just go wild with their ideas, and there’s a sense of playfulness and fun that just explodes out at you from both games.
But in Enslaved, the artistic design is elevated to another level by excellent writing and performances that do not miss a beat. It helps that this time there are no cartoonish villains, no “look how evil I am” speeches, no [*Whiptail scream*] — just two well written and portrayed protagonists. The acting in this game is good — and I don’t mean “good for a video game from 2010” — I mean completely fantastic. Andy Serkis is back, and he does an amazing job playing the “rough around the edges but actually very sweet” Monkey. And Trip is a remarkably complex character — she’s tough and hard-headed but vulnerable and frightened, extremely smart and mechanically talented but also very naïve.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Enslaved contained one of the most moving stories that had yet been depicted in a video game, and it’s delivered with the efficiency Ninja Theory were becoming known for. Cut scenes are brief but poignant, and this is partly due to writer Alex Garland’s ability to tell story through body language and facial expressions without needing lengthy exposition. His influence on the script meant that the game was able to retain that all-important sense of constant forward momentum.
The relationship between Monkey and Trip is the beating heart of this game, and part of the beautiful synergy between them is the fact that they complement each other so well — she’s a tech expert and can hack electronics, and he’s good at clambering around and beating stuff up. After quickly establishing a “brawn and brains” dynamic, which results in some lovely character moments, they slowly come to rely on each other, and this is reflected in the gameplay mechanics. Monkey helps Trip reach ledges and jump gaps, and Trip upgrades Monkey’s gear. The two of you work together to solve environmental puzzles and overcome obstacles. She distracts enemies while you run to safety, and then you distract them while she does the same. She heals you during battle, you pull her up off ledges. And as Monkey and Trip get to know and trust each other, there’s a genuine sense of connection that develops between them.
This game was dismissed by some people as being “just one long escort mission” which I think is extremely unfair. Here’s a scene that comes towards the end of the game. Does this feel like just an escort mission? I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Enslaved turned the dreaded escort mission into a moving story, and it did so a whole three years before, well, you know the game.
And I’m aware that this is now the second Ninja Theory game I’m comparing to The Last of Us, but I can’t really avoid the comparison here. Enslaved is about a gruff cynical guy who meets a fragile but resourceful girl and they have to travel through a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape and hey, they end up forming an unlikely yet inevitable bond and there’s an anticlimactic ending. And while we’re on the topic of shared DNA, guess which game was shelved because it was too similar to Enslaved?
Yes, the similarity to Horizon Zero Dawn is uncanny, from the animalistic robot enemies to the eye-wateringly gorgeous environment design. At a time when every game set in a post-apocalyptic future was legally only allowed to be rendered in shades of grey and brown, Enslaved dared to look like this. Rather than accepting that “post-apocalypse” automatically meant “ugly and drab”, Ninja Theory created perhaps the most beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape we’d yet seen in a game, taking any and every opportunity to inject beauty or show off a sprawling vista. Even in locations which should be drab, like concrete apartment blocks, there’s always a splash of colour to liven up the scene. There are only six or seven locations in the entire game — slave ship, city, village, factory, enemy base, and Pyramid — but every location looks and feels distinct. It’s clear that breathtaking visual design is something Ninja Theory have always excelled at.
My favourite bit of the game is Trip’s village, in which the scenic mountain backdrop and lively colour palette contrast with the tragedy of what happened there. It’s beautiful and pleasant but it also has that unsettling, eerie quiet of an abandoned home. It’s moments like this that the gravity of the story manages to reach out through the vibrant scenery and make itself felt. There’s a short sequence in the game, after we’ve discovered the slaughter of the villagers, in which Trip and Monkey work to get a power-generating windmill up and running. It’s an unusually quiet moment, a pause in the action as you slowly unfurl the sails on this old windmill one by one. And for the first and only time in the entire game, this music plays. This song is a mood. I think it’s no coincidence that it kicks in at the very mid-point of the story, which is also a critical tipping point for the characters: either stay and start a new life here, or journey onward in search of revenge. And I feel an almost ominous sense of peacefulness at this moment, because something about this music seems to be saying “enjoy the nice view while you can because the journey isn’t getting any brighter from here.” Or maybe that’s just me, replaying this game, knowing how it ends.
And look at that, we have finally arrived at the end of our odyssey and it is time to talk about the ending.
Thank you for watching, please like and subscribe…
So if you’re not one of the six people who played this game, it should be said that from minute one, the story dangles this tantalising mystery over your head — what happened to the world? Who made the mechs? What is Pyramid? What happens to all the slaves taken there?
And well, the epilogue answers some of those questions, in a way. Monkey and Trip arrive at Pyramid to find that the remnants of humanity have been hooked up to a Matrix-type machine and are living out Andy Serkis’s — sorry, Pyramid’s — happy pre-apocalypse memories. Pyramid pleads with them to leave these people to their fake lives and not condemn them to have to wake up and live in a shitty wasteland…
Hang on a minute, something about this looks familiar… oh my god. These people aren’t in The Matrix, they’re in the Metaverse! Alex Garland, how did you know?
OK, I’ve changed my mind, the ending doesn’t suck, it’s a perfectly accurate prediction of our coming dystopian future, 5 stars, like and subscribe.
Alright, not quite. I do have some gripes with this ending — it ends, by the way, with Trip killing Pyramid and pulling the plug and saying “did I do the right thing?”, followed by a fade to black and the world’s most “is that it?” credit roll. I don’t hate the ending, like so much of the internet did, but I do think it was poorly executed. On the face of it, it presents a very interesting question, essentially, is the Matrix really bad if the alternative is endless suffering? Which would be a cool dilemma if the previous eight hours of game had made it clear whether the alternative actually is endless suffering. Pyramid talks about life in the real world like it’s so horrible it’s not even worth living, but Trip’s been telling an entirely different story.
Things get particularly nonsensical right about here:
Pyramid: “They have jobs, they have marriages, they bring up their children, their children go to schools…you don’t have schools, you have mechs”.
Except Pyramid is in charge of the mechs! I think? I’m pretty sure?! Or just some of the mechs are under Pyramid’s control and others are autonomous? I don’t know! Someone tell me what the stakes are here, so I can care. The player just isn’t given enough information by the preceding story to be able to understand what’s happening here and what it means for this world, and the result is just a bunch of confusion. I appreciate a twist ending, but this isn’t a twist so much as a conk on the head from behind. Everything presented in this final scene comes so far out of left field and seems to contradict some of what’s come before, and narratively it just doesn’t work. It’s almost like this game was written by a man who’s excellent at setting up intriguing science-fiction mysteries, but doesn’t always know how to satisfyingly develop and conclude those mysteries. I’m sorry Alex Garland, I still love…most of your work.
The ending just feels rushed, and it’s supremely disappointing, because with a more thorough setup, this could have been a great payoff to an otherwise great game. But still, I don’t hate the ending. I love the attempt. I love that they went for that ambiguous conclusion and didn’t give us the happily ever after. I just keep thinking back to that scene at the windmill, playing through it knowing that the journey was only going to get harder and sadder from there, knowing that the characters, like us, would get answers but no closure. Enslaved may not be a gritty and harrowing story like The Last of Us, but it’s also not afraid to occasionally dip into darker territory, and it’s those more ambivalent moments that make this game something other than your average blockbuster action-adventure. There’s a sadness and a bittersweetness running underneath this story, that I wasn’t expecting to tap into when I re-played it, but I found that it’s those feelings that have remained with me for the last ten years, ever since I last played it. And it’s why this game will always have a special place in my heart, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
The story of Enslaved’s release has a bittersweet ending of its own. It was a critical hit, reaching 82% on Metacritic, being nominated for various awards and winning Best Game at the UK Writers Guild Awards. To this day, much like Heavenly Sword, it remains a cult hit for the people who played and loved it.
But it wasn’t a commercial success, and it’s still not entirely clear why, even to Ninja Theory themselves, with Tameem Antoniades saying he isn’t sure why it sold poorly. Namco blamed poor timing, saying the game didn’t do well because it was released in the middle of a busy holiday season. This, combined with its status as a new IP probably put it at a disadvantage because people would rather drop their cash on something familiar than something new, which is heartbreaking considering that Ninja Theory wanted to make a sequel to Heavenly Sword but couldn’t because Sony owned the IP. And this problem goes further back — Heavenly Sword only exists because they couldn’t make a sequel to Kung Fu Chaos, the party game they made before they became Ninja Theory.
The studio had found themselves forced into a cycle where a desperation for money led to dependence on publishers with complete control over the IP, meaning they couldn’t do sequels and had to keep creating new IPs from scratch which would then continue to put them at a disadvantage in the market, which would keep them desperate for money thus starting the whole cycle over again. Yep, the games industry sure does suck. And so once again, Ninja Theory had to can a sequel because of the game’s underperformance on the market, and it’s such a shame. All Enslaved needed to be a truly great game was a bit more money and time to smooth out technical issues like input lag, glitches, dodgy animations and camera jank, which were some of the major gripes people had with the game.
The recurring story of Ninja Theory seems to be that of a studio with amazing talent, ambition and vision, whose main issue is a lack of resources to be able to fulfil that vision, due to being constantly forced to compete against much bigger and better funded studios. Enslaved might not be as polished as a fully funded AAA game, but it’s basically a combination of the plot of The Last of Us, the look and vibe of Horizon Zero Dawn and the gameplay of Uncharted. So it’s hard to not feel a little devastated when you look back on these games’ massive success, while Enslaved languishes in the pile labelled “underrated cult classics”.
But, Ninja Theory’s next big project would — for better or worse — help them break into the public consciousness, by allowing them to develop a new game in an already much-beloved franchise.
DmC: Devil May Cry
In 2013, Ninja Theory released their reboot of the popular Devil May Cry series. For those unfamiliar, Devil May Cry is an action series originally released in 2001, and the games follow the exploits of half-demon protagonist Dante, the evil demon lord Mundus, and Dante’s brother and rival Vergil. It’s well-known for its bombastic action, fast-paced hack and slash combat and challenging difficulty. The reboot does away with the gothic cathedrals and fantasy landscapes of the previous games, and offers its own version of the characters and story against the backdrop of a modern metropolis. Dante begins the game as a trailer-dwelling sex fiend who gets jolted out of his aimless existence by a demon attack. He’s swiftly recruited by a vigilante organisation in which he learns that not only does he have a twin brother, but that the world is secretly being run by the demon who murdered their mother and exiled their father to the demon realm.
Dante is quickly driven to revenge and teams up with his brother Vergil and Kat, a witch who can open portals between the human and demon worlds, and thus begins the berserk rollercoaster ride of stylish murder that is DmC: Devil May Cry. Throughout the game, the rebels will fight the power by sabotaging the demons’ main sources of control — a soft drink factory producing spiked soda and a propaganda-producing news network — and Dante will go on a personal journey to recover his lost memories and get revenge for his mother’s death.
It’s obvious why Capcom decided to hand the reins over to Ninja Theory for this game, given their track record in crafting furiously fun and flashy action games like Heavenly Sword. Speaking of which, the DmC reboot’s basic combat system seemed oddly familiar to me. The game has three different kinds of attack — regular attacks, blue “angel attacks” which are activated by holding down the left trigger while attacking, and red “demon attacks”, which are activated by holding down the right trigger while attacking. Some enemies are only vulnerable to angel attacks, and some need to be dispatched with demon attacks. Sound familiar? It’s the stance system from Heavenly Sword! This mechanic even has a neat little story explanation, which is that because Dante is half-angel and half-demon, he can use both angel and demon fighting styles.
There’s a scythe that whips around in wide arcs, a pair of flaming gloves that pummel your enemies into the ground, an axe that swings slow but hits hard, a set of flying blades that wreck groups of enemies, and your trusty dual pistols, which are good for interrupting attacks and hitting hard to reach bad boys. There are also not one but two kinds of hookshot, one that grapples enemies towards you and one that sends you flying around the battlefield like a murderous baseball. Every weapon has its own set of a dozen or more combos that you can unlock and upgrade, and all of Dante’s attacks chain seamlessly together, affording you a style bonus if you can chain together continuous and varied combos. Did I mention the combat in this game is just sublime?
The combat in game is sublime. It controls like butter, hits with a satisfying chonk and looks godly. This is Ninja Theory operating on another level, partly thanks to the input of the seasoned professionals at Capcom, who helped refine the mechanics to perfection and eliminate some of the issues that Ninja Theory had previously struggled with, such as input lag. As far the amount of joy and fluidity in the combat, it rivals any of the DMC series’ previous installments. It did, however, receive some criticism for not being as difficult as the other games in the series, and this was understandably disappointing for fans who love using video games to torture themselves. But, with the exception of those who play Devil May Cry as a career, there’s more than enough depth and challenge to be found. There are tons of combos to master, and seven escalating difficulty modes which provide plenty of punishment for all but the most masochistic of players.
The wild fun of this game doesn’t end with the combat, however. The double hookshots aren’t just useful in fights, they’re a critical way of getting around. The red hookshot moves objects and platforms around for you to use, and the blue hookshot lets you soar through the air like an eagle. The movement system in this game exists in a different universe to the derpy hair-pulling excuse for platforming that appeared in some of the previous DMC games. Dante has this lovely glide he can do in mid-air, which is satisfying enough on its own. Wheeeee. Wheeeee. But coupling this with the hookshot basically makes you Superman and sends you gloriously whizzing through levels. Thanks to Ninja Theory’s knack for pacing, from combat to cut scenes to traversal, there’s not a single moment here that feels like dead weight. And it holds up very well in this regard against the previous couple of DMC entries, which had their dips in pacing and consistency.
And that’s not the only way in which Ninja Theory brought a new high watermark to the series. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Ninja Theory took their creative flair, brought it to the Devil May Cry table and plonked it down hard. The set-pieces are jaw-dropping, from the disjointed dreamscape of Dante’s lost memories to the psychedelic disco nightmare of having to navigate a demon nightclub that shifts kaleidoscopically around you.
The mission in which you have to destroy the demon centre of propaganda might just be my favourite sequence for the sheer number of ludicrous propositions it layers one on top of the other. First, you enter the demon world which is found in the upside down reflection of the real world, and make your way to the news tower; there, you grapple into the screen and through rotating news logos, at which point you have to fight the evil newscaster boss, or rather his virtual incarnation, by dodging his neon attacks and pummeling his digital face, after which you then grapple into, and fight through, a piece of live propaganda about yourself. It’s a load of hot nonsense and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t squealing with surprise and delight the entire time. It’s unfortunate that not all the boss fights are this inventive; a few of them, like the final boss, are repetitive and uninteresting in terms of their design. But even so, the DmC reboot contains some of the most consistently wild and delightful ideas in a series that’s known for being off the wall. What you’re seeing here is a marriage of the Devil May Cry series’ love of unrestrained silliness and Ninja Theory’s creative talent, and the result is some of the most absolutely mad strokes of genius seen in either a Devil May Cry or a Ninja Theory game.
Another banging new addition is Limbo, a demon universe parallel to the real world, into which the demons occasionally drag Dante so they can try and end him. In this world, demons spew forth from all directions, the earth warps and crumbles around you and the walls themselves close in, trying to crush you. The demon world talks, too, via commands and taunts that materialise out of thin air; and these moments are kind of hilarious because the demon world is clearly trying to sound very menacing, but it’s also really earnest in how it goads you into what is obviously a trap, or just tells you that it really hates you. Can the entire demon realm be my favourite character in this game? The Devil May Cry games have always had vibrant environments, but the reboot literally brings its world to life. The modern setting also allows an interpretation of the demon Mundus as a high-flying banker who draws his power from a literal hell portal in his office which sits atop the ultimate seat of all evil, the finance headquarters.
It’s all extremely silly and over-the-top, and what else would you expect from a series in which Dante riding a missile like a skateboard and clobbering demons with a motorbike are par for the course? The Devil May Cry name is basically synonymous with dumb, campy fun, and the reboot understands this perfectly.
But this reliance on camp is a double-edged sword, because it means you’ll either jump on board with wild abandon and love every minute of the insane thrill ride, or the tone just won’t gel with you and you’ll spend the entire time cringing out of your skin. And maybe that’s partly the reason for how divisive the reactions to this game were, which — don’t worry — we’ll get to. The DmC reboot is camp, but it’s a different flavour of camp to the previous entries.
So the way I would describe the previous Devils May Cry is that they’re a compilation of everything that impresses 12 year old boys, with the flamboyance turned up to a billion. They’re chock full of gun-fu and slow-motion acrobatics and slow-motion bullets and slow-motion falling and lots of bare-ass tits. The writing is truly terrible — the dialogue is beyond contrived, most of the villains are as cardboard cut-out as they come, and Dante is a non-stop machine of smarmy clichéd one-liners.
The reboot retains a very bombastic style, but it’s more punk rock than glam rock. The characters are a bit more grounded and the dialogue is more naturalistic, as opposed to the non-stop melodrama of the originals. The new Dante is still a quippy, overconfident dude who cleaves throughs demons with style and has a great time doing it, and he’s even got his own roster of cheesy one-liners, but compared to original Dante he’s less goofy, less sanitised, and not afraid to occasionally unleash an expletive or two. The DmC reboot feels like a teen drama set inside the world of Doom 2016. The mainline games feel like an anime set inside a teenage boy’s wet dream. Whether you love or hate the original series, the reboot, all, or neither, will depend entirely on what flavour of camp you find delicious or distasteful. As a matter of personal taste, there’s no right or wrong. With that disclaimer out of the way, the originals make me want to tear my eyes and ears out so I never have to watch another Matrix-style backbend or have to hear any more cringey quips about where the party’s at, but that’s just me.
And, well, bury me with a copy of DmC I guess, because into the grave I go: I personally preferred the reboot. I found the characters and the writing compelling and funny. Alex Garland, who wrote the script for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, jumped back on board as script supervisor, and as usual he brings a cinematic touch — the cut scenes are seamlessly integrated with the gameplay and the dialogue is brief and effective and keeps the pace speedy. All the actors do a terrific job as well. I found reboot Dante more relatable and less annoying than his previous iterations — what can I say, I just don’t get along with white-haired anime twerps — but the character arcs and especially the ending are a bit of a mess. In particular, Vergil’s character and motivations aren’t developed enough, and it makes his turnaround at the end come completely out of the blue, because it’s just not built up by the preceding story-OH MY GOD IT’S HAPPENING AGAI-
But fundamentally, as a reimagining of a campy classic, it’s great. Nonetheless, I am led to understand that the new take on the series found a less than friendly reception among a portion of the series’ more devoted following. And I’d love to explain why here, but there’s a small problem. I have no idea what all the fuss was about. I’d never played a Devil May Cry game before I started making this video, and I entirely missed the controversy when the reboot released. So, I’m at a loss. If only I knew someone who was there when it all went down, someone with a deep and intricate knowledge of the Devil May Cry franchise who could tell me all about it…
Oh…this is weird…Hello?
Hey there! This is fellow youtuber and video essayist Daniel Santos.
Hey Daniel! How did you know to call at this exact moment?
I just got this feeling that you were in need of someone with a deep and intricate knowledge of the Devil May Cry franchise, and not to brag, but I’ve got that in spades.
Kat: That’s awesome! Could you enlighten me as to what the hell happened with the fan reaction to the DmC reboot?
Trust me, this will be a pleasure.
The DmC reboot is a contentious topic to say the least, and while fan reaction to it was unjustifiably venomous, like a villain with a tragic backstory, it’s difficult to say it isn’t understandable, at least on some level.
The original Devil May Cry released on the PS2 back in August of 2001, meaning by the time the DmC: Devil May Cry reboot came out in January of 2013, there was roughly 12 years of legacy that had been established and 5 years of anticipation since the last entry. Now, it’s one thing to hear about release dates and get a general sense of the passage of time, but it’s something else entirely to have been a fan throughout all of that. So let me tell you about me and my personal attachment to the series. As of writing this I’m a 32 year old adult working as a full time chemist, but in 2001? I was just a 12 year old kid asking for the first entry as a Christmas present. There was truly nothing else like at the time, the ferocity of the combat was quite literally unmatched and would only be usurped by Devil May Cry 3 which proceeded to blow my mind even harder than the first game did, becoming my favorite in the franchise. In my final year of high school, Devil May Cry 4 also dropped and while I still thoroughly enjoyed it, I was hungry for more. So, I’m in college now, still eagerly awaiting a new Devil May Cry game to satiate my desire for demon carnage, so imagine my surprise when instead of getting an announcement for Devil May Cry 5, the reboot took its place. This is a series I had been invested in for a good chunk of my life up to this point, I’d played through and completed each entry multiple times, they meant a lot to me, they still do. The announcement of the reboot left me feeling cold, even a bit betrayed. Why reboot a healthy and clearly unfinished franchise? There was still so much left to do! I mean for starters, there were clearly unresolved elements in the story!
Wait a minute, “unresolved elements in the story”?! Are you trying to tell me this isn’t just a cheesy action series for weebs?
Okay, listen, hear me out, I’m not saying this series has fantastic writing that will move you to tears, or have you pondering deep existential philosophy, but there is more going on than one might assume, especially in regards to the synergy between gameplay and story, a topic I dive into more deeply in my video that I’m shamelessly plugging, Devil May Cry 3 and the Power of Rivalry. Even going beyond that, these are characters people have become invested in for many years now. Dante is a lovable goof that just wants to have a good time, while Nero is an angsty doofus, no doubt listening to The Black Parade on repeat. There’s something super charming about these dumb lugs that fans have grown attached to and we genuinely want to see what they do next and experience what adventures await them in the future. DMC4 especially left questions hanging concerning Nero and his connection to Dante and Vergil which were clearly meant to have definitive answers at some point and the introduction of this reboot now created the very real possibility that they will remain mysteries forever. This I believe cuts to the heart of why fans hated the reboot more than anything contained within the title itself. Even for those lacking any sort of investment in the story, the potential of the game mechanics had been effectively stunted. The reboot would be its own spin on the combat, rather than any sort of refinement or expansion on what was already established. Even if it turned out well, it isn’t what we as fans truly wanted, which was more of the same but done better and with new bells and whistles attached.
Now, I had never done anything as morally repugnant as sending death threats or even nasty comments to the developers over at Ninja Theory, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t bitter and upset at the announcement and release of the reboot. Because at the end of the day, I wanted Devil May Cry 5. I’m in no way defending anyone that mistreated any of the hard working individuals at Ninja Theory, they truly did not deserve the backlash as they were just doing their jobs, but I hope those on the outside looking in, at the very least, have gained a clearer perspective on the nature of the negative response the reboot received.
Thankfully, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Against all odds, Capcom went and made Devil May Cry 5 and it was a triumph! Not only did we finally get the answers to those burning questions, but the combat makes a glorious return by introducing new ideas while refining old ones, just like we wanted! DMC5 was so good in fact, that a lot of fans decided to either give the reboot another shake, or at least stopped being mad at it. Speaking for myself, I can easily say that the reboot is much easier to go back to now and appreciate. Despite still finding the writing to be misguided in pretty much every respect, the gameplay manages to be a fun time in its own right. All in all, while the reboot did seriously derail the series and piss a lot of fans off, everything turned out mostly alright in the end and most fans seemed to have moved on.
Thanks Daniel! And wow, that does explain a lot about the fan reaction. From my glance over the comments sections and discussion boards, there seems to be more than a bit of reasonable criticism of the game… and also a lot of resentful nitpicking and sheer butthurt. The reboot absolutely could have done some things better, but the bitterness and vitriol with which fans attacked this game, even before it had released, is unreal.
Still, as poorly expressed as a lot of the disappointment was, I now get why it existed. Devil May Cry isn’t exactly a geriatric series, and it still has an active and enthusiastic following. The move to reboot seems to have been a purely commercial decision on the part of Capcom to chase success in the Western market, and I’m in complete agreement with the fans here — “we want more money” is not a good enough reason on which to base a decision to reboot an entire franchise. I am glad to hear that a lot of fans are softening up to the game now that they’ve got the franchise continuation they wanted so badly. But it doesn’t undo the damage. Ninja Theory, and especially Tameem Antoniades, had to endure an immense amount of hate and even death threats, the DmC discourse is now a permanently poisoned hell-void from which no one returns alive, and perhaps the worst consequence of all was that for a third time, a game released by Ninja Theory suffered unfairly due to poor timing.
Despite all the carnage, DmC was still Ninja Theory’s most successful game yet and was well received by critics, picking up a couple of award nominations at the BAFTA and D.I.C.E awards. At launch, the game hit 86% on Metacritic and made it to number one in the US, Europe and Japan. It was the first game Ninja Theory made a profit on, although ultimately sales were disappointing and a sequel looked highly unlikely, a state of affairs that Ninja Theory were becoming sadly familiar with.
At this point, Ninja Theory were in trouble. After three huge projects that had failed to yield substantial commercial success, they were running out of steam. The company was split into multiple teams and started taking on smaller projects just to stay afloat, developing a mobile game and doing a couple of work-for-hire projects. At the same time, they were getting roundly rejected by publishers on project pitches, because their proposals didn’t line up neatly enough with what publishers consider to be a safe bet in the games market. It always seemed that the more they re-worked a game to be what the publisher wanted, the less it felt like a Ninja Theory game, and at least one project was terminated on this basis. The studio was at an impasse. The AAA industry just didn’t seem to be able to provide the creative freedom for the shorter, more experimental and narrative-heavy games that Ninja Theory were passionate about making, and things could easily have ended for the studio there and then.
Tameem was getting despondent and was ready to give up entirely, but he decided to take one final stab at a passion project. He rounded up a small team of his best developers and, without any publisher support, got to work on a game that would end up changing the fortunes of Ninja Theory.
Hellblade feels like a Ninja Theory game. It also feels incredibly different from all of Ninja Theory’s other games. It doesn’t open with frenetic combat, or explosions, or a surprise demon attack — it opens on a lone woman, rowing to a mysterious shore enveloped by fog.
The woman is Senua, who has come to the Nordic realm of Hel to retrieve the soul of her lover Dillion, who has been murdered in a Viking raid on their village. The events of the game track her journey through Hel, in which she navigates nightmarish landscapes and challenges gods to battle while being guided by the voice of her wise friend Druth, and tormented by a menacing voice that berates her and tells her she’s doomed to fail. On her way through the land of mist and fog, she’ll clash with hideous and hostile creatures, but the most terrifying demons are the tortured memories of her past which the journey through Hel will force her to relive and confront.
I could summarise Senua’s story neatly here, but there’s nothing neat about this story or the way that it’s delivered. Ninja Theory have always been willing to subvert narrative convention, like with Heavenly Sword’s “beginning at the end” structure or even Enslaved’s bizarre conclusion, but this feel like a whole new level of experimentation. Hellblade is a story told from the middle out, and it winds and extends in all directions as you play. The actual events of the game can be described very easily — “Senua treads the path through Hel, fights some monsters, gets a magic sword from a tree and confronts the goddess of death for her lover’s soul”, but that’s only half the story. The other half is discovering the hell Senua has already fought through to get here. But although Senua’s past is critical to her character arc, the story only offers you hints, and like the fractured world she journeys through, it’s not always easy to put the pieces together. Past events — her father’s abuse, her mother’s death, her relationship with Dillion — are depicted out of order, and the story weaves between present day and memory, sometimes even in the same cut scene.
This non-linear story structure makes the player feel the same sense of bewilderment Senua feels, stumbling from place to place through a distorted mindscape without ever quite being able to get her bearings. And it reflects the nature of the subconscious mind itself — a place where time doesn’t exist, and all the memories and traumas of the past are playing themselves out constantly, chaotically.
The game’s mechanics seem similarly determined to resist guiding you in any obvious way — there are no tutorials, no pop up hints, no health bars and no heads-up display. Making your way through Hellblade can be a perplexing experience but that’s entirely the point — this isn’t an easy journey, but everything you need is right there, in front of your eyes, and in your ears, if — like Senua — you’re willing to look and listen closely.
Heavenly Sword, Enslaved and DmC were all first and foremost action games, but Hellblade goes in a new direction entirely. The breakneck pace and adrenaline-filled action sequences that were staples of Ninja Theory’s previous games are nowhere to be found. Melee combat is still a feature, however combat sections are broken up not by cannon battles or high-speed surfing or Superman-style flight, but by contemplative environmental puzzles and slow traversal sections that delve into full-on survival horror. Hellblade feels heavy, in every sense of the word.
Combat is slow and weighty; Senua is a warrior but she’s not an action hero. Attacks feel good and chain together nicely — it wouldn’t be a Ninja Theory game if the combat wasn’t a satisfying treat — but it’s a far cry from the flurry of kicks and blades and pistols you might expect given Ninja Theory’s track record. Senua is a real flesh and blood person; she stumbles and gasps and falls and gets back up and she’s something that no other Ninja Theory protagonist has been before — she’s freaking terrified. While Nariko, Monkey and Dante felt floaty and invincible, Senua feels fragile, and this is a key part of her unique character — Senua’s strength comes not from a magic sword or a powerful body or supernatural heritage, but from sheer determination in the face of overwhelming danger and horror. Senua is less of a hero than a survivor, and this hits very hard given Hellblade’s themes of mental illness survivorship.
The depiction of Senua’s psychosis is one of this game’s most groundbreaking pieces of design. The most obvious is the auditory symptoms, represented by the Furies — voices constantly whispering to Senua, recorded in binaural 3D so that when you play the game with headphones on, the voices feel like they’re coming from inside your head. This is brilliant in and of itself, but other symptoms of psychosis are depicted in clever ways as well. Visual symptoms can be seen in moments of distortion and colour saturation, and apophenia (the tendency to find patterns and meaning in random information) inspired the environmental puzzles, which require you to play with perspective in order to find runes in the world around you and make seemingly random clusters of objects coalesce by looking at them from the right direction.
It’s hard to overstate the amount of work Ninja Theory put into designing a game that would feel true to the mental and emotional experience of psychosis. They consulted thoroughly with both professionals and community groups throughout the entire development process and let the game’s design be heavily influenced by what they heard, a process you don’t often see in game development because it takes a ton of time and effort and the kind of flexibility that huge AAA studios don’t tend to have. Ninja Theory sometimes made major re-design decisions on the basis of feedback. For example, it was suggested to them that they re-write the voices so that each of them has a distinct and realistic personality, and so that they talk to each other as well as to Senua. The developers also learned that auditory hallucinations aren’t always a negative experience, so they wrote Senua’s voices as being not just hostile, but often neutral or even helpful, warning of danger, pointing to a solution or encouraging Senua along.
The end product is a remarkable success considering that all this was a huge departure from standard practice for Ninja Theory, a studio which has built its reputation making fast-paced, combat-heavy action games. In a first for the studio, there’s even an entire chunk of the game that contains no combat at all. Senua breaks her sword, and has to undergo four trials to become strong enough to wield the Hellblade. Not coincidentally, it’s just when Senua is at her most vulnerable that she’s forced to undergo some of the most frightening sequences in the game, armed with only a torch and her own wits as she literally relives pieces of her painful past. We wade through an infested swamp, a reminder of the time a plague ravaged Senua’s village, and she was scapegoated and exiled for her psychosis. We find ourselves at her childhood home, where she suffered years of cruelty at the hands of her father, who was convinced that hearing voices meant she was possessed by demons. The most gripping trial plunges her into total darkness, in which the voice of Dillion appears and helps guide her past monsters she can only hear but not see; this section is a reminder of not just her darkest moments, but of how Dillion’s unconditional love for Senua helped pull her out of them.
The four trials might just be the most riveting section of the game. By removing combat and focusing on purely psychological horrors, these sections bring you to a level of intimacy with the protagonist that I haven’t experienced in any other game — you can hear Senua’s thoughts, sense the terror on her breath, feel your own heartrate rising as Senua’s panic threatens to overwhelm her in the darkness. If the core of Ninja Theory’s previous games were spectacle, character and camp respectively, then the core of Hellblade is empathy.
It’s not just the game but the development process that testifies to the power of empathy. Neither the studio head nor the actress who plays Senua had ever personally experienced the symptoms of psychosis. But by listening to real people and working hard to understand their experiences, Ninja Theory created a game widely praised for its uncanny accuracy in depicting the experience of psychosis.
And here’s where this game starts to feel like a Ninja Theory game after all, despite the radical shift in tone. All the strengths of the studio are still here — their passion for character-driven narrative, their visual design brilliance, their willingness to experiment and innovate — and in Hellblade, they all work together to reinforce that central theme of empathy.
The environments are not only gorgeous and dripping with atmosphere, as per every Ninja Theory game ever made, but every location in the game has some sort of significance to Senua’s story and character arc — whether it’s the desolate landscape reflecting Senua’s loneliness, landmarks which trigger important memories, like the first time she met Dillion, or the stone statues in which Senua’s mother’s face appears to guide and comfort her. The environments, and the way they shift and contort, have a definite touch of DmC’s Limbo about them, but here they’re manifestations of Senua’s fragmented mental state, the world growing dark as she becomes more scared, and the sun breaking through in moments of renewed hope.
This cohesiveness in the game’s design also extends to enemy encounters. The gods that Senua has to confront are all wonderfully ghastly and terrifying in their visual design, but each one of them also represents a major trauma she needs to overcome.
Valravn, the god of illusion, embodies the horror of her self-imposed exile in the wilds, a time when she nearly died trying to rid herself of her voices alone in the wilderness. Fittingly, his domain is a dark enchanted forest, populated by skulls and effigies, visions of Valravn that shift in front of your eyes, and gates that, when walked through, reveal new paths. The raven god himself is flighty and ghost-like, and he appears and disappears around you.
The domain of the brutal fire god Surtr is all smoke and ash and dry kindling and charred bodies strung up on dead trees. Surtr’s fires are the ones that swept through Senua’s village, and so this showdown feels like a retribution.
Both of these fights feel intensely personal, and they are personal because her face-off against the raven god and the fire god is a showdown with her own nightmares — of being alone in the wilderness, and of finding her village burned to the ground.
But my favourite boss fight is the one that takes place inside the pit of darkness, against the creature that represents Senua’s own fear. Before I discuss the beast, I have to talk about Senua’s darkness, a phrase that appears constantly throughout the game. Senua believes she is cursed because she hears voices, and she’s scared that the monsters inside her will one day consume her. Her father seems to be the source of her belief about the darkness, and the sinister voice she keeps hearing is likely his voice, which she has internalised. Among other things, Hellblade is a heart-wrenching depiction of the way stigma and shame can worm their way inside us and rot us from the inside out.
When you enter Hel, a physical rot takes hold of Senua and grows as you progress, and every time you die, and we’re told by the narrator that this is Senua’s darkness manifesting and spreading. The game also gives us this chilling message, which seems to indicate a permadeath mechanic — “If the rot reaches Senua’s head, her quest is over, and all progress will be lost”. This put no small amount of anxiety into players regarding a possible permanent fail state, but it was all a fake out. There’s no permadeath mechanic in Hellblade, because Senua is never consumed by her monsters because they’re not real — her darkness is just a false idea put there by her father, just like the possibility of permanent failure was put there by daddy Tameem. In another wonderful bit of player-protagonist connection, the game manages to make the player just as scared as Senua is, of something that they haven’t yet learned is never going to happen, and this infuses the gaming experience with some of the same anxiety and dread Senua is feeling.
After Senua has bested Valravn and Surtr, and made her way through the four trials, she meets one final foe — the darkness itself. This beast of fear attacks — not physically, but psychologically — whenever Senua is in shadow. As you run for your life through the shadows, frightful images flash across the screen and kill you if you’re too slow, forcing you to watch Senua literally die of fear. When Senua drops Dillion’s head into the beast’s pit and has to descend to fetch it, she’s descending into herself, and finally looking her darkness squarely in the eyes.
And this brings us to the best boss fight in the game, against the beast which swipes and lunges and tries to weaken Senua with fear as the light in the pit slowly fades away. The phenomenal thing about this fight is the way it forces you to rely on audio cues to beat this creature which hides itself in darkness; when the beast slips into the shadows, you have to listen for its breathing to tell where it’s going to lunge from, and towards the end, when the light dies completely, you have to finish the fight in total darkness, with only the sounds of snapping and snarling giving you a clue of when to dodge away. Frantically slashing away at the dark is truly panic-inducing, but emerging victorious feels amazing. And with the banishment of darkness comes the light of clarity. Once she’s looked fear in the eyes, Senua realises that the darkness holding her back wasn’t her psychosis, it was her father’s hatefulness.
Having banished her darkness, or rather, realised it never existed, Senua can proceed to the final confrontation with Hela. And it’s in this battle that Hellblade pulls its most poignant and clever trick. Here, raging against a neverending wave of enemies, it slowly dawns on Senua that if there’s no such thing as the darkness, then the darkness hasn’t captured Dillion, she can’t save him, and all these battles are just happening in her own mind as she kills herself with grief. To save her own life, she needs do one final thing to pull herself back out of her torment, and it will be the last thing that she, or the player, will want to do. Stop fighting.
Hellblade isn’t a perfect game. There’s not much variety in the enemy types and I wish there was just a bit more to Senua’s moveset so that combat encounters didn’t end up feeling so long and repetitive. The mix of CGI and live action is a little immersion breaking and the camera sometimes goes haywire during combat.
Hellblade isn’t a perfect game; it’s better. Hellblade is a little wonky and undercooked and in amongst all its rough edges there’s more raw heart and soul than any game I’ve ever played. Hellblade leaves me in pieces on the floor every time I play it.
It’s not just one of the best representations of mental illness in a game, or one of the best depictions of psychosis ever put to screen. It’s a deeply human story about grieving and overcoming trauma and finding self-acceptance. We don’t all hear voices, but we do all have a voice of self-doubt, and we all have a shadow, whatever form it takes. So many of Hellblade’s messages speak to the human experience: that growth is difficult and painful and requires taking a long, hard look at your past and your darkness. That shame and stigma can do more damage than any mental health condition, and that finding peace with our demons can go a lot further than trying to banish them forever. What I love about this game is how it absolutely stomps on the idea that people who suffer from mental illness are weak because they struggle. Senua struggles, and she cries, and she suffers, and she gets beaten down what feels like a hundred times, and she gets up and keeps fighting, and that’s real strength. I think we can all relate to that in some way.
And this is why I think the game has such a powerful effect on the people who play it and why the Hellblade fandom is one of the most passionately positive gaming fandoms I’ve ever come across. It’s impossible to estimate how many people this game has moved, validated, educated, and inspired, but the reactions speak for themselves. I’m not crying, you’re crying — OK no it’s me, I’m definitely crying.
There’s a strength emanating from Hellblade, and it’s more than just that of its warrior protagonist. It’s the whole Ninja Theory team at what feels like new heights of confidence. And I’m not just talking about the willingness to make brazen game design decisions like misleading the player or incorporating counter-intuitive mechanics into their game. I’m talking about the giant leap of faith that was the entire process of making Hellblade.
Remember that self-defeating cycle of reliance on big publishers leading to smaller studios not being able to make decisions that actually help them get ahead and grow? Well, Ninja Theory decided to just ditch it entirely. They made the decision to self-publish Hellblade, which gave them the freedom to flout the AAA checklist, pursue their passions, experiment freely and take all the creative risks they wanted without having to answer to anyone but themselves. They decided to release the game digitally to keep costs down, and they released at half of full retail price so that they weren’t dooming themselves to fail by competing against the big-ticket AAA titles.
But this meant that they were limited on finances, and they had to come up with entirely new ways of getting AAA results without a AAA budget. So they basically DIY-ed an entire motion capture production from one spare meeting room using IKEA components and plant pots. The sheer gutsiness of the whole endeavour is incredible — despite Ninja Theory never having tried anything like this before, they just believed they could do it, and they were right. I mean, how’s this for a wild piece of decision-making — Melina Juergens, who plays Senua, isn’t even an actor — she’s the video editor at Ninja Theory. She was initially just a stand-in for testing out the tech, but she did such a great job that Tameem offered her the actual part. The sheer audacity of casting an amateur to play this very demanding role — it’s the kind of move that would have backfired spectacularly if it had been done by a creative director with less impeccable instincts. But it was the right decision — Melina kills it. These calculated risks are all over the production of Hellblade, and that it all worked out so well is a testament to how much well-placed confidence Ninja Theory have in their own experience, creative talent and flexibility as a studio.
And here’s the best bit — all that creative risk paid off massively.
Hellblade released to widespread critical acclaim and was nominated for what can only be referred to as a buttload of awards, and it won a bunch of them, including five BAFTAs. The game exceeded sales expectations, breaking even in three months rather than the predicted six to nine months.
And not only did Hellblade’s depiction of psychosis resonate widely with fans, it broke out of the video game world entirely — it’s been presented to the Houses of Parliament and several science conferences, featured in academic papers, and it was honoured with an award from the Royal College Of Psychiatrists. Hellblade was so successful, in fact, that Ninja Theory got bought out by Microsoft.
For long time fans of the studio, to see them finally achieving both critical and financial success is unbelievably good news. And you know what all this good news means, right? Ninja Theory are, finally, getting to make a sequel.
Looking back, Ninja Theory were never a great fit for the AAA space. Their games were always shorter experiences that valued efficiency of storytelling, and quality over quantity. They’ve never shied away from pushing creative boundaries, something that risk-averse publishers don’t tend to love. It seems a bit ironic that, in the end, Ninja Theory only achieved financial success by abandoning the supposedly financially “safe” AAA model of game development.
The “independent AAA” model — or the Dreadnought Project — is now their new working model, and there’s no turning back now. It seems impossible that Ninja Theory would ever go back to the old publisher-based model of game development, and this isn’t the only way they’re continuing the journey they began with Hellblade. They’re working on three new projects, all of which are oriented around mental health, and will branch out in not just artistic and entertainment directions, but also therapeutic and educational ones.
The Insight Project is a collaboration between the games industry and the scientific field of mental health, and will use virtual reality in combination with physiological measurements to help people alleviate mental distress by becoming more in tune with their emotions. It builds on modalities that already exist, such as biofeedback, but with the aim of creating a totally immersive and even entertaining experience while maintaining the therapeutic effects. It will capture biometric data, such as heart rate and eye movements, and translate this into a virtual reality environment, allowing the player to shape and control the visual environment around them by modifying things like their heart rate and breathing.
Project: Mara is the second of Ninja Theory’s experiments in progress. The studio is currently at work on creating the most photorealistic environments ever seen in a videogame, with the ultimate aim of using these tools in the development of a game that will, as accurately as possible, simulate the experience of psychosis. The details so far are scant, but the game will feature only one character, be set entirely within one apartment, and will use this photorealistic setting as a starting point from which to subvert and distort reality.
Finally, Hellblade 2 is in development and all we really know is that it will follow Senua as she treks hundreds of miles across intimidating Icelandic landscapes.
These new projects, especially the Insight Project and Project Mara, are yet another step into unknown territory for Ninja Theory, but if you’ve watched this far into the video, you’ll know that unknown territory is where Ninja Theory live, and it’s the reason they’re one of the most exciting studios around. Every one of their major titles has chosen to explore new ground rather than settle for treading well-worn paths, whether that’s pioneering full motion capture, creating unprecedentedly cinematic stories, boldly re-imagining existing franchises or creating empathy for those with mental health difficulties.
If anyone can succeed in these new ventures, and do it with an unmistakeable love and passion for the craft, it’s Ninja Theory.
At the beginning of this video, I laid out the goals of this project: To revisit all of Ninja Theory’s major titles, to chart the progress of the studio, and to take a personal journey back through time to find the words to describe what makes Ninja Theory’s games special. So, here’s what makes Ninja Theory’s games special: a passion for storytelling, unparalleled creativity in visual design, fluid combat systems, technical excellence, kickass female characters, a barrage of cool and clever ideas, and the willingness to experiment and to bin any and every rule in the book if it doesn’t fit the distinctive player experience they’re aiming for.
But I also had another, secret goal: to get you excited about this team and what I hope is just the beginning of their achievements. So if I’ve succeeded in convincing you that Ninja Theory are an under-rated studio that deserves more support to keep doing cool exciting things, then spread the word, buy Enslaved, DmC or Hellblade, or think about pre-ordering one of their upcoming titles.
And if you’re tired of all the homogenous, paint-by-numbers AAA games out there, vote with your wallet. Take the money you were going to spend on the next American Hero Simulator or Ubislog and instead, put that money towards smaller, more innovative games made by studios who desperately need every bit of support they can get.
Because in an industry that’s extremely hostile to mid-size studios who aren’t blindly following AAA trends, Ninja Theory are paving the way for other teams to pursue interesting and adventurous passion projects. And the gaming landscape will only be more vibrant and diverse because of it.
We need Ninja Theory and lots of other studios like them, and we need them more than ever.
My love for Ninja Theory’s games still feels very personal. Their early work pings so many of my nostalgic gaming memories. But their latest game has its gaze fixed on the horizon. It feels like, as I’ve grown up, Ninja Theory have grown with me, which is something the rest of the industry has largely failed to do.
And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. The resounding success of Hellblade has shown that there is an audience out there eager for shorter, more narratively focused games with high production values that offer a one-of-a-kind experience, and we should all have our eyes on Ninja Theory and what they’ve got coming next.
If the future of games looks like this, count me in.