Ninja Theory has come a very long way since its Kung Fu Chaos days. Amongst a well-traveled road of studio closures in the video game industry, theirs is a story of triumph. Ninja Theory has been developing games for over 15 years now with the majority of that time spent as an independent developer. Creating and shipping indies is one thing; shipping massive AAA projects is an entirely different beast that can sometimes sink an entire studio.
Known for games like Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and DmC: Devil May Cry, the Cambridge team has made a name for itself over the years in terms of independent development. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, its most recent game, was developed under a much tighter budget than prior projects. You would be hard-pressed to truly tell though, as the studio aimed to deliver what it called an “independent AAA game.” Their goal was to make a game with all the recognizable qualities and production values of any AAA game on the market, but with the creativity and freedom that come with being independent of publishers.
Ninja Theory succeeded and released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on PlayStation 4 and PC (and later Xbox One and Nintendo Switch) to widespread critical acclaim. Hellblade contains a brutal and violent world. It’s one of desolation and agony, where the protagonist Senua carries around the decapitated head of her late husband, seeking to save his soul from damnation from the Norse gods.
It was genuinely the first time that I’d personally seen mental illness tackled respectably in a game. Senua’s not some unrelatable alien to be cast aside. She’s the center of attention, and her emotional state is not a curse but rather the result of her painful past.
What a small team of around 20 people managed to accomplish is nothing short of monumental. Whether you look at its audio/visual design, world detail, combat, or character performances, Hellblade can hang with some of the best AAA games out there. Ninja Theory’s ambitions were made clear.
With the 2018 acquisition by Microsoft in the rear-view mirror, players were left wondering what the narrative-centric studio would do next. There’s seemingly more than a single team inside Ninja Theory at the moment, with one getting close to launching the multiplayer brawler Bleeding Edge and another on the just announced Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II.
Though an argument can be made that a sequel is unnecessary, Hellblade II represents an extremely exciting opportunity. Finding all the runes within the first game unlocks a bonus ending that leaves the door wide open for Senua’s journey to continue. There is a lot of bad blood between her and her abusive father, with speculation that he might have been responsible for what befell her and her husband’s village at the hands of Norsemen.
There are questions to be answered and vengeance to be had. After understanding that she was not responsible for her husband Dillion’s death and the acceptance of loss, is there room for Senua to rejoin her community and lead a counterattack on those that wronged her? There are quite a few things we can glean from Hellblade II‘s announcement trailer.
We see a type of settlement in isolation in a vast open expanse of wilderness. Is that Senua’s village? What do the new markings on her face mean? Her chant is taken from the song “In Maidjan” by Heilung.
The transliteration reads: “Tawol Athodu Ek Erilaz Owlthuthewaz Niwaremariz Saawilagar Hateka Harja,” which translated to English means: “I, the Rune Master, servant of Odin, call upon the one of the Sun to aid our army.”
Is Senua invoking the aid of Odin in her quest to vanquish the Norsemen? Or is there more serious motivation behind her words? Perhaps she seeks to genuinely take on the goddess Hela, who presides over the realm of Helheim? The soldiers behind her apparently indicate her new command of an army now.
I’m incredibly excited for the potential here. Even though the original Hellblade was easily one of the best games of 2017, the cut corners due to budget and resource constraints were a bit obvious to see. Combat, though solid enough, was fairly one-note. Environments were very linear, and the scope of mechanics across the story was limited.
With the full support of Microsoft’s financial and logistical resources now, Ninja Theory is free to go to town, and that presents a tantalizing prospect. What can a team that delivered Hellblade do with a much higher budget? My immediate presumption would be an expansion of scope. Wider environments, a full team of combat designers to broaden gameplay systems, a larger narrative with multiple areas in-game, and a lengthier campaign are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible.
I’d love to see combat fleshed out in all sorts of ways in Hellblade II. Senua was glued to the ground in Hellblade. Widening her move set with different combos and allowing her to jump and carry out aerial attacks could add a lot of verticality to fights. New weapons and a vast increase in enemy variety would add so much diversity to encounters. Hellblade‘s environmental design lends itself well to the implementation of hidden areas off the beaten path. With the extra resources at their disposal, the team can dramatically expand the amount of locations we play through.
It’s 8th century Scandinavia. Let’s explore mountain ranges, trek through forests and rivers, and interact in populated villages. With the story ostensibly including a larger cast of characters now, there’s room for more NPCs and bigger battles with companion characters. Senua also conquered the Darkness that haunted her in the original game. It would be rewarding to see her take in the world around her in a completely new light with newfound confidence, this time utilizing the light to overcome whatever obstacles await her. The list of ideas goes on and on.
These are exciting times ahead. Ninja Theory is but one of several first-party Xbox studios known for their narrative prowess. One thing is certain: Microsoft will no doubt aim for Hellblade to become a high caliber story-driven franchise within Xbox Game Studios, and Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is one of the first hats thrown into the ring.