Hellblade, Ninja Theory’s forthcoming third-person action game isn’t a title that shies away from tackling difficult subjects. A story told through the lens of Celtic warrior Senua’s faltering mental health, it’s testament to Ninja Theory’s vision that they’re creating a game that’s both progressive and honest – and as a recent hands-on play through demonstrated, an immensely entertaining, playable experience with a refreshing sense of freedom.
“We’re trying to make a game with that indie spirit but AAA production values. So we’re able to take creative risks”, development manager Dominic Matthews tells me at one of Hellblade’s.
“The mental health theme is one that we’re treating with a lot of respect. Movies, TV, art and literature always tackle challenging subjects, but games tend not to – and if they do, it’s not always in a particularly positive way. We’re not trying to be educational, but if we can deliver a truthful portrayal of Senua’s mental illness, then maybe some people will understand it a bit better.”
Ninja Theory are known for their visceral, intense games, and iconic lead characters – such as DmC’s reimagined Dante, Enslaved’s Monkey and Heavenly Sword’s Nariko. Has it been tough to balance that trademark style with such a challenging subject matter?
“We want to deliver something that’s truthful and also specific to Senua – but at the same time, make a game for people who are fans of what we do; we’re known for combat and a certain art style and deep stories. First and foremost it has to be an entertaining, compelling game,” explains Matthews.
“I think there are similarities between Senua and previous Ninja Theory characters, but we want to create a character that’s memorable and heroic for her own reasons.”
At its heart Hellblade is an action game with combat that is very much focused on brutal one-on-one encounters that will test your timing, tactics and knowledge of Senua’s fighting style.
“Senua has one weapon and her entire move set is available from the start. It’s up to you as a player to explore that system and to master it and to uncover all of the nuances of Senua’s battle style. She’s a Celtic warrior, fighting against a Viking clan, so that’s what she does, she’s awesome at fighting! It is a battle and it’s relentless.”
Approaching the E3 demo’s first fight is a punishing experience. As I move into a clearing in the woods, a hulking, blade-wielding warrior towers over Senua and, for the first few encounters brutally sends her sprawling into the surrounding undergrowth. But soon, the rhythm of the fight takes over and a series of blocks, parries, nimble dodges and carefully timed attacks gives her the upper hand.
“We want every fight to feel like it matters. We won’t just throw fodder enemies at you – the combat is deep, complex and each encounter will need you to think about your tactics, not just crowd control.”
The brutality of each combat set-piece harks back to genuine historical events – and Senua’s place in this era gives meaning and context to her situation.
“The story is based on a period in history when the Orkney Islands were invaded by Vikings who wiped out the Pictish Celts – Senua is a survivor of that invasion, and the story is her coming to terms with that violence and trauma that was caused by that event.
“The combat in the game and the violence that Senua’s involved in isn’t a result of her mental health; everything in the story is her reality, that she has to deal with.”
Even at this early stage, Hellblade feels like a confident, exciting and ambitious take on a genre that has always felt at home on PlayStation. Suffice to say, you’ll be hearing more about it soon, right here on PlayStation Blog.