I have often heard when someone plays Hellblade for the first time, they say something along the lines of “Oh wow, this is like God of War.” That always seemed not only flattering but a little insulting as it should be the other way around (Hellblade came out before God of War 2018, no offense to Cory Barlog and the masterpiece that is God of War). The point of the matter is that Hellblade 2 has great DNA and the potential to be an amazing single-player, narrative-driven experience, with rich and deep gameplay systems and in my mind, is a front runner for game of the year or even one of the best games ever made, and here is why.
The forthcoming Xbox exclusive could potentially be one of the greatest single-player adventure games for the platform on tier with PlayStation’s God of War.
Announced as an Xbox and PC exclusive at the 2019 Game Awards, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is the next installment from developer Ninja Theory. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is the much-anticipated sequel to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which was released in 2017 to much fan acclamation. This news came just a few short months after the announcement that the studio had been acquired by Microsoft as part of their plan to build on their first-party roster of studios. Hellblade was developed in-house and published on Ninja Theory’s dime, and yet they made something truly special. That being said, the original game left things to be desired, but that is why I, for one, am excited that the studio gets to make a sequel and with Microsoft's full support. So let me tell you why I am very much anticipating the forthcoming adventures of Senua.
Hellblade is important as a video game for a couple of reasons: it directly deals with mental health and its stigmas. In recent years, it has been found that stigmas (a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance) around mental health and afflictions have a tendency to make the conditions worse than they were. Hellblade is one of few examples that looked to show people how it can feel to have a serious mental condition and what effect the behavior of others can have. Its success as a video game proves that creativity in the games industry is needed. Microsoft's acquisition of Ninja Theory not only recognizes the studio for the risks they took to develop Hellblade but also gives them the means to continue making smaller, more creative endeavors that push technology and gaming experiences in new ways.
If you are like me, you may have noticed that the majority of games that have been released by major publishers over the past two console generations are very “same-y”. There is a reason for that. Most studios and publishers saw what the other guys were doing that was making money and said “that, I want that”. It’s like how after Die Hard came out in 1988, every action film after was Die Hard but on a bus or Die Hard but on a plane. Do you see where this is going?
Hellblade did something called proof of concept or demonstrating that an idea is feasible and desired. Hellblade’s director Tameem Antoniades set out to make a game that delivered a AAA experience while doing so with a smaller staff (roughly 20 people), a smaller budget, and while taking creative risks. In this case, a game that directly focuses on mental health and a main character that is experiencing deep emotional and mental trauma. This, as far as we know, will continue to be the drive and focus in Hellblade 2 but on a much larger scale.
Hellblade was originally released on August 8th, 2017, on PlayStation Network and PC. Then, on Xbox in April 2018 and Switch in April 2019. It was sold for $29.99 USD, half the normal price of a standard game while trying to deliver as good of an experience as the standard $60 game. The release of Hellblade was purely digital as part of Ninja Theory’s Independent AAA structure that sought to cut out the middleman, in this case, the publisher. This allowed the game to be sold directly and provide a lower price point while still giving all profits from the game directly to Ninja Theory. Hellblade sold well beyond sales expectations as well as won three Game Awards and a stunning five BAFTA’s!
The Story of Senua
Disclaimer: For those who have not played Hellblade, the following section contains major plot points and spoilers.
Hellblade is a hack-and-slash adventure game that also blends elements of puzzle-solving and horror. The game tells the tale of a Pict warrior named Senua. Picts are a Celtic-speaking group of people that lived in northern Scotland during the early Middle Ages. Senua is on a journey to retrieve the soul of her dead lover Dillion from Helheim, who was sacrificed by Norse invaders to their gods in an execution ritual called the Blood Eagle. Google it, if you want to know how awful it is, or check out the (Blood Eagle) here.
Through her adventures, you learn that Senua has an affliction known to her people as the darkness, which corrupts her mind and spreads plague and evil wherever she goes. Her father, a Druid and religious leader believes he is the only one who can help Senua. In doing so, he secludes her from her village and even confines her to a dark hole for a long period of time. This would make anyone go mad!
Hellblade introduces elements of gameplay that directly correlate to Senua’s psychosis. She sees patterns in the world and various runes are strewn through the environments that she sees in order to open the path in front of her. She hears voices in her head that are helping her as much as hindering. They voice a lot of what many of us are thinking and feeling in our own internal monologues, hope, fear, doubt, anger, and despair.
Senua’s psychosis is perpetuated by her father and the stigma it creates with the other villagers. When the village is hit with illness and plague, her father convinces everyone that it is Senua’s darkness that has bought it. She leaves the village to live in the woods to spare people from her affliction.
Dillion, the man she loves, is the only one who doesn't see her as cursed or a monster. He tried to help her see past the stigma of her condition. When Senua returns, she finds Dillion murdered and her psychosis completely takes control. Throughout her travels, she sees Dillion’s spirit as a guide in the dark. She is also aided by the spirit of Druth, a man who lived amongst the Northmen as a slave until his death. Senua battles her demons manifested as shadowy versions of Northmen as well as various gods such as Surtr and Valraven. She ultimately must face Hela, the guardian of Helheim.
What makes it special
So why should you care about Hellblade, or Ninja Theory, or Xbox for that matter? Even if a game like Hellblade is not your “cup of tea” it is still important to all gamers and what the future holds. Ninja Theory took risks to make Hellblade on their own dollar and produced a phenomenal experience and thankfully they are getting recognized for what they achieved. Now, with Microsoft’s backing, they have the ability to further push the limits and technology used to make interactive experiences. For example, Project Mara and The Insight Project, both look to visualize and understand mental health and disorders in all-new ways. If you want to learn more about these projects you can visit https://ninjatheory.com/, https://theinsightproject.com/, or watch the video diary series The Dreadnaught Diaries on YouTube.
Ninja Theory is taking an approach to game development that many studios talk about doing but can’t. They are building smaller, more focused teams to work on each individual game while building new and experimental technologies to push art design to new lengths.
What the sequel could be and why
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is still in development and little is known outside the teaser trailer and some information provided in Ninja Theory's Developer Diaries. What we do know is that the sequel will be set in Iceland and will have recreations of over 40 real world locations from Iceland. This already lends itself to some truly amazing level design and visual aesthetic for the game. The original game focuses heavily on exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat, and the average playthrough clocks in around 10-12 hours. Now that Ninja Theory has the support and ability to develop a deeper game than the first, it is entirely possible that the sequel could be more in line with God of War (PS4). If the next AAA game featuring Senua is fleshed out in a similar style to GOW, we could see Xbox finally have an answer to Sony’s monolithic franchise.
Ninja Theory has a great track record for deep combat (e.g. DmC: Devil May Cry and Heavenly Sword) as well as exploration via Enslaved. If that experience is applied to the next Hellblade, it could evolve to incredible heights and include some of the best systems within a game, all while telling a deep and personal story as the original did. As an independently developed game with such attention to detail, it comes as no surprise that the original game kept to its core concepts. It did not feature a lot of what most gamers are used to, such as upgradeable gear and weapons, open and explorable maps with hidden secrets, NPCs, and quest lines. This allows for so many opportunities for the sequel or even creating wholly new and unique gameplay elements.
Ninja Theory, as a game development studio, has delivered excellent games throughout most of its time. All while being under the thumb of a big publisher. When they decided that they had to go for broke with a project like Hellblade, they proved just how far they can go when the shadow of a controlling publisher is removed. Microsoft has recognized this talent and is now giving them license to continue doing what they do best but without fear of emptying their savings and closing their doors. This seems like a prime opportunity for Ninja Theory to rise to the ranks of Sony’s Santa Monica or Naughty Dog studios and with that make Hellblade 2 something truly great!
Have you played Hellblade? Are you looking forward to the sequel? Let us know in the comments below.
Watch the Trailer for Senua’s Saga Here