Crying Wolfshene: on Hellblade’s Progress

hellbladesenua
Photo credit: Ninja Theory

With Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Ninja Theory established a commitment to “character action” games with sophisticated facial capture and exuberant cutscene work generally. If the company’s creative foundations stabilize on a reliable bedrock, it’s because they are consistently iterative on these areas. The frustration in being a fan of the studio’s work is in having to endure a few equally consistent weaknesses whose improvement is mostly static.

In evaluating the game’s recent demonstration at Gamescom, we’ll set aside for now the areas in most need of improvement, and begin instead with the least.

The artists on Hellblade (though the seats have been twice-warmed) have devised a simultaneously lush and destitute world, one with a particularly loamy quality at times, as if its events transpire on a lake bed recently lifted of water, and which now makes its gradual return in the form of rain. The environments are busy as well with wind, autumnal molt, and what are ostensibly either preternatural manifestations, torments borne of Senua’s psyche, or both. It’s all quite disarming, especially when enemies have access to material existence as if it were a shuttle service.

Draw distance is impressive, whether or not there is technical magicianry at work for performance’s sake, with far riverlands populated by fogged peaks, flocks of birds silhouetted in wet, pallid sunlight, the distant, heavy sea breaking.

What most strikes me, however, is the soundscape. Thunder, the dry, harsh susurrus of the forest in the gale, the disembodied speech of Senua’s inner assailants, the hiss of rain from the flaming headdresses of her attackers. I don’t recall sound being emphasized anywhere near this much in Ninja Theory’s past work, with DmC: Devil May Cry a lesser gap, and relatively speaking a close reference point for their progression in this area. (In DmC, the environment was itself sentient, and no fonder of Dante or kinder toward him than were fans of prior games in the series. In addition, Dante’s aid through this treacherousness, Kat, helped him primarily by shouted warnings of said environment’s antagonistic distortions.)

Regardless the studio’s track record for writing (with Enslaved omitted here as it was penned by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland)—DmC not just a dip from Heavenly Sword‘s simple and mostly-effective efforts but a deep, deep dive—the voice acting is consistently satisfying. The Gamescom demonstration reveals a voice cast healthy in number for a project of this scope; of note, too, is we now know the game has a narrator, a prophesier perhaps, who verbally charts Senua’s journey Vanishing of Ethan Carter-style.

On to in most need of‘s.

While most of my criticisms of the game so far reduce to nitpicks, I do have one straightforward disappointment in Senua’s combat animations. As in Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, some of the maneuvers animate with too much speed, the result of this an unattractive, marionette-like snappiness to the movements. It was an annoying visual itch every time Monkey performed an evasive roll, swung or vaulted from high objects, and is equally one when Senua swipes or thrusts her sword. If Ninja Theory is committed to the “independent AAA” idea, they will need to scrutinize seriously this quality of the combat presentation, especially given that Hellblade is a third-person, melee-based combat action game with a camera uniquely intimate by proximity.

I question how this vantage will agree with the considerably larger enemies we’ve seen in concept art, and whose labels as “enemy” have remained unretracted from the game’s official gallery. Here are a couple samples, complete with humanoids for perspective of scale: left to right, “Rune Beast” and “Wolfshene.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Were these creatures imagined prior to the combat system and mechanics? If so, do they remain among the visual portfolio for Hellblade merely as markings of its conceptual evolution? If we don’t see Rune Beast, “Winged Giant” and others appear in the game’s media before launch, we might want to let the currents of memory take them; if Ninja Theory doesn’t plan to incorporate them in combat encounters, they may want to at least update their descriptions, or pardon those players who cry Wolfshene.

Visually speaking, the “loamy” quality I mentioned might turn out to have been unintentional: it’s possible we’re just seeing early and/or washy texture work. The game, I believe, hasn’t even entered Alpha yet. If Ninja Theory had simply referred to Hellblade as independent, which it veritably is, and not “Independent AAA”, which remains to be seen, and is too ‘PR’ a term to demonstrably prove, they wouldn’t have invited graphical comparison with work by gaming’s giants of industry.

I’ve noticed too a strange visual quirk during combat which resembles screen tearing, but pronounced to such exaggeration I’m left to assume it must be intentional. Granting this, I hope the effect grates the eye less in person than in this footage.

Hellblade shoulders many burdens: to prove a new model for its studio’s operations and continued survivability; to correct for the disposable narrative of DmC; to contend with and overcome the many longstanding but no less less daunting pressures of development and a relatively modest, but enthusiastic, fanbase. And then there’s the whole mental illness theme…

It’s true, the studio has the Wellcome Trust’s blessing, and the consultation of mental health professionals. It appears to be taking the task seriously, but intentions are no protection from error, and its fantastical setting only increases the risk that the game will paint these real-life psychoses burlesque or caricatured. Ninja Theory has embraced what many Kickstarter projects have in documenting Hellblade’s development process for the public, as well as taken aboard their feedback. I’ve only watched a few of the developer diaries, and none of the Q&A’s, but I’m sure the community has raised the appropriate concerns, hopes, skepticism.

I hope someone’s asked about the largest large enemies and their translation, if any, interactively. And someone’s mentioned what a shame it would be to not even glimpse some of these early creature concepts in the final release. And Ninja Theory doesn’t assume we’ve all forgotten them.

Remember, just because a beast was never real does not mean it was never spotted.

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