While developer Ninja Theory insists that this is not a direct sequel to the cultish Playstation 3 classic Heavenly Sword, they fool no one; everyone knows what this is. It’s hard to watch the developers stream a Q & A session on Twitch with a giant Heavenly Sword banner in the background, talk about a new IP that shares so many fundamental characteristics with that game and not consider it a spiritual successor. I mean: Heavenly (Hell), Sword (Blade). I wonder if this has anything to do with IP legality…? Ok, there is the topical change of swapping out an unspecified Asian setting for an unspecified Celtic/Nordic/Viking setting; but, this single player game, featuring a strong female-warrior lead, will put the player in the position of fighting in a stylized vision of Hell/Helheim. Furthermore, runes feature heavily in Hellblade and although the markings of the Heavenly Sword could not be specifically labeled as runes, this aesthetic is remarkably similar. So, what exactly should we expect?
The teaser trailer demonstrates that Senua, the main character, will be delving into some kind of blood ritual to break down magical barriers and enter the world of Helheim. The blood eagle sacrifice is particularly grim and lends a kind of darkness to the tone that Heavenly Sword didn’t explore as fully. The palette of the concept art for Hellblade is generally darker and doesn’t contain the same vibrant reds and yellows but it does maintain the massive vistas of the Heavenly Sword concept art. The developers also suggest that the world of Hellblade will be considerably more open to player exploration than that of Heavenly Sword.
Although this game will be open world, and the picture above evokes Skyrim, Ninja Theory has discussed forgoing the trend of putting RPG elements in every game and focusing on telling the purity of the story of Senua instead. One of the ways they aim to achieve this is through the depth of the combat system, allowing players to immerse themselves in becoming experts at particular ways of fighting. The early combat footage is clearly different than Heavenly Sword featuring an over-the-shoulder 3rd person view. The combat also seems to be more focused on the intimacy of striking, blocking and dodging in close quarters battle. They describe her fighting style as “wild and agressive” and compare the combat to fighting games; the nuance of fighting styles is the allure of fighting games not necessarily the depth of customizable content. It’s clear that Ninja Theory is dedicated to telling the story of this Celtic warrior and this is why I am excited for this game.
Throughout their development diaries on their YouTube channel, Ninja Theory have consistently mentioned that the story will revolve around the fragile psychological state of someone who has experienced great trauma. Many of the demons the player fights in the game exist inside of Senua and their hulking, demonic shapes are projections from her mind. They brought in Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist and professor at Cambridge University to gain perspective on the realities of mental health, preferring to craft a meaningful rather than exploitative story around these issues.
Another important point about the development of this game that should not be overlooked is that it is being produced by a small team. For triple-A games, development teams can often consist of several hundred people, each working on a particular section of the game; Ninja Theory is risking millions and attempting for the same quality one might expect on a massive budget with limited resources and just over a dozen people. If they can prove that this model is a viable way of making games, it could impact the way developers approach all aspects development going forward.
I tried to explain to people for a long time why I would continually put Heavenly Sword in my PS3 when it did not have trophy support and there was no multiplayer element. It always came down to the combat, a deep combo/stance based system somehow simultaneously brutal and acrobatic, in the same way that Capoeira combines movement meant for violent purposes with the art of dance; the performances of the actors, strength of the protagonists narrative and how well the motion capture facilitated that story; and the care with which the game was crafted. Hellblade appears to have all of these elements. For a long time, I wanted a direct sequel to Heavenly Sword and although Ninja Theory hasn’t ruled that out, they have made it clear that the ball is in Sony’s court. Perhaps, if Hellblade is successful, Sony might resurrect Nariko.
In the mean time, I will go along with it. Yes, please; more of this Not-Heavenly-Sword.