On the trail of Ninja Theory

Do you have a favourite developer? I have quite a few – I’ll always be interested in new games by Intelligent Systems, Dontnod and PlatinumGames to name but a few. But I’ve been intrigued by Ninja Theory ever since I played the incredible Enslaved: Odyssey to the West back when this website was in short trousers.

Enslaved was one of a few games that actually made me really care about its characters, partly thanks to the excellent script and phenomenal motion capture work. Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) was one of the actors involved, and the whole thing reeked of quality.

Enslaved was an absolute corker of a game.

I also discovered just the other week that Ninja Theory developed another of my favourite games, back when they were called Just Add Monsters. Kung Fu Chaos for the original Xbox was their first title, and it was a wonderful maelstrom of chaotic four-player fun, with a wry sense of humour. I named it as one of the 10 games that Xbox One owners should pick up when Microsoft introduces backwards compatibility with the OG Xbox.

The wonderful Kung Fu Chaos.

But Kung Fu Chaos and Enslaved have very little in common, apart from perhaps a shared knack for comic timing. However, Enslaved is more representative of the style that Ninja Theory has become known for – high-quality motion capture, third-person combat, and a focus on bringing out the feels. Their upcoming game – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which is due out next week – is very much in the same vein, but this time they’ve really taken the motion capture to the next level.

Astonishingly, they’ve come up with a way to do motion capture in real time – so cut scenes can be performed ‘live’ by the actor, with their performance appearing in the game engine. Check out the video below to see what I mean:

From first impressions, Hellblade looks to be very much in the vein of Ninja Theory’s earlier work on Enslaved, with a strong focus on convincing performances and emotion. I can’t wait to play it.

But in the meantime, I’ve been hunting down some of Ninja Theory’s back catalogue. They’ve worked on a couple of Disney Infinity games over the past couple of years, which aren’t really my cup of tea, but in 2013 they released DmC: Devil May Cry, the reboot of Capcom’s series. I seem to recall that the game caused a bit of controversy with players owing to its ’emo’ depiction of Dante, although it went down well with reviewers. I’ve yet to play it myself, but I’m keen to see Cambridge-based Ninja Theory’s take on the very Japanese Devil May Cry games.

“Don’t call me emo.”

I also managed to find Heavenly Sword in a secondhand shop last week for the princely sum of £1. It was Ninja Theory’s first release after they renamed their studio, and one of the first titles released for the PS3.  I can’t remember much about the game from the time, except that everyone was fascinated with the main character’s flowing hair – an early sign of Ninja Theory’s growing obsession with the realistic depiction of people in games, which has culminated in the live motion capture of Hellblade. If they ever make a documentary about Ninja Theory, they should definitely call it ‘From hair to Hellblade‘.

Oooooooh, nice hair.

I’ve no idea whether Heavenly Sword still holds up as a game, or whether Hellblade will be any good. But following a developer is a lot like following a football team – they might not be dazzling all of the time, but they’ll always have some intrinsic quality that attracted you to them in the first place. For Ninja Theory, that attraction is undoubtedly their obsessive attempts to capture the nuances of human performance, coupled with their knack for storytelling.


  1. these guys kick ass. After learning about Hellblade, I was blown away by the mocop technology and techniques they are using. The results speak for themselves. I later learned that they were the same master minds behind DMC as you talk about. I bought the game on a sale, and it’s still in my backlog to complete, but love what i’ve played of it.

    I did not know they had Andy Serkis play a role in an earlier game, that is awesome to know. I loved watching the making of LOTR and seeing how they made him in Gollum. He is an incredible actor and it’s really cool seeing him make appearances in games.

    What i really love about Ninja Theory is they aren’t really AAA studio, but their games always have that quality about them. It’s quite amazing what this small team keeps churning out. I’m really can’t wait for Hellblade, love what I’m seeing of it so far

    1. I think Andy Serbia was involved in Heavenly Sword as well – great actor.

      From what I’ve heard, Hellblade is the work of just 15 people, and the results look incredible. Guess we’ll just have to wait to see how it plays…

      1. Even if it plays mediocre, the concept and ideas look fascinating. I might be won by the story alone, but given how well their other games feel, I think it’ll be fine.

  2. To be honest, NinjaTheory is over rated. Capcom could have made a better devil may cry if they just kept it in house. Heavenly Sword is like God Of Wars little brother. Everyone is feeling Hellblade, but the combat is terrible and the whole voice thing is gimmicky at best. Enslaved was in general panned.

    1. Fair comment, but there’s something about Ninja Theory’s style that really appeals to me. The attention to characterisation is really what sets them apart – there are so few games that can make me really invested in the characters, but with Enslaved I really felt a connection with the main players. And that, to me, is nothing short of magic. As gamers, we tend to put up with wooden acting and a general lack of character intent, but with Ninja Theory’s games, I know exactly what the people are fighting for and how much it means to them. It’s something that more games should aspire to.

      I’m playing through Heavenly Sword right now, and the God of War comparisons are valid, but man, those cut scenes. Bohan is one of the most distinctive and memorable baddies I can think of.

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