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.
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.
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.
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‘.
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.