Tag Archives: Ninja Theory

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.

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Monkey Fun

Enslaved: Odyssey To The West becomes the second game to fall from The Mantelpiece – at this blistering rate I might even get to the end of my ‘List of Shame’ by Christmas! (Christmas 2015 that is.) Still, if all of the games on the list are as fun as this one, it’s going to be a very enjoyable three or four years…

The first thing that strikes you about Enslaved is that the acting is simply stunning. Watching the performances of Monkey and Trip suddenly makes you realise just how damn poor most video game acting is – we’ve had to put up with so much dross over the years that we’ve just become used to it, and it takes a game like Enslaved to make you suddenly realise that it doesn’t have to be like this: you can have good acting in a video game. Andy Serkis (who played Gollum and King Kong in the Peter Jackson films) really puts his heart and soul into portraying Monkey as a restless bundle of violent energy, lumbering yet graceful at the same time. However, it’s Lindsey Shaw’s turn as Trip that’s perhaps the most pleasant surprise. When we’re introduced to her near the start of Chapter 2, she’s terrified out of her mind, hugging her knees with fear, and it’s probably the most convincing emotional portrayal I’ve ever seen in a game. And because she’s so convincingly scared, it really makes you want to protect her, so potentially annoying ‘escort and protect’ missions actually become nail-biting episodes of life or death.

Of course, it’s hard to have good acting without good dialogue, and the Alex Garland-penned script keeps things engaging throughout. The bits that are supposed to be funny are actually funny, the bits that are supposed to be sad are actually sad (and occasionally quite moving), and if you think that both of these statements sound like what should be the bare minimum requirement for a video game script, then you obviously haven’t played many video games. (I challenge you to play through any of the Gears of War games without cracking up at the unintentionally hilarious dialogue and painfully bad attempts at pathos.)

Visually, Enslaved raises the bar incredibly high. Part of the reason the acting is so successful is the convincing lip synching and facial animation, which is streets ahead of most other games (except perhaps L.A. Noire). But in addition to the character models, the apocalyptic environments are simply gorgeous, providing a truly imaginative vision of a ruined but stunningly verdant future New York. It initially reminded me of the lush urban environments of GRIN’s criminally underrated Bionic Commando reboot from 2009 (see below), but the sheer graphical vibrancy of Ninja Theory’s creation makes it something unique.

The lush, ravaged New York that Monkey and Trip travel through in the first few levels is by far the graphical highlight of the game (see screenshot below), and although the later levels certainly pack a graphical punch, nothing quite lives up to the ruined beauty of the Big Apple. Gameplay-wise too, I had the feeling that game peaked quite early: the adrenalin rush of the insane first level lingers in the memory long after it’s over, and the skyscraper playground of New York is a real joy to swing through. The game gets a little bit bogged down around the levels set in Pigsy’s junkyard, but things really pick up again for the ending, which involves a truly epic fight.

The only really disappointing thing about Enslaved is that it’s far too short, and once it’s over there’s little incentive to play through it again (except just, you know, for fun). It’s a shame, because there are so many good ideas in there that the existing content could quite easily have been stretched into a game at least twice as long. For example, the impressive ‘dogbot’ (for want of a better word) is a fantastically scary enemy that chases you through one of the earlier levels until you eventually find the means to defeat it, but I’m surprised this beast didn’t turn up more often. There’s one more encounter a couple of levels later, but that’s it, which seems a waste of a good idea. There’s a great sense of progression when you fight the dogbot for the second time, as by now you’ve perfected the techniques for killing it and your character is also in the possession of a few nifty upgrades, so why not take this progression further? Why not make Monkey fight two or three dogbots at the same time? Why not drop in a dogbot along with a few other types of enemy to really shake things up a bit? Likewise, the brilliant ‘rhinobot’ provides a very entertaining boss battle towards the end, but, criminally, this is the sole appearance of the beast.

It’s like the Enslaved team were terrified of reusing their ideas in case the game appeared repetitive. Instead, we have a very short game that’s an absolute rollercoaster of fantastic ideas, but those ideas appear so briefly they never get a chance to truly shine. For example, I really loved the interaction between Trip and Monkey, whereby you can distract enemies and draw their fire away from the other character as they run from cover to cover, but it seems that rather than develop this neat idea, Ninja Theory had all but forgotten about it by the end. It’s a shame, because it’s a clever idea, and it could have been developed in the form of almost puzzle-like action sequences in which you have to keep Trip in cover while you defend her. As it is, this little dynamic barely raises its head again after the first few levels.

I really loved Enslaved: it’s rare to see a game realised with such attention to detail, visual flair and genuine innovation, so it’s a crying shame there isn’t more of it. Let’s just hope Namco see sense and give the green light for a sequel…

[As dictated by Lucius P. Merriweather]

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