Hellblade: From Heaven To Hell

Dominic Matthews of Ninja Theory, the studio behind Heavenly Sword and DmC,  talks about making ‘independent triple-A’ PS4 exclusive, Hellblade.


The first thing we noticed with Hellblade is the over-the-shoulder camera. Can you talk about why you chose to use that camera style?

It’s really to try and make the game feel intimate to Senua. The whole experience is about Senua’s personal journey into Hell, so we wanted to make everything feel close to her, to reflect that. We use the camera to show you the world and the events of the game from her perspective so the player sees the world that she sees. We toyed with the idea of having fixed cameras in the game, but that’s not possible for a team of our size to do. It took thousands of hours to review and tweak those cameras and get them right [for Heavenly Sword], so we wanted to choose a camera system that gave us flexibility, without having to spend months to get the right tone.

That leads onto combat the camera drops to the bottom right side of the screen. How did you end up deciding that was what you wanted?

So, the combat is very different from DmC. There, you had enemies all up around you, around your head, and you had to control them. This is different. In Hellblade, you are going to have an enemy right in front of you, and you’re going to have to deal with them. That’s it between one and three enemies. We wanted to keep the camera intimate, so you could see the details of both your opponents and Senua. We needed to make each fight feel meaningful, that every enemy you defeat feels significant, like in regular one-on-one fighter games. We’ve taken a lot [of cues] from one-on-one fighters when developing the fighting system mainly the idea that in those kinds of games you have to defeat your opponents over two rounds, or you fail. Whether you’re playing in Arcade mode or against another person, fail twice and you have lost. Game over. We kind of want that feeling with Hellblade: like it’s life or death. So keeping the camera in that position makes you feel up closer to that fight and it makes you feel the pressure.

You mentioned a little about on-screen damage effects there they’re in the game because there’s no HUD. Is that because you intended that the game to feel as cinematic as possible?

Absolutely. We wanted people to be really invested in Senua and her story, and any elements that are inherently ‘gamey’ break that immersion and take you out of the experience. So we’re going completely HUD-less, but that gives us challenges in how we communicate certain things to the player. Health, for example how do we tell the player Senua is low on health without any kind of bar? At the moment we’re looking at representing that in Senua’s ‘state’ if she’s wounded, she looks wounded, she animates like a wounded person. If she’s really low on health, she’s in a critical state, she’s actually down on the floor, fighting for her life. We’re using audio to guide the player as well we have got a much greater reliance on audio and sound than other games, perhaps.

We’re creating a combat system that we’re giving to the player in its entirety from the very beginning of the game. It’ll be up to the player to understand and explore that rather than us building skill trees or allowing you to unlock abilities as you go through. It’s just like if you pick up Ryu [in Street Fighter]; all of his moves are there to use right away if you’ve got the skill. We want to do the same thing with Senua. That’s why we’ve got one weapon as well, it’s the sword and it’s about mastering it. We don’t want to give you variety; we want to give you depth.

So how do you plan on using audio to essentially replace the HUD elements, then? It seems like it is pretty ambitious… 

We’re experimenting at the moment we’re actually working with an external group called Sweet Justice, who have some fantastic Unreal experience, and they are helping us out with by lending their expertise to build that audio picture of the game. We want that to be incredibly detailed with a lot of nuance we want you, as a player, to understand the detail in the sounds that you hear. You know, with health you get things like big screen effects that flash red, proclaiming ‘you’re gonna die!’ It’s things like that which I think that are a step better than a health bar, but they still take you out of the experience. Particularly in a third-person game, because what are you seeing there? Just red flashes… Okay!

Back to the fighting style of Hellblade, it felt incredibly similar to SoulCalibur even down to just guards and Guard Impacts. Is that something the programmers have taken specific inspiration from?

We have looked at quite a few fighting games… well, when I say we have looked at them, what I mean is, basically, the guys in the team are fans of these games, and we crowd around and look at something and figure out, ‘what have [they] done here?’, ‘what good about this?’ We build a picture, trying to create something that ticks all of the relevant boxes of good combat. Responsive, fast, fluid, brutal… with that feeling that every move has weight to it. Those are really the overarching goals we want to get from combat, so rather than looking at specific mechanics in different games and saying ‘oh that’s cool, we should do that’, we are trying to create more of a bigger picture.

One of the ways we’re trying to add depth to the combat, for example, is in the blocking. We’ve got deflections and we’ve got directional blocking. So rather than just going, ‘oh, and here’s the block button’, we’re doing more players that want to get really skilled at that kind of defensive, guard-reliant gameplay can get good at that, because it’s an option we’re making available.

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