Built on a relatively low budget compared to the triple-A heavyweights, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice still impresses as one of the generation’s most striking games. Miraculously, a core team of 14 people at Ninja Theory created something greater than the sum of its parts – marrying beautiful art direction with Unreal Engine 4’s cutting-edge feature-set. It certainly impressed on PS4 and PC when it debuted in late 2017, and with the recently released Xbox One X version, we have the best console version of the game bar none.
It’s also a highly accomplished tech showcase across all platforms. With titles likes Heavenly Sword and Enslaved on the studio’s CV, it’s no surprise that motion capture plays a big part in Hellblade’s storytelling. It quite literally screams at you from the start, though adds a crucial element of humanity to the script. Each grimace and cry of the lead actress is keyed in – synchronised with her body movements – using a camera as a reference point. It’s one half of the process to bringing Senua to life, the other being the high level of detail applied to her character model.
Indeed Senua’s design is clearly a labour of love for the studio. Physics-based elements dangle from her body rig – from the accessories to a mass of dreadlocked hair – all reacting to the original motion capture or player input. Meanwhile a process of photogrammetry is used to map every wrinkle, pore and streak of cracked paint across her skin. Even clothing is based on real-life materials for fur and leather. It’s scanned in to make realistic, physically-based lighting possible within the engine, interplaying with the light shafts and bonfires across the world. The combined result is eerily realistic – even if Senua’s eyes do veer towards the uncanny valley in some close-ups, this approach still feels authentic enough to tell the grounded story Ninja Theory is gunning for.
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