Hellblade 2 will finally show us what an Unreal Engine 5 game can do

This console generation has been pretty short of “next-gen moments” — those dazzling, techy epiphanies when you see a game do things that were inconceivable on earlier hardware. You can make a case for Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart’s lightning-fast loading or Starfield’s potato physics, but there have been relatively few instances where you can watch the future arrive in real time.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that console supply issues and pandemic-driven development delays led to an unusually long cross-generational phase. Until last year, most games were still being released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as well as their successors. Another is that Unreal Engine 5, the latest iteration of Epic Games’ ubiquitous graphics engine, lagged a little behind the new console generation, and large-scale UE5 productions have been slow to appear, with a couple of exceptions.

All of this is why I wasn’t expecting to experience a next-gen moment when I traveled to Cambridge, U.K., to visit the Ninja Theory studio and play Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2. But I got one. It’s an astonishingly lifelike narrative action game that applies UE5’s tech, Microsoft’s resources (the company owns Ninja Theory), and the unique processes of a smallish team of technical artists to create something at once grounded and vividly hyperreal. There’s nothing else quite like it.

This won’t come as a total surprise if you played 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Both Hellblade games blend horrific, quasi-mythological action with a realistic approach to the psychology of their heroine, Senua, an eighth-century Celtic warrior with psychosis. Both games have a photoreal visual style with heavy emphasis on performance capture — an area Ninja Theory has specialized in since collaborating with Andy Serkis on its 2007 action game Heavenly Sword.

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Quite a lot has changed for Ninja Theory since 2017, however. In 2018, the studio was acquired by Microsoft. It hasn’t grown much since — with 100 people, around 80 of whom are working on Hellblade 2, this remains a modestly sized team — but Microsoft’s investment is evident in beautiful new offices with a large, dedicated motion capture studio (and, at the insistence of some extremely British local planning regulations, an in-house pub). On my visit, there was no sign or mention of Ninja Theory’s flamboyant founder and Hellblade writer-director Tameem Antoniades. An Xbox spokesperson later confirmed to Polygon that he is no longer with the studio. Antoniades was involved in Hellblade 2 in the early stages, but the game now has a trio of creative leads: environment art director Dan Attwell, visual effects director Mark Slater-Tunstill, and audio director David Garcia.

You would expect a dedication to craft in any game led by three technical artists, but that still wouldn’t prepare you for the extraordinary lengths Ninja Theory is going to in its pursuit of realism. In Hellblade 2, Senua journeys to Iceland on the hunt for Norse slavers who are decimating her community in the northern British Isles. As press toured the studio, Attwell explained that the route of her adventure had been plotted in the real world, and locations were captured using a mixture of satellite imaging, drone footage, procedural generation, and photogrammetry. The team spent weeks on location in Iceland, studying the landscape, photographing rocks, and piloting drones. They also studied building techniques of the time and virtually constructed doors out of 3D-scanned planks of wood, rather than modeling them. They even made their own rough wood carvings and scanned them in.

Character art director Dan Crossland showed us real costumes that had been made to fit the actors by a London-based costume designer using period-appropriate techniques, and then scanned in by the studio. Behind Crossland’s desk there was a mannequin plastered in mesh, putty, feathers, and deconstructed scraps of fabric — a spooky, hand-sculpted prototype enemy design.

Senua, seen from a distance in silhouette, explores a dark, misty area in Hellblade 2. Severed hands and skulls hang from branches. Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

Over in the combat team’s section, principal action designer Benoit Macon, a very tall and ebullient Frenchman, explained that the game’s fight sequences weren’t traditionally animated, but 100% mo-capped. I watched stunt professionals act out finishing moves on the performance capture stage while animation director Guy Midgley shot them in a close, roving handheld style, using a phone in a lightweight rig.

The playable results of this fully mo-capped fighting system are quite unique. Combat in Hellblade 2 is one on one only, slow-paced, and very brutal. In the fight scenes of the demo I played — which also featured pattern-spotting puzzles and some atmospheric, grueling traversal — there’s a heightened sense of threat as Senua faces hulking and aggressive opponents, and the characters loom large in the unusually tight camera angles. This might not be the over-the-top combat of DmC: Devil May Cry, but it’s still very effective.

In a small, soundproofed studio on the top floor, Garcia worked with the two voice actors playing the Furies, which is how Senua thinks of the voices in her head who keep up a constant commentary on the action and her state of mind. (As with the first game, scriptwriter Lara Derham has worked with psychology professor Paul Fletcher and with people who have experienced psychosis on the portrayal of the condition’s effects.) The actors prowled around a binaural microphone — essentially a mannequin head with microphones for ears — hissing and murmuring their lines as if at Senua herself. Garcia, a Spaniard with an infectious sense of wonder, is called a “genius” by his co-workers. His growling, chattering soundscapes are players’ principal point of access into Senua’s state of mind, and they’re as overwhelming now as they were in 2017.

Senua, seen from the waist up, holds a sword with her back to the player. She faces an indistinct enemy holding a fiery sword whose appearance is fractured Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

The lengths to which Ninja Theory is going to ground this digital video game in physical reality might seem quixotic — even contradictory — but the proof is in the playing. The game, which I played on Xbox Series X, looks stunning, whether it’s rendering the black, smoking slopes of an Icelandic volcano or the pale, haunted eyes of Senua performer Melina Juergens. But beyond that, Hellblade 2 has a tactile immediacy that seems to operate at an almost subconscious level. Ninja Theory’s artists are seeking an emotional connection with the player that, they believe, can only form if the player thinks that what they are seeing is real.

“I think that the human mind does [a thing where] you think you know what something looks like, but then actually, when you look at what that thing is, in reality there’s way more chaos in it. It’s not quite the same as what you picture in your head,” Slater-Tunstill said. “If you were just sculpting off the top of your head, the environments or the characters or whatever, it just is going to lose some of that nature, some of that chaos.”

Attwell said that Unreal Engine 5 has made this realist approach more more achievable, both because of the level of fidelity available in the engine’s Nanite geometry system, and because “the turnaround between scanning the thing and putting it in the level is drastically cut, and you can spend that time finessing.”

“You can think more about the composition,” Slater-Tunstill agreed. “And with the kind of lighting volumetrics we can now do, everything just beds in much better. It’s more believable.”

Overall, the sense from the Ninja Theory team is that UE5 has removed a lot of barriers for video game artists, and that players are only just starting to see the results. “It feels like the graphical leap that we’ve managed with this is like… We’re on the trajectory we wanted,” Attwell said.

Senua grimaces while stabbing an enemy with her sword in Hellblade 2. They are lit harshly from the right against a plain blue background. Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

You only need to lay eyes on Hellblade 2 briefly to understand that you’re seeing the next evolution of game technology. It’s not just the engine, though — there are a bunch of factors aligning to make Hellblade 2 a tech showcase. For one, the game design is extremely focused. This isn’t some wild open-world simulation; it’s a linear, narrative-first action game. As an Xbox first-party studio, Ninja Theory has the luxury of building for fewer formats. Also, it’s been given the time to experiment. Touring the studio, Microsoft’s investment in Ninja Theory starts to make a lot of sense. The tech giant hasn’t just acquired a boutique developer, but also an R&D unit that explores the technical and artistic frontiers of a specific game-making process.

The result is a game made with an unusual degree of focus. Hellblade 2 won’t necessarily be to everyone’s taste with its slow pace, deliberate inputs, and highly scripted, cinematic presentation. It struck me as a modern successor to something like the 1983 interactive animation Dragon’s Lair. As intense and dramatic as the section I played was, it remains to be seen whether the game’s story — a more outward journey for a more mentally balanced Senua — can connect as deeply as Hellblade’s trip into her darkest fears. But there’s no doubting the craft on display, or the immersive sense of presence this game has. It may be a sequel, but it feels like the start of something — like a true next-gen experience should.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 will be released May 21 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X.