Title: Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice | Developer: Ninja Theory | Publisher: Ninja Theory | Initial Release: 8th August 2017
A generation before Guerrilla Games introduced us to the virtual photography icon that is Aloy, Cambridge based developers Ninja Theory brought their own red-headed heroine to the gaming world and, in doing so, demonstrated genuine storytelling talent that would not go unnoticed. With excellent voice acting backed up by state-of-the-art motion capture and facial animation, Heavenly Sword put character emotion right upfront as a main feature and ensured that this 2007 PS3 title remains memorable even today. A decade later then, there was justifiable excitement at the release of a spiritual successor in the form of Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice. Despite an early resemblance to Heavenly Sword's Kai, Senua's story is an entirely unrelated one, but one that clearly benefits from the pedigree of its creators, resulting in a storytelling experience that once again sets Ninja Theory's game apart.
With a setting based on Celtic culture and Norse mythology, the story in question follows the title character, Senua, as she seeks to save the soul of her lost lover from the darkest reaches of Hellheim. With a series of clever environmental puzzles and a rewarding combat system that has just enough depth to keep you thinking, Hellblade is very enjoyable to play but should be considered much more than just a game. By constantly blurring the boundaries between reality and myth, this is a game that not only embraces the interests of mythology in its story, but also one that brilliantly tackles the topic of psychosis. Senua's battles against the Norsemen are ultimately outweighed by those with her own mental health and the game does an incredible job on conveying such a difficult subject. The trademark mo-cap is this time accompanied by cutting edge facial capture, truly staggering audio design and the outstanding performance of Melina Juergens as Senua to create a title that delivers raw emotion on a level that is arguably unmatched by any other.
a title that delivers raw emotion on a level that is arguably unmatched by any other
The inclusion of a photo mode was a first for the studio and the feature is actually disabled by default. Much like the early on-screen prompt advising you to play the game using headphones though, take this as a hint that you really are better off enjoying the uninterrupted experience first before breaking the immersion to take snaps in a second play through. Doing this will not only let you fully appreciate the unparalleled atmosphere and the amazing sense of weight and consequence that is conveyed if Senua comes to harm, but will also provide better insight and context for your shots when you do start photographing.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Generous camera freedom including "cutscene" free cam
Excellent character model detail
Innovative filter effects
Controls & Implementation:
Once enabled, Hellblade's photo mode is accessed with a very convenient press of Down on the D-Pad and is available equally during gameplay and the real time cinematic scenes used to tell parts of the emotionally engaging story. This is perhaps an early indication of the refreshing degree of freedom afforded to both how and when you are able to use the photo mode camera tools. Whereas many developers ensure that off-screen tricks are kept well away from prying eyes by strictly limiting the range of camera movement and disabling control during set pieces, Hellblade is happy to let you explore with a larger than average bounding sphere that, at times, extends beyond the immediate scene presented by the game. This chance to "peek behind the curtain" is as interesting as it is commendable and can lead to some highly unique shots as well as giving fascinating insights into how certain effects within the game were achieved.
these functions could have been brought out of the menus to give a more consistent, hands-on feel
Camera operation itself makes use of a mostly intuitive combination of controller inputs and menu-driven adjustments found in the simple tabbed UI. Movement options such as lateral truck & dolly and vertical crane are logically and precisely handled by the LS and the L2 / R2 triggers respectively, while a true 360° pan & 180° tilt function is found on the RS. Though initially limited during the prologue, these features soon combine to give excellent directional control of the camera but do rely on the menu-based options to complete the compositional tool set. The complimentary zoom and focal distance options, as well as camera roll, are confined to separate Framing and Focus tabs; although these numerical sliders work well in isolation, in practice, frequent adjustments to camera position, zoom and focal point are likely to be made while composing an image. Consequently, the decision to split up the camera-oriented functions does lead to a lot of menu hopping and, given that the positional inputs are only operable when the photo mode UI is disabled or while on the somewhat unnecessary Movement tab, this can encumber the composition process. With a number of controller buttons remaining un-mapped in the movement mode, a better option may have been to bring these functions out of the menus to give a more consistent, hands-on feel.
Somewhere that the UI menu tabs are much more at home, is with the application of more advanced settings and post-processing effects with some highly novel and inventive options to be found. With no direct reference to real world camera values, options such as aperture, exposure and focal distance are each represented with a simple 0 - 100 sliding scale but do behave as would be expected, offering powerful control of the depth of field and overall brightness of the image. Be aware though, that the effective range of the focal distance slider varies with camera zoom and it can become impossible to focus on a subject at high zoom levels. My best advice to overcome this when wanting to use high zoom is to first set the focus on the subject while at a moderate zoom of ~60; then, after increasing this to 75+, use camera movement rather than the focal distance slider to fine tune the point of focus and prevent it from being lost.
No such caution is required with the Vignette tab which goes beyond the usual elliptical roundness and feather options to also include custom frame crops ranging from a wide panoramic 26:9 to an almost square 1.1:1. Most interesting though, is Depth Vignette, the first of two depth-related effects. Directly linked to the current DoF determined by the aperture and focus setup, this feature serves to darken all de-focused areas to black while keeping exposure on the focused region. Its colour-oriented counterpart, Depth Saturation, is found on the Effects tab and performs the same trick with colour saturation. Not only do these clever tools enable some great creativity by isolating a subject against a jet black background or running a strip of colour across an otherwise monochrome scene, they're also subtly useful. I particularly like to use depth saturation as a tool to accurately position my point of focus, especially when taking advantage of the notably high zoom levels and shallow DoF for detailed close-up shots.
some transformative results that are perfectly suited to the context of the game
The inventive effects don't stop there though with 7 other distinct options to choose from. Thoughtfully crafted styles, such as the image distorting Melt and the strikingly impressive Shatter or the feel of extra-sensory perception offered by Awareness can be used to produce some transformative results that are perfectly suited to the context of the game and elevate an average shot to something much more memorable. Creativity does outweigh clarity here though as the non-descriptive labelling of each effect with Intensity & Intensity 2, regardless of their particular function, can make it difficult to ascertain what is actually being altered at times. It does at least encourage experimentation but if trial and error is off-putting to you, check out the Full Feature Set below for individual descriptions.
Hellblade's processing options are rounded off with a useful set of colour grading filters that can be blended with the original image using anything from 0 - 100% intensity for a broad range of colour balance tweaks. With 15 styles to choose from, options include the sepia-like Edgy Amber and red biased Schindler but notably lack a simple black & white. The depth saturation function can be used here as a workaround if you wish to remain purely within the photo mode's capabilities but this does mean sacrificing sharpness by shifting the point of focus so it really is best to go with additional processing software edits to produce monochrome shots.
Note: the grading filters and exposure setting will not take effect when playing with HDR enabled.
It is only natural that the most immediate photographic subject should be Senua herself
Right from the outset, Hellblade is an incredibly intimate game and the artistry of the narrative and audio design simply cannot be overstated. As the story touches on personal anguish and redemption, you will quickly become invested in Senua's plight and gain a healthy desire to prove the doubting voices of the Furies wrong. It is only natural then, that the most immediate photographic subject should be Senua herself and this close affinity with the main character means that you'll be just as motivated to capture befitting shots of her as you will be to avoid the perma-death threat of failure.
masterfully blend historical culture and mundane realism with affectations of the mind
Senua's appearance does subtly change throughout the game but one constant is the level of detail available on a character model that would not look out of place on the next generation of consoles, in fact, pushing the camera up close does result in my PS4 Pro ramping up its cooling fan speed as the game works hard to render these impeccable details. By taking advantage of the powerful zoom and often outstanding lighting, it is highly rewarding to capture the outstanding intricacies found in Senua's eyes or the cracks and texture of her face paint. This is certainly one of the best photographic features in Hellblade and it's a small shame then, that the mismatched zoom and focal distance settings can make one of the trickiest to get to grips with.
As you journey through the game, Hellblade travels to a host of locations which masterfully blend historical culture and mundane realism with affectations of the mind and incarnations of Norse Gods. Of course these become more weighted towards the latter as the story quest leads you deeper into Helheim but even in the most bizarre surroundings, a permanent film grain and muted colour palette maintain an element of authenticity that delivers this grounded mythology with a feeling of immersive transition. Similarly, combat encounters never lose their sense of importance and can be played at a pace that affords time to manipulate the battle scenes to best capture shots of the imposing Norsemen or more unique deities, not least of all, the terrifying Fenrir. The progression of the game's surroundings is wonderful and my only complaint would be a lack of chapter select or save slots that would allow players to revisit favourite locations after completing the game.
Undoubtedly the most significant photographic opportunity in Hellblade is one that is intrinsically linked to the game's unrivalled depiction of emotion and mental health. The marvellous way in which Melina Juergens' award winning performance is brought to the screen means that photographing Hellblade offers to possibility to capture profound emotions that are rarely exhibited openly in the real world. Even if they were, it is far from morally acceptable to pull out a camera and take full advantage of someone's most vulnerable moments. Despite this, some of the most powerful photographs ever taken are ones which do exactly that, capture an instance of unmasked and unfiltered joy, sadness, fear or grief. There is not much more human than emotion and here is a game that not only makes you feel it, but lets you capture it in enduring images that really do speak 1,000 words.
Hellblade is a title built proudly on the heritage of its creators to become more than a game and perhaps an epoch in emotive storytelling within the medium. Broadly speaking, the photo mode empowers users to capture powerful and poignant imagery with a wealth of creative tools and refreshing freedom but neglects to trust them with a little more information. The basis is sound though and if Ninja Theory can apply their AAA standards to virtual photography, the newly announced Senua's Saga: Hellblade II will be an even more exciting release than it already is. I for one, cannot wait to see what comes next.
View the Hellblade game page
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: D-Pad Down
Camera Movement: Free (with bounding sphere)
Zoom: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Roll: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Senua Visible: On / Off
Enemies Visible: On / Off
Aperture: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Exposure: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Focal Distance: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Grading: None + 15 Presets
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Vignette Crop Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - aspect ratio crops
Vignette Ellipse Intensity 1: 0 - 100 (± 5) - size / shape
Vignette Ellipse Intensity 2: 0 - 100 (± 5) - edge feather
Vignette Depth: Darkens area outside current DoF
Edge Detection: Glowing edge outlines
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - edge detection threshold, 0 = off
Intensity 2: 0 - 100 (± 5) - distance to affected region
Colourise: Hue shift, no adjustment available
Depth Saturation: De-saturates area outside current DoF
Melt: Melting image distortion
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - extent of distortion
Intensity 2: 0 - 100 (± 5) - distance to affected region
Flatten: Flattens global lighting
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - extent of the effect
Intensity 2: 0 - 100 (± 5) - depth / range of affected region
Awareness: Extra-sensory perception effect
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - extent of the effect
Double Exposure: Splits 3 duplicate images
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - degree of offset
Shatter: Shattered glass / fractured image
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 5) - distance beyond Senua
Intensity 2: 0 - 100 (± 5) - shard size