What Other Games Should Learn From Hellblade's Combat

By Rich Stanton on at

One aspect of Hellblade's reception that seemed unfair were grumbles about how 'simple' the combat system is. This seems reductive about both what the game's going for and what it achieves. The charge perhaps has its origins in Ninja Theory's previous work, most notably Devil May Cry, being in the more traditional lineage of third-person fighting games — long combinations, multiple weapons, air juggles, and generally an endless stream of OTT attack animations. This is very different but it makes many refinements to thirdperson melee combat that other games should learn from.

Hellblade's combat system is about creating intimacy between the player and Senua, making us feel a strong physical bond to the character during battle. There are dozens of individual techniques being used. First would be the up-close camera angle, zoomed in right behind either of Senua's shoulders. Our field of view and hers are almost one. Then there is the camera lock, which automatically selects targets and 'flicks' between viking to viking as they approach, mimicking the movement of nervous eyes. When you sprint at an enemy, the camera holds still for a second as Senua prepares to dash forwards, then accelerates alongside her to emphasise speed and impact.

Another angle on Ninja Theory's utter mastery of the camera is the major use of slow motion and freeze frames. A parry, for example, has an instantaneous 'stop' moment with visual and audio effects before the game quickly moves back to normal speed. Activating 'focus' when full slows every enemy around Senua, allowing you to bloodily pick your way through the hapless vikings, their limbs suspended mid-swing. Each contact is emphasised with near-imperceptible timing shifts, alongside the spectacular SFX, to give constant pauses for breath during what could have been overly intense combat.

The controls are simple only in their elements; this is about refinement. Senua has three attack buttons, and she can block, dodge, parry, and run. From these attack buttons can come any number of flowing combination attacks, depending on timing and order, though in a welcome touch the game doesn't tell you what they are. Experimentation soon reveals a few bread-and-butter moves but part of Hellblade's mystique is that I never felt I knew everything Senua was capable of, and right until the end was discovering new moves.

This all creates combat that feels up-close and personal, its more fantastical elements grounded by the 'realistic' physical capabilities of Senua and her enemies (bosses mark an exception, and obviously so does health). The enemies may appear from nowhere and have their faces obscured by masks, but they are men — and not necessarily highly skilled warriors, either, but fierce and numerous and physically bigger than Senua. Combat here is almost always against a group, greater numbers of larger opponents, surrounding Senua and advancing. She is more than capable but they, given an opening, will mercilessly beat her into the ground.

When Senua is hit, the various animations that play show her recoiling from the blow in such a way that her face is partially or wholly visible to the player. If it's just a glancing hit, you see a glimpse of her pained expression, but if it's a bad one she falls back and turns, crumpled, and the camera stays on her wracked features for seconds. You can't help but wince in sympathy. Conversely, fighting well showcases not Senua's face but her voice, as successive parries and tight combinations see her shouts build up over the low viking rumble, whole companies of men eviscerated as the animalistic shrieks build to fever pitch.

Voice is a huge part of combat because Hellblade's greatest single idea, and omnipresent throughout, is the voices in Senua's mind. This is a symptom of psychosis that turns out to be a natural fit for a video game because, quite outside of whether this is an accurate representation or not, its implementation allows for a wide range of effects across different styles of play. They serve a narrative purpose, obviously, in that they often chatter about your current objective and prod Senua onwards, as well as helping establish tone for particular scenes.

But the most stunning use of the voices is in combat. They are both coach and opponent, an unholy cocktail of fans and haters riding along in Senua's mind and jockeying for position to comment on your performance. That terrible little laugh whenever you take a blow. The cries to 'finish him' when an enemy is weak and reeling. The flat, superior way they say enemies are too strong for you, or that Senua is too weak, or that it's over. And then the jewelled idea, the absolute beauty of how they function in battle as another pair of eyes; the voices warn you.

Specifically, the voices warn you about attacks that you can't see. As far back as third-person fighting games go, this has been an issue, and it's one that some games solve by having a very zoomed-out view of the character. In games like God Hand — which is a major inspiration for Hellblade's camera and the use of the voices — the view is much closer to the character's shoulder, so peripheral vision is limited. The two most common solutions are to make enemies behind the player character passive, not attacking until they can be seen again, or to telegraph incoming attacks with enemy voice lines (Mikami fans will also recall this technique in the ghoulish cackles of Resident Evil 4's cultists.)

Internalising these voices allows Hellblade to have the Furies warn Senua about incoming attacks, but in a more urgent manner. The voices will shout "watch out!" at a higher volume than usual and, after a short time with the game, this is internalised and instantly reacted upon. The worry in 3D combat games with a camera like this is that you end up feeling either overly exposed from the back, or that the enemies are clearly switching off when not in view.

Hellblade's voices solve this with a technique that not only adds flavour to the moment-to-moment combat, but is practical. Sometimes, though it's rare, you're hit from behind without warning and are instantly affronted — where were the girls? Maybe this little inconsistency will drive some players wild, but I see it as part of the voices' capriciousness. One of the reasons I ended up feeling ambiguous about the Furies is their mix of hostility and helpfulness, the fragility that lurks beneath their sneers and arrogance.

This all adds up to a combat system that's not only accessible to most, but has a sleek kind of depth to it. Ninja Theory's expertise with fighting cameras is perhaps unmatched and, though as the third video shows that Hellblade is not quite perfect in this respect, the overall feel of fighting in the game is something new to me.

Hellblade's combat works its more symbolic aspects into effects that look fabulous, but it absolutely grounds the moment-to-moment fighting in Senua's capabilities and exertions. The comparison for Hellblade should never really have been the Devil May Crys of this world, but cinematic adventures like Uncharted — and I'd take this combat system over anything like that. One of Ninja Theory's taglines for hyping Hellblade was that this game somehow represented 'indie AAA.' I always thought that was a bit silly but with hindsight, looking at this beautiful combat system, I know exactly what it means.