Xbox Game Studios Spotlight: Ninja Theory

By Sean Carey,
In this week's Xbox Game Studio Spotlight, we're looking at Ninja Theory, developers of the superb Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, DmC: Devil May Cry, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and more.


Ninja Theory overview

Ninja Theory

Ninja Theory was founded in March 2000 by Tameem Antoniades, Nina Kristensen, and Mike Ball, but not under its current name. The studio, based in Cambridge, England, actually began life as Just Add Monsters. The company was acquired by the now-defunct Argonaut Games later that year. In 2003, Just Add Monsters launched its first title, a Microsoft Game Studios-backed 3D fighting party game Kung Fu Chaos for the original Xbox to generally favourable reviews from critics. According to Tameem, the game "tanked at retail," due to lack of ads and support, saying he was amazed that Microsoft would "invest so much in a game and then send it out to die."

While Kung Fu Chaos was in development, the team began working on a sequel called Kung Fu Chaos 2, but Microsoft declined to fund it due to the first game's poor reception. Soon after, Just Add Monsters began developing a new IP called Kung Fu Story (Microsoft retained the IP rights to Kung Fu Chaos) but soon realised that players and publishers wanted games that were more realistic and had high production values. The team expanded the scope of the game and renamed it Heavenly Sword. Around that time, Argonaut Games went into administration, but after securing funding, Just Add Monsters managed to buy back the company from Argonaut and subsequently reestablished itself as Ninja Theory.

Heavenly Sword was eventually picked up by Sony and would become a PlayStation 3 exclusive that launched in 2007. The hack-and-slash action-adventure game was received well by critics but sadly wasn't a commercial success — Ninja Theory didn't even recoup its development costs.

Monkey and Trip

Over the next several years, Ninja Theory released the excellent Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the superb DmC: Devil May Cry for consoles and PC. Enslaved was met with rave reviews from critics and fans alike in 2010, but as Tameem Antoniades notes, the post-apocalyptic action-adventure game "came out with little fanfare and disappointing sales," which he puts down to the fantasy elements of the game being a turnoff, the gameplay mix, and the lack of visibility.

Just before Ninja Theory finished developing Enslaved, the studio was given the go-ahead from Capcom to work on a spin-off Devil May Cry game that was set in a parallel universe to the mainline series. DmC: Devil May Cry was released in 2013 and again saw top marks from most reviewers for its visuals, gameplay, and its flowing combat. DmC also topped sales charts in the US, Europe, and Japan.

After DmC: Devil May Cry's release, Ninja Theory developed an on-rails VR shooter for PS VR and PC called Dexed and took on contract work, supporting development on Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes and Disney Infinite 3.0. The team had the idea of an "independent AAA" business model that would have Ninja Theory retain its IP and publish games itself. Ninja Theory believed there was a middle ground between low budget indie development and AAA projects, with games that would have high production values but were sold at a lower price. A team of 15 people at Ninja Theory got to work on Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, which launched in 2017. The third-person action-adventure was hailed a success, with reviewers praising the game for its depiction of psychosis and other mental illnesses. It also sold well, shipping over half a million copies in three months, generating $13 million and picking up numerous industry awards.

The following year, Ninja Theory was acquired by Microsoft. In a YouTube video, Antoniades explained the acquisition meant that Ninja Theory could be "free from the AAA machine and make games focused on the experience, not around monetisation," with Microsoft promising full creative independence.

Ninja Theory’s previous project — Bleeding Edge

Bleeding Edge gameplay

Bleeding Edge is a melee-oriented MOBA that was developed by a small team within Ninja Theory and headed up by DmC: Devil May Cry's combat designer, Rahni Tucker. After selecting from a colourful cast of 13 characters that each slotted into one of three classes: Damage, Support, or Tank, two teams of four players would compete against each other in various game modes, utilising the unique abilities of each character to take down other players and secure objectives. Matches were, at times, intense and pretty fun when you were in a team that worked together, but a real lack of variety in game modes and a dedicated ranked mode, really stopped the game from living up to its full potential. Around ten months after launch, and a couple of updates, Ninja Theory announced it would no longer be releasing content updates for Bleeding Edge and would turn its focus towards Hellblade: Senua's Saga and Project Mara.

Ninja Theory's current projects: Senua's Saga: Hellblade II and Project Mara

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II was announced alongside the reveal of the Xbox Series X back in 2019. The sequel to Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was revealed with a trailer that was captured in engine, featuring Senua chanting intensely, a lone homestead, dismembered body parts, and some sort of mountain monster. In a developer update earlier this year, Ninja Theory spoke more on the game's development, saying it was still in the early stages and that Hellblade II hadn't entered into full production. According to Tameem Antoniades, the game is set in ninth-century Iceland, Ninja Theory has partnered with Epic to bring "next-generation digital characters," and Hellblade II will feature "extra real and brutal" combat. Aside from these details, not much else is known about the sequel.

Project Mara

Not much is known about Ninja Theory's mysterious Project Mara. All we know is that it's an "in-development experimental title that explores new ways of storytelling," and it will focus on accurately representing the terror of some mental health issues based on in-depth research and people's experiences. Ninja Theory hopes Project Mara will usher in a new storytelling medium. In 2019 the studio partnered with professor Paul Fletcher of the University of Cambridge to form a new research and development project called The Insight Project, with the aim of "generating strategies to alleviate mental distress" through the combination of technology, game design, and clinical neuroscience. It looks like Project Mara could be related to the research Insight is conducting. Tameem Antoniades has revealed that Mara will feature just one character (presumably Mara) and one location that's an apartment.

Ninja Theory in 2021

project mara

Ninja Theory has been relatively quiet in 2021 in providing updates on its current projects. Many were hoping that we'd see Hellblade II at E3 this year, sadly that wasn't the case. The studio posted a brief update, revealing that Hellblade II was still in early production. As for Project Mara, we've had a developer diary, which didn't really give much about the game away, other than what the studio's artists are up to in recreating the game's apartment location as realistically as possible. Outside of these two games, Ninja Theory has been busy, moving to a new building in Cambridge and also rolling out an Xbox Series X|S update for Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice that added ray tracing on both consoles, new performance and resolution modes, upgraded texture resolutions, increased draw distance, a chapter select (which means you won't have to restart the game if you've missed that one annoying lorestone), and higher levels of detail.

How does Ninja Theory rank?

Ninja Theory is a bit of a tough one for us to rank. While it does have several decent games tucked away in its back catalogue (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and DmC: Devil May Cry), the studio has really become synonymous with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and for good reason. For such a small team to produce a game that could easily rival some of the bigger AAA titles out there, in terms of visuals and storytelling, and managing to portray ill mental health in such a remarkable way, the studio must be commended. However, it feels like Ninja Theory has more to offer. The studio's latest game, Bleeding Edge, didn't really set the world on fire, and it never really got the attention it deserved. Other than Bleeding Edge, we haven't really seen much from the developer in terms of big games since 2017's Hellblade. The developer has so much potential, and it seems Microsoft knows this too; otherwise, it wouldn't have swooped in for the studio, and it wouldn't have revealed the Xbox Series X back at The Game Awards in 2019 alongside Senua's Saga: Hellblade II. It will be interesting to see what Ninja Theory does with the sequel and also its mysterious Project Mara. Assuming that both games are being informed using the research conducted by Ninja Theory's The Insight Project, we could see something truly groundbreaking within the next few years. For these reasons, we think Ninja Theory deserves a B. Ninja Theory is brimming with potential, and it seems to have found a clear direction and is sticking with it. The studio now has to show us what it can really do and realise that potential.

B Tier
B

A studio capable of greatness, but has more to offer


However, this, of course, is just our opinion! We want to know your thoughts. Do you think Ninja Theory should be graded higher, or maybe even lower? Vote in the poll below and give us your reasoning in the comments below.
How would you rank Ninja Theory?
  • S — A world-class studio executing at an exceptional level
  • A — A studio with a fantastic portfolio, and the talent to impress further
  • B — A studio capable of greatness, but has more to offer
  • C — An up-and-coming studio, or one struggling to realise its potential
We've had 405 responses.
Sean Carey
Written by Sean Carey
Sean graduated from Southampton Solent University with a first-class honours degree in Journalism, which he uses to keep TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies topped up with the latest gaming and industry news. When not scouring the web for the latest big story, you’ll find him tearing up the streets in Forza Horizon 5, or failing miserably in Call of Duty: Warzone.