Hellblade, a third-person game seen through the lens of a mentally ill protagonist, is a multimillion-dollar risk for developer Ninja Theory. Its strong focus on building a unique world and narrative represents a huge shift in creative direction from the company's last AAA effort, the melee combat-heavy DmC: Devil May Cry. Rather than working with a big publisher, the Cambridge, England-based studio is self-funding Hellblade as an "independent AAA" title. It's a decision that's freed Ninja Theory from creative constraints, allowing it to tackle difficult topics and simply make the games it wants to make.

Hellblade follows Senua, a Pictish Celt warrior living with schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that combines symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. It's the murder of her tribe by warring Viking raiders that drives Senua into a psychotic break, causing her reality, as reflected in the gameplay, to be affected by hallucinations and delusions.

"We want to create entertainment, yes, but we also want to create art," said Ninja Theory design chief Tameem Antoniades of the studio's reasons for creating Hellblade without major publisher support. "And I think usually large publishers want to create a product. There is a distinction between creating a product and creating a piece of art."

"I think usually large publishers want to create a product."

Antoniades' comments came from a talk at Develop, an annual video game development conference held this past summer in Brighton, England. It wasn't until Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, that Ninja Theory was ready to show off a brief demo of Hellblade's mechanics. There, Dom Matthews, the studio's "product development ninja," walked us through what's called a "vertical slice" of the game. It's an industry term for a pre-production demo that, rather than being representative of the final game, combines various ideas to see what does and doesn't work before entering full production. The demo follows Senua as she begins her journey to the Viking heartland to exact revenge.

During the 15-minute scene, rocks shape-shift; Viking enemies take on otherworldly forms; and the environment transforms with Senua's heightening fear. This transformation isn't tied to your actions; instead the environmental change helps hammer home the protagonist's fluctuating emotional state. Of course, there are solid combat mechanics -- you'd expect as much from the studio behind DmC and Heavenly Sword -- but fights are few and far between. And the ones that do occur are overshadowed by the game's intentionally fractured narrative and unique design.