Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Developed with the aid of neuroscientists and experts in the field of mental health, it’s fair to say Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t your typical game. Going into it, I had purposely avoided a lot of the run up to the release, as I found the premise very exciting, and wanted to be as fresh as I could to the experience. And, what an experience it is.
Set around a blend of Celtic and Norse mythology, the game tells the tale of Senua, a Celtic warrior whose beloved was slaughtered by invading Vikings. She was left mentally scarred by the event, and is embarking upon a journey right into the depths of Hell, or the Norse version of it, to try to bargain for her lover’s soul.
The developers, Ninja Theory, are known for fast-paced combat, the likes of which we’ve seen the the studio’s previous releases, DmC: Devil May Cry, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and, of course, Heavenly Sword. However, don’t go into Hellblade expecting the same kind of gameplay. This is a very different release, and although it features combat, it’s not as heavily-focused on it. Instead, here we have a title that embraces atmosphere and story over combat, and it does so using a very unique and nigh-on genius trick – voices.
You see, the game plays heavily on the fact that Senua isn’t exactly well, and her emotional state and overall psyche isn’t really stable. As is to be expected after someone has just witnessed the gruesome death of a loved one, Senua’s mental state is fractured, to say the least. This manifests in the game in various ways, from visual tricks and audio effects, and towering, disfigured Viking foes she meets, to the constant stream of inner voices Senua hears as she progresses in her quest.
These voices are brilliantly acted and expertly manipulated to produce a definite unnerving and often troubling feeling as they flit between encouragement and criticism, praising her for pushing on in the face of such horror, whilst also laughing at her, and often warning her that she’s going to fail and should turn back. It’s a great representation of the inner struggle everyone goes through when facing difficult tasks they’re not sure they can handle. This is just one method the game uses to address Senua’s mental state, and it has the added effect of also serving as exposition that’s not right in your face, but is delivered organically, and naturally interwoven into the gameplay.
Because of the importance of these voices, it’s imperative that you use headphones when playing the game. The game also urge this, and I can confirm they’re essential. The game just doesn’t have the same impact otherwise.
Visually, Hellblade is one of the best of the year in my opinion, not just thanks to the overall high graphical quality and the superb use of motion capture, but also thanks to the range of effects and visual glitches that pepper the proceedings to give them that extra, otherworldly effect. This is to further heighten the state of Senua’s mind, and it’s done in a way that aids this, but doesn’t get in the way of the game.
The world Senua ventures through is brilliantly atmospheric, and the heavy amount of Norse and Celtic lore that’s contained in the game only serves to enhance the story, making your impending battles against mighty enemies more daunting. This is enhanced even more in an early encounter that sees Senua become infected with some sort of black goo attached to her arm. The game rather vaguely tells you that when you die, this infection will grow, and if you die enough, it’ll reach Senua’s head and it’ll be game over. According to online reports, this means the game will actually delete your save, resulting in perma-death.
Now, I didn’t die enough to actually witness this in my time with the game, and the game doesn’t elaborate on how many deaths it will take. The point here is that it makes you worried and stressed taking any death very seriously, which is the whole point of Senua’s journey in the first place. Clever.
I’ve already mentioned that combat isn’t the central focus here, and that’s very true. In fact, aside from the exploration and story, there are two main gameplay elements here. The first is a gentle puzzle element. Many areas feature barriers locked using runes. To open them, you have to focus on the environment to find objects and environmental details that, when looked at from the right aspect, form the corresponding runes. Think the Riddler’s question mark aspect challenges from the Batman: Arkham games.
Sometimes, the puzzles make use of special gates that, when looked and walked through, change the environment to allow progression. It’s simple stuff for the most part, but does get more challenging as the game progresses.
Combat itself is a more down to earth setup than other Ninja Theory games. Here it’s a slower-paced, closer proximity affair that’s more like a Souls game in some ways. Senua has her trusty sword, and only light and heavy attacks, and a melee kick to break blocks. She can also dodge and parry attacks, and has the ability to run at foes to unleash jumping attacks. It’s pretty basic, but is an example of quality over quantity, as the combat here is solid, and works very well. It’s simple, but fun, and although you’ll work out the ins and outs within an hour or so, fights are enjoyable and tense, especially given the aforementioned threat of perma-death.
That said, combat is also very predictable, and Hellblade suffers from the cliché of large, open areas foreshadowing an imminent fight. You’re rarely surprised when a fight ensues, as the area you’re in always gives it away.
Indeed, the game structure is one of the weakest features. By this I mean the very compartmentalised level design that takes place in relatively small areas divided by locked doors and barriers. It’s all very formulaic, and a little bit of variation would have been welcome. As it stands, you’re rarely surprised by encounters and bosses, as they’re usually heavily telegraphed.
But despite a couple of hiccups, Hellblade is a great game, and I particularly applaud it for its focus on mental health that’s handled very well, and interwoven with the themes effectively.