It’s been the better part of a decade since I played a game from Ninja Theory. Whilst not everyone enjoyed Heavenly Sword as much as I did (although I do agree with many of the criticism levelled at it) I thought they had potential as a developer and hoped they’d go on to bigger and better things. The following decade has given them a modicum of success, although not with any titles I’ve cared to play over the years. When I saw some of the tech demos for Hellblade though I was reminded of what drew me to Heavenly Sword back in the day, and ever since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Whilst Hellblade isn’t what I had expected it’s an exceptional game in its own right, even if it will drive you slowly insane.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s plot is hard to give an introduction to without diving deep into spoilers but I shall endeavour to do so. You play as Senua, a member of a Pict who’s made a pilgrimage to…somewhere… in order to save the soul of your beloved one. You’re haunted by numerous voices who speak to you incessantly, voicing all your inner doubts, fears and, sometimes, granting you strength to push through your turmoil. The path you’re following is one dictated by Norse mythology and will ultimately lead you into one of their other worlds: Hellheim. Reality, illusions and delusions all blur together in a mess of truth and fiction, one that Senua must follow to its ultimate conclusion; wherever that takes her.
The visuals of Hellblade are stunning, utilising many of the modern features of the Unreal 4 engine to their fullest extent. Whilst the environments you’re placed in may seem large however that in of itself is an illusion as the traversable world is actually quite a lot smaller. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold: primarily it’s for performance as larger environments would necessitate heavy compromises in other areas to keep it performing at a consistent level. Secondly Hellblade isn’t a game about exploration and whilst there are a few things to be discovered if you move off the beaten track it’s certainly not the game’s main attraction. If I was being childish I’d say that was the protagonist’s hair, given Ninja Theory’s penchant for wanting to show off their physics engine, but I won’t do that…
Hellblade is billed as a action-adventure/hack and slash type game and, whilst it has elements of that, it’s actually a bit closer to a walking simulator in most respects. For the most part you’ll be walking through the environments, mis/guided by the voices in your head as others narrate your journey. There’s no levelling, loot or crafting systems to speak of but you will get some different abilities unlocked for you as the game progresses. The combat sections inbetween there are a mix of hack and slash coupled with some Souls-light style game play, focusing on movesets and reaction times. Puzzles are mostly visual in nature, pushing to you look at things in different ways in order to unlock doors, restore objects or transport you to between worlds in order to move onto the next room. In this era of modern games that attempt to do everything Hellblade is a refreshing lesson in focus, leaving all the unnecessary game elements at the door in favour of spending more time on the ones that matter.
The combat is quite enjoyable for an experienced Souls player like myself, mostly because it’s a lot easier by comparison. The standard enemy tropes are all there and their movesets are relatively predictable, meaning that for even inexperienced players it shouldn’t be too much of a blocker. The boss battles too are quite enjoyable, providing a different challenge to break up the other combat engagements. Unfortunately the ramp up in difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more of the same types of enemies at you, culminating in a final battle which is no different from all the other battles you’ve fought before. Considering the game only runs for about 6 or so hours this highly noticeable repetition is unfortunately one of Hellblade’s biggest flaws.
Puzzles are for the most part straightforward once all the mechanics have been demonstrated to you. Initially it can be a bit confusing as the solution can be visible but the way to get to it very unclear. Once you’ve figured out the various mechanics for seeing through illusions, changing perspectives and whatnot it becomes a lot easier. Hellblade does a good job of guiding you through the puzzles however there were still a few that stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t distinguish a certain visual element. Searching around for answers I can see I’m not alone with this so there’s definitely some room for improvement from a design viewpoint. Still I think that overall the puzzles are well designed, intuitive and feel like an organic part of the experience rather than an artificial blocker to progression.
Hellblade announces at the start that it’s best experienced with headphones and, whilst I largely agree with this, the reason isn’t so much due to the game’s general audio experience (although that plays a part). The reason for headphones is for the voices in your head which, maddeningly, do everything you’d expect voices in someone’s head to do. Most voices prefer one ear over another, they’ll quite often talk over the top of each other and they’ll continually provide commentary on everything that’s happening. It’s done deliberately, and for that I applaud them, but it’s also one of the reasons why I couldn’t play for more than an hour at a time. Having that going on constantly is an extremely draining experience, so much so that when they went away for the first time I had a palpable sense of relief. Hats off to Ninja Theory for developing an experience like that but make no mistake, it can make playing Hellblade an exhausting experience.
By and large the game is well polished although there are some weird glitches that can occur. Senua’s hair can go a bit wild from time to time which, whilst distracting, isn’t game breaking. I did have a few times where I got stuck in or behind invisible barriers, most notably during Sut’s trial where you are supposed to get pegged in a ring of fire to fight some Northmen. For whatever reason I was outside the barrier when it got erected which restricted my movements considerably. I was able to finish the fight and progress however but it could have easily gone the other way. I didn’t get any performance issues like others had described however I did play after the first round of patches came out. I’d hazard a guess then that these minor gameplay issues would also be sorted out in future patches.
Hellblade’s story is an extremely tragic one, something you learn about very early on. As one of the game’s core tenants is that it will lie to you with reckless abandon (as shown by the whole “All progress will be lost” thing if you die too much being a lie) it’s hard to discern just what’s true to the story and what’s not. Certainly much of it makes a lasting impression and it’s delivery is exceptional. However at the final conclusion I found myself feeling a little hollow with how things turned out. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from dealing with voices in my head or the fact that I didn’t quite understand what the objective truth was but that’s the feeling I was left with. Unlike similar stories that left me questioning just what happened though I didn’t turn to the Internet for answers. Maybe I will later, I don’t know. Suffice to say that whilst I think the story is well told I’m not quite sure how I feel about it overall.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptionally well crafted game from Ninja Theory, showing that they’ve been no slouch in the decade since I last played one of their games. The visuals are stunning, both in terms of raw graphics as well as the visual theme and the environments its set in. The game’s focus on a few key elements rather than a whole lot of ancillary mechanics is refreshing, putting the focus firmly on telling the story. Some of its major flaws are that its combat becomes repetitive quickly, escalation in challenge only coming from increasing numbers of enemies, and that the overall story feels a little hollow at its conclusion. Still overall I think Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is still worth the price of admission, if you feel you can deal with the voices in your head that is.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 93% of the achievements unlocked.