Ninja Theory’s newest, self-titled “AAA Indie” game: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is quite unlike the combat focused character-action titles in the developer’s past. Ninja Theory developed the arguably underrated Enslaved: Odyssey of the West and the divisive Devil May Cry reboot; DmC, as well the early PlayStation 3 game Heavenly Sword. Unlike these games, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has no platforming, XP or abilities to learn. Instead, it takes a more direct and narrow approach in order to tell a satisfying and intriguing story, with a unique perspective not really explored in this way before in a video game.
From the outset, Hellblade gives you a disclaimer telling you this is a story about mental illness and psychosis. Being a somewhat delicate subject, Ninja Theory could have easily handled this poorly and ham-fisted, but there are subtlety and nuance in its depiction that comes of as compelling, rather than pandering. Its story is deep and personal and continually hits the mark on its depiction of mental illness and never feels slow or drawn out, which is helped by its brief running time, taking around 6-8 hours to complete.
The game uses binaural sounds and recommends that you use headphones while you play for the best experience. While using headphones the disembodied voices that plague Senua have more impact using the surround sound to great effect, often making me unsure myself of what I’m hearing. Sometimes when finding collectibles; the game’s equivalent to audio-logs, there are a few too many voices speaking at once to understand any of them. But this didn’t take away from the intended effect. Hellblade also looks fantastic, and although sometimes the level design can be simplistic, it makes up for it with an impressive aesthetic.
The facial animations are very impressive, a notable step up from their last mo-cap game, Enslaved. The game also mixes full motion video (FMV) into the cut-scenes, which works to great effect, eliciting a sense of dysphoria, dubious of what is real and what is imagined. One notable thing in Hellblade’s presentation is the lack of a HUD. There is no health bar, no waypoints or maps, meaning you have to listen to voices which guide you, giving you clues on where to go, what to do and when to retreat. Your health is shown through a red aura around the screen, which is easy enough to spot and enemies will have notable slash marks from your sword on their torso and will eventually hobble around when they’re close to death.
The core gameplay of Hellblade is a pretty straightforward loop, switching in-between combat, puzzling and light exploration. Having the game is very linear and story-driven, exploration is usually confined to going down set paths or searching for solutions to the various puzzles. Early on you are given branching paths in the form of two doors, behind each is the path to one of two Gods that you must defeat. The only choice here is which order you do them in. At first, the puzzle system seems fresh and intriguing. They largely involve looking for multiple runes amongst the environment to unlock doors in order to progress, although the routes to the two bosses are strewn with their own types of puzzles, which involve escaping burning villages before you die and lining up shards of runes to open doors. These puzzles aren’t very challenging and can pretty easily be solved by wandering around the relatively small areas and looking for the hints which show up on screen. Despite this, solving them properly is satisfying, but by mid-game, they start to feel repetitive and slow, especially when the traversal can be almost lethargic at times. If it wasn’t for the engaging story and combat mixed throughout then I may have a much harder time beating the game.
The combat feels fantastic, it’s smooth and responsive and chaining together devastating combos feels exhilarating. The game is vague in its combat tutorial, telling you only the basic buttons; light and heavy attacks, dodge, block, and sprint. Leaving you to experiment and discover for yourself. Despite the lack of a progression system for your combat techniques, I found myself finding new moves and combos that I had not previously seen. For example, after a few fights, I found that dodging in certain directions dictate the type of attack. And it wasn’t until late in the game that I realized that holding the sprint button in combat opens up a whole new layer of attacks to string together.
Given that the camera is permanently fixed on Senua, it’s much harder to take on several enemies at once, especially compared to Ninja Theory’s previous games. Instead, the voices in Senua’s head guide you, telling you when an enemy is behind you. This causes you to be tactical in your movement and forces you to remember enemy locations as you move around which adds tactical depth to the combat. The camera is not without fault, however. Often it got stuck in walls or behind objects.
Early on in the game a notification pops up explaining that if you fail too many times your progress will be lost and your journey will be over, forcing you to begin the game from scratch. This is depicted in the game is a black, inky substance called rot, which has infected Senua’s arm. Every time you die, the rot creeps further up. If it reaches Senua’s head, then it’s all over. This caused a lot of controversy on the initial release, with people complaining that this was unfair. I won’t spoil anything here, but what it does do is add an extra layer of tension to every encounter. Where death may have severe consequences, I found myself being doubly cautious. Though the combat isn’t overly difficult and the player is given a second wind after being knocked down once, so long as you don’t miss the prompt.
Ninja Theory has created a truly compelling and deep character-driven story, something I would consider one of their crowning achievements. Although it doesn’t take long until the puzzles descend into tedium, the combat encounters interwoven through the story mix things up enough that you never feel you’re doing the same thing for too long. Some sections were truly frustrating and the pacing felt sluggish at times, but the narrative is what pulled me to complete the story. The deeply intimate look into psychosis and mental illness is a fantastic narrative device that works better than most would have expected. Doing something that most games would perhaps gloss over, Senua’s journey into hell is a deeply satisfying, engaging and emotionally powerful story that is well worth the budget price.