Game Review: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Alan Stock Alan Stock
Expert Contributor
September 21st, 2017

I'm a lover of travel, photography and video games, from the UK. I have worked in the games industry and very passionate about games and their design. Never get bored of them!

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a psychological adventure game out now, as a digital-only purchase on PC and PlayStation 4. The voices in Alan Stock's head tells him to review this game for ComiConverse.

Hellblade is a brave endeavour. Developers Ninja Theory decision to portray psychosis in a videogame ran the risk of being insensitive and could certainly have been controversial. But instead their efforts have been largely successful - Hellblade offers an experience unlike anything we’ve seen in games before. Although other aspects of the game fall flat, the exploration of your protagonist's tortured mind breaks new ground, and should be commended.

Hellblade begins with celtic warrior Senua entering the underworld. The setting is based around celtic and viking mythology, the norse gods and their legends. Senua’s quest: to restore life to her dead husband, whose severed head she carries in a bag tied to her waist. Senua suffers from psychosis, called “the Darkness” in the game, an evil force which corrupts her mind, makes her hear voices, and conjures enemies and vivid hallucinations throughout her journey. The Darkness is hardly an original metaphor for mental illness in media, and it could be argued it’s somewhat flippant to the subject matter, but its strength lies in the way it's portrayed.

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Hellblade Senua Closeup

From the very start of the game, Senua hears voices in her head. Most are her own voice; whispering, cajoling, praising, questioning, goading, second-guessing. Hellblade’s sound is recorded using binaural audio. To get the full effect, you need to play using earphones or surround sound. The impact is immediate. You hear the voices all around you, in front, behind, to the sides - all at different volumes. A cacophony of overlapping comments, conflicting thoughts and feelings from Senua’s mind. It’s incredibly unsettling at first and distracting - but of course this is the point. Gradually you get used to the voices, which continue throughout the game. They provide running commentary on events, giving guidance, encouragement, but also voicing doubts, fears and criticisms. They are part of Senua and you grow to accept them. In times of stress and panic, the soundscape can become overwhelming, mirroring Senua’s own mental state. It’s brilliantly done. A narrator, also in Senua’s voice, talks directly to you as you play, providing story background to the character.

Hellblade Landscape Graphics

The first thing you’ll notice aside from the audio is the excellent visuals. Hellblade’s environments are incredibly detailed and realistic, almost photo-realistic at times. Senua’s character model has been fully mapped from the actress playing her, with facial animation which is extremely impressive, only rarely veering into uncanny valley territory. For a game that constantly delves into Senua’s fragile mental state, it needs to convincingly display her emotions, and this is done very realistically thanks to the excellent graphics and quality acting. The quality is so high that she’s inserted into scenes with real-life actors who have been filmed on video, and it doesn’t even look jarring. The game is a visual treat, and no matter how fantastical and nightmarish the setting becomes, the graphics always leave you feeling awed.

Hellblade beach

Less compelling is the gameplay. This is a fairly linear game - you spend most of the time running around with Senua in third person, with some very basic platforming thrown in. Hellblade is more of a narrative experience rather than providing compelling gameplay. Outside of exploration, puzzles and combat break up the story. Perspective puzzles are the most common conundrums, where you have to find runes hidden in the environment. This is done by shifting your position so objects line up to create shapes. For example, the shadows of crossing tree branches when viewed from a certain angle might create the rune you’re looking for. To begin with, this is pretty cool, but is used a lot and soon gets a bit tedious. It can also get frustrating if you are stumped, unable to progress, although graphics indicate when you’re nearby a rune which helps to point you in the right direction. Elsewhere there are a few other puzzles, some quite imaginative and in-keeping with the game’s themes. Overall though there isn’t much variety, and outside of combat, this is the only gameplay element that will tax you in any way.

Story continues below

Combat is entertaining and flashy. Most encounters happen when the Darkness descends, spawning waves of Northmen, savage warriors. Simple controls and rock-paper-scissor elements make the hack and slash fighting easy to pick up, and provide just enough depth to make it fun. Combat feels weighty and satisfying helped by good animation, visceral sound effects and cinematic flair. It looks and feels great. Boss fights add in puzzle elements and test your reaction skills, requiring parries and good evasion. However, it’s not all rosy. Enemies can come at you from any angle, making it easy to get bum rushed from behind and become surrounded by multiple foes, unable to see incoming attacks. Evasion and parry windows can be quite unforgiving, especially in boss battles.

Hellblade Combat

To make up for this, if Senua gets hit too much and falls to the ground, you can button bash to revive her before an enemy lands a killing blow. This mechanic though makes most fights a test of endurance, as it's quite hard to die outright. A slowing time powerup can also get you out of tight spots. The impact of fights is also lessened because enemies spawn in repeatedly. You are locked in an area until you kill the arbitrary number of baddies, at which point the Darkness lifts and you can continue. Fights are always in open arenas, so there’s no use of the environment making many encounters feel similar and scripted. The combat moveset doesn’t really evolve, although a few new enemy types are thrown into the mix eventually. Towards the end of the game you have to fight through seemingly never-ending hordes of foes, which gets tedious and repetitive. Like the rune puzzles, combat overstays its welcome and it often feels like an arbitrary addition to the game just to vary the pacing. Although it’s cool at first, the novelty wears off, and ultimately I wonder if Hellblade would have worked better as a purely exploration and puzzle experience.

Hellblade Darkness Rot

Combat and other sections where Senua is in peril do get a welcome dose of tension, thanks to a controversial gameplay mechanic. When Senua first encounters the Darkness, it infects her with a visible growing corruption on one hand. The game informs you that whenever you die, the Darkness will grow - climbing her arm to eventually reach her head. If this happens, your progress will be lost. Although the game autosaves, allowing you to continue after death, if you die too many times, the game will actually delete your save file. Whether this is actually true, I’m not sure - it’s actually quite hard to die thanks to the generous revive mechanic in combat. Outside of that, I only died on some punishing plank-walking sections where it’s all too easy to lose your balance and drop to your death. Still, this idea creates a real fear of death and adds an extra level of tension to all of Senua’s challenges, as well as  complimenting the theme of the game. If you suck at combat and it really does delete your progress, that would be pretty harsh, but the threat of permadeath works. As you fail and the Darkness gradually creeps up her arm, it leaves a constant visual reminder of how fragile Senua is.

Hellblade Tree Fire Imagery

Senua’s adventure takes her through celtic ruins, forests, crumbling castles, stormy coasts and the depths of hell itself. Throughout the game you learn about the norse gods and their legends through runestones and Senua’s past including her internal battle with the Darkness is slowly revealed. There are some genuinely moving and disturbing moments during the story, when Senua reaches the depths of her psychosis and re-lives scarring memories. She’s always battling herself as much as the underworld, and of course there’s plenty left open to interpretation, her quest an internal struggle, the underworld probably a reflection of her twisted mindscape. Unfortunately though, the story doesn’t really lead up to any interesting revelations or explore the subject as deeply as I was hoping. Although the effects of psychosis and how Senua deals with it is well portrayed, the bigger picture is a bit more formulaic and a bit of a disappointment. Still, the visualisations of the story beats are continually impressive and Senua is a compelling character, a strong female lead, always welcome in gaming. 

Hellblade Boss Battle

Despite the hook of Senua’s mental torment and some amazing presentation, Hellblade too quickly becomes stale thanks to its repetitive and compartmentalised gameplay. Wander here, soak in another nice environment, solve a puzzle, fight some waves of enemies, move on, repeat. There isn’t enough interactivity to be engaging or depth to the exploration, aside from a few easy to find runes which flesh out the Norse gods tales. New ideas are too thin on the ground and ultimately you end up playing just to appreciate the imagery and see how Senua’s story plays out, playing for the narrative rather than the gameplay. There are some cool ideas which play into the Darkness and Senua’s fears, but it feels like this was a subject so ripe for creativity it's a bit of a wasted opportunity. After about the halfway point, I was struggling to find enthusiasm to return to the game. Fortunately, Hellblade isn’t too long, at around 8 hours in length - any longer and these flaws would have been even more prevalent.

Story continues below

Hellblade Senua at coast

Although Hellblade has to be commended for its superb presentation and its tackling of the subject matter, it’s ultimately let down by its gameplay and structure. It’s definitely a game I feel everyone should experience, the voices and visuals alone make it worth playing. But in the end, it falls short of greatness, an excellent shell around a fairly hollow interior. Still, Ninja Theory have succeeded in creating something new in gaming and set new standards for presentation and exploration of these ideas - I hope they continue to experiment with this in the future with a deeper game. It’s also worth pointing out that this is marketed as a AA game with an AA budget, the developer trying to foster a market for shorter games with lower price points - ideal for indie developers, a vision that’s worth supporting.

 

 

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