Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: 8/8/17
Platforms: PS4, PC (played on PS4)
ESRB/PEGI: M/PEGI 18
MSRP: $29.99 USD
Written by Rick Warren / Gfn2112
After years of media centered around Greek mythology, it seems that Norse mythology is now beginning to take the spotlight in today's entertainment. Thor Ragnarok releases in theaters this November, and God of War is coming in early 2018 with its Norse-focused reboot. Hellblade, too, is heavily inspired by that same mythology. Yet, to be honest, I was never particularly hyped for this game's release like I currently am for Thor and God of War. I always thought that it looked gorgeous, but aside from that, was super unimpressed by the gameplay and trailers. I fully expected this to be an okay game at best that came and went quickly, overshadowed by 2017's many beloved games. I could not be any happier to say that I was wrong, as Hellblade is the most surprised I've ever been as a gamer. Despite some noticeable flaws the game delivers fluid combat, great boss battles and an extremely important main character that struggles with something rarely covered in video games: mental illness. Senua’s Sacrifice does this all with the most immersive sound design I've ever had the pleasure to experience, and it's enough of a reason on its own to play through this eight-hour game.
"I'll see you in Hel."
The game begins with the titular character, Senua, sailing to the realm of Helheim. You won't be told why she's on her journey to this dark and dreary land... and it's honestly a good thing, because you have more than enough to worry about. It's abundantly clear as the opening credits roll that Senua is not your regular protagonist. She's plagued with voices in her head and it's nearly impossible to focus on anything else. These voices will follow you throughout your entire journey, nagging and pestering you to no end. Some will encourage you, believing that Senua can survive the challenge ahead of her. Others may laugh at you when you mess up a part of a puzzle. More will doubt you, and one will blame you. Even the player themselves is treated as one of the many voices she constantly hears in her head. With these voices, camera effects and consistent delusions, it truly feels that you're looking through the eyes of someone with psychosis. It's one of the more eye-opening experiences I've had with a game and I truly felt bad watching Senua suffer for so long. I applaud Ninja Theory for tackling such a sensitive subject with so much care, and I recommend you watch the feature/documentary after you beat the game to see the excruciating detail that was put in. Hellblade proves that games have the power to shed light on important topics in ways that no other medium could.
Voices and unwanted visions are not all that Senua must overcome, though. Hel could not be a more fitting name for this game's world. Senua will be tasked with taking down grotesque and monstrous enemies on her journey to kill the Goddess of Death, and return her beloved to the land of the living. She'll also be forced to face her fears head-on, and the players will see her tragic backstory piece by piece throughout the voyage. It's all extremely interesting as the story is told in such bizarre ways. Cutscenes are shown from the perspective of the person Senua is speaking to, meaning you'll only see her face and nothing else. If any other human character is shown, they'll be in live action and superimposed into the game. An omniscient narrator speaks, moments from Senua's past are shown out of order and the voices in her head say so many conflicting things that it's impossible to comprehend it all. In any other game, this storytelling would be sloppy; in Hellblade it's brilliant. It perfectly fits the theme of the game, and when you reach the ending, you realize you were playing through a completely different story than you thought you were.
The AAA indie: a new genre?
For a while now this game has been advertised as a "AAA indie game", and it was never exactly clear what that meant. If that is what Ninja Theory wants to call it, though, I want a whole lot more games like this. The game is nearly photorealistic at times and it's one of the nicest looking games I've played this generation. The facial animation is top tier, making every intense moment feel genuine. Enemy designs (and Senua) are gritty and detailed, as are the environments they reside in. The combat is also wonderful, as it makes simple mechanics feel intense and fun. It felt good fighting waves of enemies, and it felt equally good battling the bosses in the game. These were some of the best boss fights I've experienced this generation. Nailing that perfect block and parrying these tough opponents was extremely satisfying, as was the feeling that accompanied their defeat. It never felt like I was playing a smaller game by a smaller team, despite the $30 price point. I hope more developers, or at the very least Ninja Theory, continue to invest in this new kind of game.
Yet the most wonderful part of this game wasn't the combat, or the boss fights, or the graphics; it was the sound design. If you aren't wearing headphones with this game, you're doing yourself a disservice. They enhance the experience so much that they're almost a requirement when playing. Part of the reason that Ninja Theory could convey Senua's psychosis so well was thanks to this. The voices will surround you, coming in either ear or both at the same time. Different pitches and tones from the voices make it that much more necessary, as without headphones it's nearly impossible to hear some of the creepy things they're saying. It's a haunting experience, and I couldn't imagine living my entire life like that. The sound design applies to the rest of the game as well. Dripping water in an underground area, creaking in an old house or the sound of fire around you are all subtle details that make the experience more immersive.
Eventually, you come to a series of trials that force Senua to face her fears. One of these trials is, in my opinion, one of the most memorable sections of a game this generation. Your sight is almost completely taken away, and you're forced to navigate based on the feelings of the air around you (the Dualshock 4's rumble feature is finally used in a clever way) and what you can hear. This section was super cool, but quickly became something else entirely when monsters were added to the fray. Hearing their growls or footsteps but barely being able to see them was utterly terrifying, and knowing that one wrong step could be the end scared me that much more. I've played many of the big horror games this generation, but I think this section somehow freaked me out more than anything in games dedicated to scares. The unexpectedness of it all mixed with a vibrating controller and more brilliant sound design made me feel relieved once I had made it through.
My favorite combat scene of the game came after this trial too. It wasn't anything particularly special on the surface. Waves upon waves of enemies came at me. It was as a fight that I'd been through at least twenty times. What made it special? You guessed it, the sound design. The bloody water that splashed around me was faint due to the screams of the huge souls trapped in the underworld. The cruelest of Senua's inner voices insulted her and yelled and her, and she yelled back while cutting down hordes of enemies. In the background, great music from the soundtrack played. This went on for a little over five minutes, and it remained intense the whole time. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice doesn't just prove the power of games to tell important stories, it also proves that the sounds you hear within them can be the most essential part of a great game.
No hand-holding... for better and for worse.
I think most gamers would agree that there is a bit too much hand-holding in games nowadays. Well, apparently Ninja Theory does too, as you'll be getting none of that here. No HUD/UI is used. No combat tutorial is given and you're forced to learn the combos yourself over time. A "perma-death" system is introduced, as Senua is infected with a sickness that will slowly grow with every death. You can see the rot on her arm, and if it spreads to her head, supposedly the game ends and your save data is erased. Whether this is true or not has been a topic of debate online for days now, but I certainly wasn't willing to test it out. If it was a trick by the developers to make me play the game carefully, it worked. It added a level of urgency to every battle that I've never quite felt before, as there's almost never a downside to dying since you usually just restart at the last checkpoint. This possibly fake mechanic combined with no help from a UI and no hints on how to fight turned out to be great.
Other things... were not quite as great. For example, there are more than a few puzzles based on looking at a glyph from a certain perspective to open a door. They're used a bit too often, which would be less of a problem if Senua didn't move at the speed of Professor X when she runs. Had I been able to move around quickly, I doubt I would be as bothered by having to do a lot of the same type of perspective puzzle. They're easy and would probably be genuine fun if they were just quicker to do. Together, these two smaller gripes became a pretty big issue as they made simple movement begin to feel like a chore. Also, the lack of direction became annoying in an extremely important scene of the game. To keep it spoiler-free, at some point you must give up and let the enemies kill you. Yet everything you've come to know from the game has told you not to do that. So, in my case, I fought the same enemies repeatedly for approximately twenty minutes. Even with great combat that gets to be too much. Eventually I just figured my game was glitched, so I let the enemies kill me to restart despite the risk of letting the rot spread. Turns out that's what you were supposed to do the whole time. It's a bit of oversight in what otherwise should have been a strong moment, had they just activated the cutscene at a certain point if you had survived too long. Hellblade is still a great game that I highly recommend... but these issues do get in the way of it being even better.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5