Review: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a love letter to gaming
Ninja Theory has crafted their masterpiece
Platform: PS4 (Played), PC
Developer & Publisher: Ninja Theory
Leading up to the release of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, it was clear to me that developer Ninja Theory was positioning this game as their magnum opus. Releasing numerous developer diaries not only discussing how they were making the game, but why. Positioning it with competitive pricing of $30 dollars, as well as making it digital only. The developer wants it in as many gamers hands as possible. And it deserves to be. Whilst taking inspiration from several titles, the game feels solely unique and an immersive experience hasn't been present in many other video games.
The tale of Senua
Hellblade is Senua’s story; a Celtic warrior traveling to the Nordic realm of Helheim to bargain with the goddess Hela for her lover’s life. Why Senua is going to such lengths and her story up until the beginning of the game unfolds organically parallel to her journey into hell. It is a gripping tale of love that is woven into the gameplay seamlessly. While Senua is physically alone in her journey, she is accompanied by voices in her head that speak not only to her but you as a player. They offer context to Senua’s experiences, whilst aiding her in her journey by providing hints during puzzle solving and combat. Other characters do appear as either ghosts or memories to help Senua in her quest or hold her back from achieving her goal. The gameplay is a mirror of the narrative; as you push deeper into hell so too does Senua's psychosis grow. Expertly written, playing Hellblade felt as if I were sitting down with one of my favorite books, the pages of which I couldn’t stop turning.
Three video games came to mind when playing Hellblade, and those were Dark Souls, Uncharted and The Witness. Dark Souls is the most obvious, as the game not only evokes that gothic horror look, but combat is as much about dancing around your opponent as it is about fighting them. Uncharted in the graphical fidelity and level structure; the game is a mostly linear experience. The Witness due to its organic puzzles that are built into the design of the world. Let’s break these down further.
"The hardest battles are fought in the mind"
A lot has been made about Hellblade’s permadeath feature, and there’s a lot to talk about. However, I do not believe it to be a deterrent from enjoying this game. In the story, Senua was born with a rot inside of her that manifests itself when she enters Helheim. Every time Senua dies, the rot will creep up her arm. If it reaches her head, it’s game over and your save is deleted. I understand why this is a seemingly off putting feature. The game, however, justifies its existence in the narrative, and it’s more of an incentive to think about battles and puzzle solving critically rather than to rush in and crudely push your way to a solution. I definitely felt the presence of the rot, however, at no point was I worried that I wasn’t well equipped enough to complete the game. The difficulty also operates on a slider that scales with your ability, but if you want to play it safe, you can lock it at easy.
It isn’t nearly as hard as Dark Souls, which lends some leniency towards the permadeath feature. Combat only occurs in specific places, with Senua unsheathing her sword and automatically locking on her opponents as they manifest, so you shouldn’t be worried about any surprise attacks. The fighting mechanics are creatively simple, allowing for a level of precision that a game like Dark Souls strives for but never quite reaches. When you want to dodge, you dodge, which is a breath of fresh air. Toward the end of the game, there is an unrelenting wave of enemies that had my adrenaline kick into overdrive. I was yelling at the TV in unison with the voices in Senua’s head: “Come on! You can do this! It’s almost over!” as I ran and plunged my sword into an enemy’s chest. Combat is exhilarating and is perfectly balanced with the puzzles in the game.
Speaking of the puzzles, they’re the other half of the gameplay equation. Each area introduces a new puzzle mechanic that again ties into the narrative. For example, in Senua’s pursuit to Valravn the god of illusions, the design of the level changes based on your perspective. Much like how the combat isn’t as challenging as Dark Souls, the puzzles are not nearly as frustrating as the Witness of which they feel heavily inspired. They require thought, but you won’t be sitting in front of your TV for hours staring at a puzzle looking for a solution. There are visual and audible contextual clues, such as the voices in your head, to make sure you’re not idle for long.
Horror has never looked so beautiful
Graphically speaking, Hellblade is one of the most gorgeous games on a console. Ninja Theory first unveiled the game showing the realtime rendering technology behind Senua’s character. A lot of games fall short in their fidelity compared to when they’re first unveiled, but Hellblade looks just as impressive now as it did then.
The game prompts you to play the game with headphones as the voices in Senua’s head and environmental sounds are directional. If you are playing on a PS4, there are enhanced graphical modes for either playing in a higher resolution or higher frame rate. Both the graphics and the gameplay are built to delight seasoned gamers. My recommendation is to sit in front of the best TV in the house with either a pair of good headphones or a great speaker system, and plan to be in that position for around six hours.
Hellblade is a definitive gaming experience
I already fear that I’ve said too much about the game. The less you know, the better. All I can say is if you have a PS4 or a PC, this game is a must buy. Ninja Theory is doing something both feels familiar and wholly different from any other experience. If this year hadn’t already seen great releases like Breath of the Wild or Horizon Zero Dawn, I’d say without hesitation it was my Game of the Year. The fact that it’s in that discussion though is a monstrous achievement for Ninja Theory. When we talk about video games as art, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice will now serve as a prime example of that.