Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review
Updated on Aug 13, 2017 with some minor changes requested by the author.
Hellblade unfolds before your eye’s like the most beautiful, dark and awkwardly tense visual novel you’ve ever seen. Most of the time you’re trying understand the story, whilst figuring out what’s real and what’s not.
Developer Ninja Theory has tackled a subject that most shy away from and have done so in the correct way. There’s a lot of pain and suffering in this title that ultimately leaves you with a sense compassion.
Hellblade is set in a land covered in mist and fog, similar can be said about the main character Senau. She is troubled; plagued by psychosis and inner demons with a personal story that leaves you questioning what’s real.
The larger threat of this story is an infection to Senau. Throughout the game, the infection will spread, die and it will spread more. Die enough times and the game will delete your save and you’ll have to start again – no joke.
Thankfully, the roughly 8-hour long story doesn’t throw up too many difficult curves, even on the harder settings and throughout my playthrough I only died a handful of times, not anywhere near enough to warrant a deleted save.
The story follows protagonist Senua and her constant battle with confusion, sadness fear and loss. The raw emotion conveyed by Senua is harrowing at times and she struggles to come to terms with past trauma.
There’s a raw human performance in Senua’s character and the game excellently portray moments of beauty and strength that few have before. After finishing this game, I knew that this is one that would leave a lasting impression on me.
Audio and visual trickery play a huge part in the experience, which at times can be borderline uncomfortable. What you hear and feel in this game may not always be true and it’s one i’d recommended playing with headphones as the panned audio adds an extra element to the game. At times it feels like Hellblade can’t decide whether it wanted to be a game or a story. There are clever blends of live action and in game cut scenes that work really well, adding to the already heavy hallucination.
Hellblade employs a very limited amount of handholding. There’s no HUD in this game, there’s no mini map or objective markers. Whispered and creepy voices warn you of incoming attacks and point out clues when you traverse the land. This is truly a master class in storytelling and atmosphere. The care and attention to detail employed by Ninja Theory stand up with the greatest of games. Subtle and smart game mechanics provide a level of depth in both the puzzle solving and combat elements. Puzzle’s often involved searching areas and lining up holograms or visions in order to progress. These can sometimes be a welcome retreat from some pretty intense combat, but it’s not long before the voices start again.
The puzzles in Hellblade are interesting at times, but you can find them a little repetitive by the time you’re nearing the end of the game. There’s no a much variation in these as there is in other parts of the game, which is sad, as they are a fairly large part of the gameplay.
Combat is a thrilling experience in Hellblade, it’s fast and heavy sword swings mixed with dodging and parrying make it’s essential for players to master the basics. There’s a stellar presentation on offer when fighting both with Senua’s inner demons and the advancing foes.
Bouncing between enemies Arkham style as a nice zip to it and the voices that warn of incoming attacks keep the schizophrenic theme present. Difficulty spikes towards the late game and this are where a player might struggle for the most part.
Boss battles can be tense affairs and the symbolic nature of them makes you feel on edge not only due to their difficulty but because this game makes you care about Senua and her struggles. Permadeath is a real threat in this game, die too much and you’ll have to start all over again. I’m unsure about how many times you actually need to die in order for this to happen, but it seems to be a fair amount. It adds a real threat to the game and makes players tackle enemies with a great deal of care.
Hellblade doesn’t rely on its combat to keep players interested, instead, it takes you an incredible journey that most of us struggle to understand. Combat seems to only happen when it needs to and it’s not over done. Some sections of the game require the player to slay hoarders of incoming enemies to progress to the next part, but this doesn’t feel forced in any way and keeps in line with the greater story at hand.
Hellblade handles a sensitive subject matter extremely well and goes a long way to break down some of the social barriers we might have. This is a sympathetic nod to mental health issues and deals with its problems with class and respect.
Ninja Theory might have just created the game of the year and with the technological advancements they introduced to this game, I can only see Hellblade changing video gaming for the better. There are certain times when games like Hellblade take the risk and deal with a taboo subject. They make people ask the right questions and at times often think about those of us in these situations and how more of us can help them. These are the times it makes me proud to call myself a gamer.
Hellblade is a game that has thrown the trope book out of the window in favour of something new and fresh. Senua’s story is about finding the strength to endure hardship and making peace with her past. It’s a work of art that I’m glad I got the opportunity to experience. Hellblade is a game that everyone should play and I truly believe you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t.