Developer: Ninja Theory – Publisher: Ninja Theory – Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC – Release Date: August 8, 2017

At A Glance

An adrenaline-pumping new action game from the team that gave us Heavenly Sword and DmC Devil May Cry.

Upon Closer Inspection

A mind-bending and emotional narrative driven adventure with combat being more of a glorified afterthought.

How’s The Story?

Hellblade centers on Senua, a Celtic warrior confronting her own personal hell. Her lover, Dillion, fell at the hands of invading Vikings, his body sacrificed to their goddess, Hela. Believing Dillion’s soul to be trapped in Hel, Senua travels to Norse lands carrying his decapitated head (the Celts believed the head housed a person’s soul) on a quest to rescue his soul from damnation.

Besides traveling to a foreign land and facing Vikings single-handed, Senua faces a greater hurdle; her schizophrenia. A choir of voices regularly bombard her thoughts. Bizarre, often disturbing, imagery may disorient or frighten her. Ninja Theory reportedly took great care in accurately, and respectfully, depicting Senua’s psychotic episodes. I don’t have schizophrenia, and I have limited knowledge on the subject at best, so I can’t speak to Hellblade’s accuracy. But I did feel a strong sense of reverence in how the condition is presented. Her illness acts as an effective storytelling vehicle rather than an exploitative gimmick. For example, her voices conversationally fill in gaps of Senua’s backstory, mostly erasing need for straightforward exposition. 

The vulnerability caused by Senua’s mental illness makes her an endearing and sympathetic heroine to attach to. She’s far from a badass, despite being a skilled warrior. Living a life unable to fully trust the things she sees and hears has left her plagued by insecurity, fear, and doubt. Being saddled with the label of “cursed” by her people didn’t help matters either. The touching tale of Senua and Dillion’s relationship shows that love fuels Senua far more so than bravery, which I found inspiring; especially when Senua barely hangs on, both mentally and emotionally.  

I enjoyed the story overall, though storytelling gets a bit too abstract at times. Certain events are so fantastical that I sometimes asked “wait, is this real or in her head?” in confusion more than feeling any emotional connection. In a way,  the knowledge of Senua’s psychosis acted as a distraction at times, an unintentional occurrence, I imagine. Still, the overall message got itself across well enough by the ending.

Hellblade 3

How Does It Look?

Pretty damn gorgeous. Senua’s jaw-dropping facial capture not only looks stunning, but helped me form a strong emotional bond with her. The many instances when Senua stares directly at the camera entranced me. You can see the genuine fright in her eyes, the subtle, nervous, twitches in her face.

An equal amount of care can be seen in the presentation. The world boasts immaculate detail, and the gritty Norse setting lends itself to a distinct look. My favorite touch is the combination of full-motion video with in-game models; a neat and creative use of mixed media I’ve never seen done before. Distorted colors and other optical effects generated by Senua’s visions mess with your mind but possess an inexplicable beauty as well.

How Does It Sound?

The sound design may be Hellblade’s most integral feature. Going in, the game strongly recommends wearing headphones. I consider it a requirement. A binaural sound design effectively sells the sensation of being closely surrounded by numerous, inescapable voices. They feel like a part of you and the effect is fantastic. Sometimes, the voices give helpful tips, like calling out off-screen enemy attacks before they land. Other times, they chastise or mock Senua’s every move, which, by design, can be both unsettling and even annoying. I simply don’t believe you’ll get the as much out of the game with the sound only coming out of the TV or even a surround sound setup. A powerful performance by Melina Juergens brings Senua to life and the strong voice cast bolsters the experience overall.

So Is It Fun?

For the most part, and depending on your expectations, yes.

Despite its action-oriented appearance, Hellblade shares more in common with “walking simulator” type experiences. Moment-to-moment gameplay consist of exploring linear areas and solving puzzles. You also locate runes that basically act as audio logs detailing various Norse legends. As someone with only a surface level knowledge of Norse mythology, I had a surprising amount of fun listening to these stories, and I went out of my way to seek them out. Most of my enjoyment from Hellblade came from exploring its alluring world and absorbing its captivating story.

Puzzle-solving almost entirely involves reaching a locked door, then trying to locate the runes pictured on the door within the environment. To clarify, say you have an “X” rune. By inspecting your surroundings and manipulating the camera perspective, you have to locate that shape within the world itself. The answer could be two tree branches that form an X when viewed at a certain angle, for example. Though novel at first, Hellblade reuses this idea way too often. By that, I mean they make up about 95% of the puzzles. The tougher variations can bring progress to a frustrating, abrupt halt. I got better at solving them as the game progressed, but I increasingly grew weary of them (especially during longer play sessions) and hoped for any other type of riddle to show itself. A handful of other puzzles do pop up hear and there, but be prepared to spend a lot of time fiddling with the camera to find those elusive shapes.

Hellblade 4

Combat exists, but it’s not Hellblade’s centerpiece. Senua can perform basic light and heavy attacks, block, and parry. Attacks fill a meter on her pouch that triggers a time-slowing Focus state, allowing her to freely unload on enemies. It’s a very simple system, but boasts a nice visceral feel thanks to the tight, intimate camera view, and the satisfying weight behind actions. Only the same four or five enemy types appear and provide challenge in numbers more so than they do individually. The small batch of entertaining boss battles provide the best combat thrills. My favorite bout pitted me against an agile, shape-shifting foe who could fly around and sported slick-looking animations.

And that’s about it for combat. There are no upgrades, no fancy weapon arsenal, or complicated combos. If you come into this expecting something like Heavenly Sword or DmC, you’re likely to be very, very disappointed. As a fan of crazy action games, I didn’t mind this as much as I thought I would. Combat performs well despite its limitations. I found it most enjoyable in small doses, which, thankfully, is how Hellblade largely feeds it to players.  I found their relatively infrequent appearances kept them from getting stale too quickly. Only during the combat-heavy final hour did I begin to feel burned out on it.

Let’s discuss Hellblade’s elephant in the room: the permadeath. The game informs players early on that dying too many times will erase their progress and force them to begin the entire game anew. At first, the concept mortified me. Later, I found that black cloud of defeat provided much needed tension to the relatively easy confrontations. Unfortunately, and if you haven’t heard by now, others have tested this feature and found the permadeath to be far more forgiving (some would argue non-existent) than Hellblade would have you believe.

Even before discovering this, I thought the system felt fishy. A dark rot on Senua’s arm represents her death meter. Every demise causes the rot to gradually travel further up her arm. If it reaches her head, there goes your game. But I died repeatedly in the same spots and sometimes the rot never moved an inch. On one hand, it was a relief since I suffered several cheap and confusing deaths during certain chase sequences. On the other hand, I wish Ninja Theory would have stuck their guns on this feature if they planned to include it. Once I figured out the truth, I forgot about the feature entirely and it dampened the experience a tad.

Hellblade 5

The Verdict

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice may not be the mechanically deepest game out there, but it’s easily one of the most daring and unique. How the game handles its subject matter is worth the price of admission alone, in my book. You simply don’t see many games tackle mental illness with such reverence and imagination. Some of the psychotic imagery dazzles aesthetically and translates wonderfully into actual gameplay. The incredible sound design immerses players into Senua’s mind so fully that it felt slightly strange to hear only my thoughts after playing.

I enjoy narrative-driven experiences, and Hellblade’s story is compelling enough to drive every trek through a scenic Viking ruin. Combat won’t blow the doors down, but its feels good and can provide thrills in its own right. I wish puzzles featured more variety and that Ninja Theory more strictly enforced the permadeath. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has undeniable flaws, but its sheer uniqueness and memorable storytelling makes it one of 2017’s must-play experiences.

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