For years, I’ve heard people lamenting the death of the mid-budget movie—you know, those experiences that used to exist in between the huge blockbuster releases and the smaller art-house indie films. That problem hasn’t just existed in cinema, but also other entertainment mediums as well, such as our very own world of video games. It used to be that games of all sizes and budgets could exist alongside one another on store shelves, but as consoles advanced and player expectations rose, we’ve increasingly seen games migrate more and more to one of the two ends of the spectrum.
The thing is, there’s still plenty of opportunity out there for the mid-tier game, especially with that area now feeling so barren. This year provided us a number of great examples of those types of projects in the flood of stellar Japanese titles we’ve seen over the months of 2017, and we’ve now been given another game crafted specifically to tap into such a market in Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The best way I can sum up Hellblade is if we look at it as a game that’s been stripped of all but its barest essentials, until it becomes nothing more than the core elements it needs to be to produce a compelling adventure. There is a beginning, and an end, and our heroine Senua must deal with whatever stands in her way as she travels between those two points. There’s no open world to become lost in (thought the team does find ways to disguise the game’s linearity at times), no collectable trinkets to scrounge for, no experience to gain or skill tree branches to complete. In fact, even the user interface is missing, leaving Hellblade to feel like a journey I could easily have taken back on my Genesis rather than my PlayStation 4 (were it not for its visuals or sound).
And yet, even as much as I love these types of games, and have always gravitated toward that middle ground of gaming, I felt myself longing for more at first. In my initial hour or so with Hellblade, it seemed like an experiment that would be good but not great. Side paths produced nothing beyond more pieces of the story, and combat felt far from Ninja Theory’s fantastic effort in DmC, needing more enemy types or combo styles or something. With so few included elements, if those that did exist weren’t all bringing tangible value to the overall game, the entire idea could easily have ended up being mediocre at best.
When the final credits rolled some nine or so hours after I’d began, though, there wasn’t any piece of Hellblade that I hadn’t fallen in love with. Senua’s quest is a “simple” one: travel to the Northern lands, breach the gates to Helheim, find Hel, and ask her (with words or sword) to return Senua’s slain love. For most of the game, the young Celtic warrior maiden is the only character we see, so on her shoulders rests everything else that is to come in the game. Like many protagonists we’ve been given in gaming, Senua harbors within her a certain amount of weakness, but unlike so many of her peers, hers is not physical or emotional—it’s mental. Senua suffers from psychosis, manifesting in ways such as visual hallucinations, delusions, and a stream of voices continually talking in her head. The team at Ninja Theory worked with a number of outside sources to make their best attempt at portraying Senua’s condition in a serious and realistic way, and while I can’t speak to that side of things from personal experience, I can tell you that I was legitimately affected by her condition at times. Playing a good portion of the game with headphones on, quiet moments were often broken by the never-ending chatter of those other selves conflicting in their thoughts, with some wanting to help their host in her quest, and others constantly telling Senua (and you) that she was wrong in her choices, that she was destined to failure, or that it was all hopeless. It’s hard to explain how powerful those words can be, even as a player detached from Senua’s condition, and it was one of many elements that helped form a bond between us. (Oh, and kudos to the audio team and their fantastic work in bringing all of the game’s aural elements to life.)
Initially, Senua is almost a pitiful character. Her condition is mistaken for an evil-born curse (”the darkness” as many call it), she is blamed for the ills that fell upon her home, her beloved was sacrificed, her family estranged, and her heart determined to undertake a journey that can’t possible be successful. She took me back to the infamous “[you’ll] want to protect her” line uttered about modern-era Lara Croft—I did want to protect Senua, to pull her from this world and find a place where she could just exist and hopefully find peace. Senua is not a person in need of pity, however. Throughout the game, we see that she is instead a young woman of immense strength and courage, and the depth to which the dev team fleshes her out to become a character full of personality and richness is commendable. Those out-of-the-way extra bits of narration and exposition become worth the time spent finding them, because learning more about Senua and her world was something I longed for—and I hope many of you will feel the same. In the beginning, I saw her as weak; by the end, I revelled in her unrelenting determination as she sliced through foe after foe.
While a good chunk of Hellblade is leading Senua through foreign lands and soaking up the storyline, there are two more traditional infusions of gameplay along the way, the first of which are those battles. Of the many things Senua is, she’s also a warrior, always ready to unsheathe her sword when monsters escape the darkness and manifest in the real world. When I played an earlier version of Hellblade a few years ago, the combat was intriguing but somewhat clunky—not what I was expecting from a studio like Ninja Theory. Thankfully, things improved quite a bit between then and now. Senua is always portrayed pretty large on-screen—possibly some of the biggest framing seen in an over-the-shoulder third-person game—and when enemies appear, battles take place as if she and her opponents are always locked on to one another. It’s still an awkward feeling at first, and the simple control scheme—light attack, heavy attack, block/parry, and dodge—seemed to not offer a huge amount of variety in encounters.
There’s just something so satisfying and engaging about Hellblade’s combat, though. It feels brutal, and violent, and raw, and when the enemy count starts rising deeper into the game, battles can feel immensely tense and almost desperate. This is especially true given a unique twist to the game: every time Senua dies, the darkness in her right arm inches closer to her brain. If it reaches its goal, the game is over, and you’ll have to start all over again from the beginning. That fear of permadeath can exacerbate what was probably the game’s main weakness in my eyes: since Senua is perpetually locked onto enemies, it’s not hard to find yourself in some situations where you simply can’t escape getting overwhelmed. Senua has a dodge, but it’s far from the get-out-of-jail-free card we’re used to in things like the Souls series. Instead, her biggest asset for survival is her parry, which is the key to unlocking the true joy of battles. If you get good enough that you can switch between enemies constantly, attacking and parrying and attacking and parrying, the game’s combat just becomes so intensely satisfying. Though, I still can’t help wishing that the game had had a bit better variety in enemy types. It’s not that I was left unsatisfied with what we were given, more that the few examples of less humanoid encounters in the game show some interesting further potential.
Battles can often be predictable in their arrival, because Hellblade tends to only unleash them on you in very obvious combat-friendly locations. The game’s other more traditional gameplay element of puzzle solving, meanwhile, feels better integrated into the adventure as a whole. The most basic of these is that Senua will need to find Nordic runes hidden throughout the world in order to unlock doors and barriers that stand in her way. Senua has the power to focus her mind and see things that others can’t see, and using that ability, those runes will often be found by lining up objects or light in the environment in just the right way to have them form that desired shape. Other situation-specific challenges appear along the way as well, but I don’t want to get too deep into their explanation in fear of venturing into the realm of spoiler territory. There’s part of me that’s tempted to say that I wish there had been more puzzle elements spread throughout the game, but I also really appreciate that they weren’t forced into places they shouldn’t have been, and that the team were willing to let certain ideas exist where they belonged without repeating them in later areas in order to squeeze out more length.
There’s one last point I want to make about the game, and it’ll serve as the lead-in to wrapping up my review: Hellblade is beautiful. On a base level, I mean that in terms of what Ninja Theory has produced visually. The studio put a lot of work into creating their own low-cost solutions to things like motion capture, and that effort has paid off immensely. Senua herself is just stunning to look at, from her character model, to her design, to the way her face and body act or react. The world around her is equally gorgeous, from the quiet calm of wooded groves to weather-wracked ruins, and in everything from design to texture detail, it’s not hyperbole to say that this is a game that made me feel my original PS4 could actually be a Pro in disguise.
On a much larger scale, however, I’d say that “beautiful” is the best way to describe the entirety of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. There’s not a moment when you don’t feel the love and care the team put into this project, and that passion shines through in so many ways both big and small. It’s fair to say that Hellblade is more an experience than it is a gamer’s game—and I know that’s going to earn it some mixed reactions along with accusations of being a “walking simulator”—but in existing as what it is, it crafts a story that simply couldn’t be told in any other way. If you can let go of your expectations and assumptions when you meet Senua, and let her take you along with her on her journey no matter where it may lead, then you might end up like me in thinking that Hellblade could be one of the most engrossing and emotional games that this year has to offer.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the action adventure genre stripped of its excess, until a smaller, more personal journey remains. While it may feel shallow and lacking for some, those wanting something other than the usual big-budget 70-hour fare will find Senua’s story to be unlike anything else in recent years.
M - Mature
|Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Ninja Theory for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.