The most traumatic experiences in video games are usually at the expense of the character and not the other way around. Only a few games have managed to get under my skin because of how well the game connects with its players and vice versa. Silent Hill 2 was one such experience that shook me to my core and made me feel the monumental grief and tragedy of its main character. Needless to say, it’s been a long while since a game has sunk its claws into my emotions on a deep, disturbing psychological level – that is, until I played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Developed by Ninja Theory of Heavenly Sword and DmC: Devil May Cry fame, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a strange fever dream, or nightmare, of a game. Players assume the role of Senua, a Celtic warrior on an emotional journey to bring back the soul of her fallen lover. However, Senua suffers from a terrible case of psychosis bordering on mild schizophrenia, and for the entirety of the journey attempts to navigate the grim Norse world.
Despite being widely touted as a hack and slash or action-adventure title on the surface, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is quite far from it. Players spend the majority of the game simply basking in the scenery and potent, often horrifying visuals. The story chooses to unfold in a peculiar way; Senua, due to her psychosis, possesses heightened senses that allow her to focus on hieroglyphs or markers in the environment that are crucial for puzzle-solving and navigation. Without an HUD or mini-map, exploring the various ruins, torn down villages, and stunning landscapes can prove tricky if you aren’t in tune with your senses.
Senua doesn’t speak much, but her erratic thoughts are conveyed through voices she hears in her head. While not exactly pleasant, these voices provide integral plot points that you will use to piece together the story. The voices also act as guidance points and swiftly point out when you’re struggling on puzzle sections or deviate from your path. These vocal cues combined with her senses are vital in your survival and character progression, but are also incredibly haunting and effective on the player as they directly affect the visual and sound experience.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s fast, frenetic combat is a standout of the game. You’ll encounter various enemies that range from strange shamans to Aztec-styled warriors who each utilize mystic or elemental powers in conjunction with their melee actions. The combat is quite challenging and forces you to make use of your skills; parrying and side-stepping, for example, are imperative, especially in boss encounters. Thankfully, once you figure out your enemies pattern, it’s quite easy to unleash a barrage of attacks in a grizzly but satisfying manner.
While combat is refreshingly strategic and a ton of fun, it only accounts for a quarter of the entire game. The majority of Hellblade’s gameplay is spent solving environmental puzzles and simply basking in the scenery. At times, it may feel like a dark fantasy visual novel in the way it demands you to take your time soaking in the finer details, but the steady pacing ensures you never get bored or feel constrained for time. Most puzzles can be a head-scratcher as they require the use of your senses and sound cues, but they’re immensely rewarding when you solve them.
On a technical level, Hellblade is a masterful balance of striking visceral beauty, haunting atmospherics, and expertly crafted game design. The world, for the most part, is quite linear but it offers enough diverging hidden paths and gorgeous scenery to warrant further exploration. The landscapes know when to shift between awe-inspiring beauty and utter dread, making for an experience that toys with the senses but in a good way.
Ninja Theory have certainly outdone themselves in the graphical department. The character models are detailed and meticulously designed, especially in our protagonist, Senua, who conveys most of her emotions through superb motion capture work and facial animation. The environments are especially dense, vivid, and often jaw-dropping in their scale. Hellblade is easily one of the best looking games I’ve ever played, and provides enough visual spectacle to tide over even the most die-hard fans of graphics.
Hellblade takes a more minimal approach to its sound design. Besides Senua’s voices in her head, spoken dialogue is sparse. As a result, the exposition is strictly kept to either you piecing together the story through the visuals or by the voices. It’s a refreshing take on action titles that choose to bombard you with expository-heavy dialogue when they could’ve easily benefited from a “show, don’t tell” perspective (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect: Andromeda). The soundtrack is also kept to a minimum as it creeps in on you but never overshadows the visuals. In fact, it’s a near-perfect marriage of the two; a prime example of graphics and sound working together to create something unique and memorable.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a strong contender for game of the year. Senua’s journey is one of many great emotional highs, leading to a devastating but quite moving climax that shook me more than it needed to. Clocking in at around six or seven hours depending on how much time you spend on collectibles and hidden items, it’s a bit unfortunate that this incredible game had to be cut down to such a short length. Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile purchase at only half the cost of most full-priced retail games, and one that will leave a profound impact long after the credits roll.
Side note: to address the controversial mechanic that involves a punishing penalty of starting the game over from scratch if you die too many times, it’s not nearly as bad as you think.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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