By: Johnny Marcondes
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is truly like no other game currently out, before diving into this review for those who have no yet read the first impressions article click here as it goes hand in hand with this review. Ninja Theory the team behind Heavily Sword and the Devil May Cry reboot DmC have honestly created something special. For the first time in quite some time I felt as if I wasn’t just playing a game, I was experiencing it. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice unfolds like a twisted H.P Lovecraft story that takes a unique narrative approach to story telling while aesthetically meeting this Bloodborne like standard in design. Frankly, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is miles ahead of the horror competition as it takes familiar aspects into the dark hack and slash genre and turns it on it’s head to give players an experience they’ll never forget.
The story behind Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is fairly simple however it’s the journey through this story that becomes the true selling point. Senua’s story follows that of love and loss while trying to cope with her surroundings. This is the tale of haunting perspectives and the dedication of a Celtic warrior who wants to put her love at ease while getting her revenge. While the core story is fairly linear and straight forward conceptually, this love story isn’t like any other. Senua will have to trek through the depths of hell in order to avenge her beloved Dillon as she battles through various obstacles including those in her own mind. Filled with grueling dark tones and horrendous visuals, Hellblade constantly pushes the boundaries of what to expect from a hack a slash game.
Opening with what will soon become an iconic moment in the game if not one it’s more or less forgettable moments, Hellblade immediately sets the tone for what to expect within seconds of starting. Upon my first impressions article I went into great detail about why this opening is so strong and important and even after completion it’s something that I personally reflect on. Here’s this simplistic opening in a game which follows the lead on her journey through this river which you have no control over other than just the camera and it still becomes unforgettable. A lot of Hellblades finer moments are done like this, where simplicity really takes over and the moments where you’re isolated steal the show.
Senua as a character is as complicated and diverse as the grueling world she finds herself in. For a game that emphasizes just how alone you are in this world, you’re never truly alone. The biggest and best feature of the game doesn’t happen in boss battles or puzzle solving, it happens in the narrative and it’s all do to the psychosis of Senua. Hellblade is so well written that at times you often forget some of the lesser details or aspects of the game. Everything you hear and see in this game always feels like it has meaning and the use of psychosis in Hellblade really drill home just how unique of an experience it is. Referring back to my original post on my first thoughts and take away from the game, the voices Senua hear in the game form this daunting relationship with you as the player where you’re both terrified and intrigued.
Playing Hellblade with headphones is something I highly recommend as there isn’t quite an experience like it. Ninja Theory put so much effort and attention to detail in the psychosis aspect of the game and Senua’s personality that there isn’t any slip up or moment in the game where you feel as if she’s overreacting or not in a constant tortured state. Haunted by traumatic hallucinations that depict some incredibly gruesome scenes which are done so well you’d think that you messed up and died in game. There have been genuine moments where Senua’s reactions to her hallucinations were so compelling and believable that I had to put my controller down and and really give myself a second to process it all.
In between horrific visuals of corpses lying around and trying to decipher what’s real and what’s not with her hallucinations, Senua is being surrounded by a constant barrage of doubtful voices in her head. In fact the game’s saddest moments are ironically probably the ones of her clarity. It sounds odd, but the brief moments when Senua isn’t having a hallucination or hearing voices are the moments you really feel alone in this world and the weight of what’s happening around to you begins to feel heavier. Senua constantly feels as if shes slipping and the further you get into the game the more the voices begin to take their toll while your hallucinations get darker and darker.
What really blows my mind about this game is how Ninja Theory approached it, there was roughly twenty developers working on this game and that alone is enough to blow my mind. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has been described by the studio as a AAA indie game where it’s independently published but receives the quality and production value of a AAA game. Let me tell you, this is leaps and bounds ahead of most games in terms of narrative creativity and overall quality. Everything within the game feels complete and like it has purpose. From the use of puzzle solving to the more modern and calculated battle system that you don’t find in the run of the mill hack and slash game. Senua’s movements are heavier and feel more grounded so the overall gameplay has this Dark Souls like familiarity to it when you’re dodging and attacking enemies. While that style isn’t exactly new it is handled fairly well in this game given how short it is and how often you encounter many of the same enemy types. Throughout the six hours worth of game within Hellblade there is a little bit of repetitive nature. Outside of the boss battles which always look studding and imposing, the drones of random enemies you’ll encounter before taking on the boss all play exactly the same. There’s not a lot of diversity between the waves of generic enemies you’ll run into, that’s essentially the only negative thing about the game. Every enemy you encounter before a boss fight plays out exactly the same, they tend to follow the same patterns when fighting you which becomes a little bit of a bore especially during longer sessions of a play through.
It should be noted that while the game is billed as a hack and slash, battling enemies really takes a backseat as the main attraction to Hellblade is the narrative. Ninja Theory as I noted with my first impressions post, worked with mental health experts and those who have experience with the effects of psychosis in order to really capture some of the more realistic and gritty effects of psychosis. While Senua experiences many of the symptoms and effects of psychosis, what really drives the effect home is the motion capturing. Senua’s facial expressions are one of the best stand out features in the game, since she doesn’t have much to say in terms of dialogue but her expressions speak for themselves. As a character, Senua is incredibly tortured. Through horrific hallucinations, the waves of voices that plague her and the world around her all take this incredibly heavy toll on her which become amplified when you see the painful expression on her faces that beautifully capture her sorrow.
Ninja Theory added so much to this game that the small attention to detail really helps tie it all together as one of the more complete stories I’ve played in some time. By complete story I mean that everything I saw, heard and encountered in Hellblade felt organic and believable. Ninja Theory found a way to use a binaural technique that mimics 3D human hearing, so playing through Hellblade with headsets in you begin to pick up on more subtle whispers, crackles and footsteps that you wouldn’t normally hear while playing from speakers or the TV. It’s this attention to detail that really makes Senua’s journey and mental state feel more personal and haunting. There were legitimate moments while playing with headphones in that I swore I heard certain whispers that turns out were never really there. It’s this really weird and cool effect that Ninja Theory pulled off perfectly that adds another level of depth to the game.
Senua’s journey is simply disturbing and given her psychosis the allure of constantly mishearing something or second guessing your actions are right around the corner. As she tries to battle her sense of judgement to try and discover whats real and what’s not, playing through headphones definitely made me as a player feel more vulnerable as the the voices and whispers she heard plays off the headsets and gives me an unnerving feeling throughout my experience. Ninja Theory’s use of this binaural technique never feels like a gimmick which is nice and through extensive plays made me a little more aware of my surroundings which is something I never thought I’d have to worry about in a game. The time I spent with Hellblade was simply incredible, Senua’s journey is as incredible as it is depressing and by the end of my journey I was left with a slew of complicated emotions. For a game that’s so short, there’s so much creativity and originality in the game that you can’t help but fall for.
Senua herself is a strong and determined warrior who suffers in so many ways from physical to mental there’s never a moment where you don’t find yourself genuinely worrying for her. When it comes to an overall experience I honestly hope to see more titles like this emerge, there’s nothing quite like it currently out and I’m not sure if there will be again for some time. Ninja Theory really out did themselves and opened the door for a lot of people where a game could be dark and gritty in nature but be narrative driven as opposed to battle driven and still have this incredible experience and payoff. Hellblade as a game, much like it’s lead character wears it’s heart on its sleeve and it’s beyond refreshing to see a game take on character progression in such a unique way. Depression, psychosis, doubt, courage, anger, there are so many emotions and mental restraints in the game’s story that have you constantly wanting to go back for more. Never overstaying it’s welcoming and giving you just enough challenge that you never feel overwhelmed, Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice find this perfect balance of suffering and succeeding that goes hand in hand with the games nature to walk a fine line between hack and slash and visual novel. Narrative is the shining star of this game and Senua’s tale is one that I plan on revisiting multiple times.