The S.M.A.R.T. on: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Developers: Ninja Theory
Price: 29.99 Euros
Available on: PS4, PC, Xbox One
Review console: Xbox One
A bit about the game:
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has been described as an “independent, AAA game” by developers Ninja Theory, and it follows Senua, a broken Celtic warrior, as she travels into Norse Mythology’s Hel, to fight for her lover’s soul. Set in the Viking Age, the game draws inspiration from extensive research done with various organizations regarding the effect that psychosis has on the human mind, as well as the real-life experiences of people living with that condition. There are elements of Norse Mythology as well, however the game is both realistic in its depiction of these elements and takes creative liberties; furthermore, the game blends multiple genres together to provide this experience, including action-adventure, puzzle-solving and psychological-horror inspired gameplay.
- Solid combat mechanics and systems; the usual dodge and parry defensive mechanics, alongside light, heavy and melee attacks, but with a bit more depth reminiscent of similar hack & slash systems. There is also an impressive variety in enemies, which require different tactics; the game is also not afraid to throw multiple types of enemies at you, with large numbers as well.
- It’s quite impressive how the absence of any UI elements, does not harm the game at all; it is very smart in the way it conveys combat, puzzle and exploration related information to the player, and I feel like I’ve not skipped or misunderstood anything vital.
- Puzzle elements are solid as well; some are more interesting than others, while some are better executed than others.
- In all gameplay-related systems, it is the atmosphere, sound design, visuals and narrative that comes first and these elements enhance gameplay as well; for example, in combat the camera is too zoomed in, thus you have to rely on “the voices” to warn you of attacks that you can’t see. In all honesty, the gameplay on its own, isn’t anything special (solid, is the perfect word for it) but the elements around it make it feel better and enhance it in enjoyable ways.
- Some restrictions may not appeal to players, like the camera being, purposefully, too zoomed in, or having to complete certain sections in a specific way.
- The gameplay on its own is not very engaging; the combat and puzzles are fine, but lack any real challenge. The mechanics aren’t bad, but I would not buy the game just to engage with them.
- Some puzzles are too finicky about what they require the player to do, which is annoying when it happens. On the same note, a particular combat encounter restricted the movement space available, which made the encounter annoying and frustrating.
Visuals& Technical Performance: 8/10
- The game looks beautiful; the environments, the character and enemy models, the sky boxes and vegetation, everything looks amazing.
- There are some neat, technical touches which I adored, like the added FMV elements in certain scenes and the motion capture of the actors was excellent.
- Hellblade’s biggest strength is the atmosphere it creates; Senua is travelling through literal Hel, and the game reflects that. This is a moody, gritty and anxious experience, which still manages to be varied and provide relief, without breaking its own aesthetic and rules.
- Technically, the game leaves a lot to be desired; I’ve had a few bugs (infinite loading screens and crashes) and a lot of popping issues. Normally, this isn’t as important to me, because I, mostly, care about a steady frame rate; however, the game clearly cares about immersion and, by proxy, I cared about it as well. So these issues were a lot more impactful, unfortunately.
Sound& Music: 10/10
- The 3D audio design simply makes the game a unique and powerful experience; wearing the headphones and listening to the voices and their varied behaviors, was an unforgettable experience for me.
- Even the smaller details of the sound design are excellent, in my opinion; the sound of flesh burning was eerie and the old wood creaking in the background, was appropriately creepy.
- The soundtrack was also, surprisingly, really good; it was reminiscent of the tracks that consist of eerie vocals and brass instruments, usually used in movies where there is dark magic or a sacrifice, which absolutely suit the game, and were quite enjoyable.
- The voice acting was exceptional, especially from the actress who portrays Senua; I don’t want to mention other characters by name, because I didn’t know about them before playing, but they were all excellently voiced.
- While the story is very light in the beginning, it soon starts to fill in Senua’s backstory, struggles and reasoning for undertaking such a dangerous mission. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that, I was more than happy with the writing and story-telling on display.
- The atmosphere, sound design and visuals are also paramount in making the story work as intended. Obviously, the setting and story should not be taken very literally, and the game does a great job of guiding the player in figuring out the meaning on their own.
- Towards the end, the game suffers from pacing issues, related to combat and puzzle mechanics that are not implemented as well as previously on the game. It also suffers from trying too hard to relay the actual meaning, which leads to some lines coming off as forced and too “on-the-nose”.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has received a ton of praise for its depiction of real-world issues and the end product feeling like a AAA game from an independent studio; those points are all valid and I agree with them, but I want to praise Ninja Theory’s commitment in their cause. They could have made a game that was less bold and risky, that focused more on combat and had more mechanics for combat and puzzles, but they decided to have everything serve their end goal; a realistic, respectful and educating glimpse in Senua’s psyche, placing the player in her shoes, to deal with what she dealt with. Yes, it’s fun to play and solve puzzles, but everything was created and tuned towards that purpose; that doesn’t mean that it does not take creative liberties or that everyone will find it entertaining or even respectful. It wasn’t created with that in mind, and that is why it is so refreshing and praise-worthy for me, and I wish more developers can create such bold, unique and meaningful experiences in the future.
As always the G.R.IN.D. is recommended for those who want a more in-depth analysis. You can find it by clicking here.