This review has kindly been written by Shaun Sannerude, aka @rudecold
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that intrigued me from the very offset when developers at Ninja Theory stated they wanted to create an “independent AAA” game that still had the AAA production values that you would expect to see in the high end blockbusters while being developed and published completely independently. What Ninja Theory has achieved with such a small development team is utterly outstanding. It is a masterpiece of storytelling and because of this it pips Nier: Automata to be my Game of the Year!
Ninja Theory has always had an excellent track record of producing very deep story-driven games with fast paced action combat with the likes of Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and most recently the re-imagining of the Devil May Cry series with DMC for the PlayStation 3 back in 2013. Each of these games succeeded most in creating unique worlds with strong character orientated stories. Hellblade slightly adjusts this trend by focusing largely on its stellar story rather than its combat. To describe the genre of this game is really quite difficult. It’s not fair to just call it a walking simulator as there are visual puzzles to solve and combat does have a part to play in the game but it is sparse compared to most action adventure games where I think this game sits best.
Hellblade’s story is based on Celtic and Norse mythology which makes a refreshing change from the somewhat overused Greek mythology used in a lot of different media. Going into Hellblade I didn’t know much about Celtic and Norse mythology so I was fascinated to learn more about it and it was implemented into the plot very interestingly. The story focuses on Senua, a Celtic warrior, as she embarks on a very personal journey into the Norse version of the hellish underworld in an attempt to bring her beloved Dillion back to life. Senua suffers from psychosis and is struggling with her inner demons that are locked into a battle over her mind and she is so emotionally disturbed you can’t always distinguish if what is being portrayed is real or not. I don’t want to delve too much into the story as it is one that needs to be experienced so you can draw your own personal conclusions as I’ve seen multiple different theories that people have taken away from the games story. What I will say is that it is incredibly gripping and tense and how the visual and audio elements of the game plays into Senua’s psychotic mind is expertly crafted. Ninja Theory has to be praised for the vast amounts of research they put into ensuring that the mental health aspects portrayed in the game were done so correctly and with respect. They not only talked to experts in the field but also consulted with and tested the game with suffers of psychosis to make sure the game felt as realistic as possible.
As a psychosis suffer Senua’s hears voices in her head, some of these voices are kind and useful and will aid Senua in combat by telling her to watch out for attacks, whereas other voices are much nastier and will berate and taunt Senua by telling her that she is doing things wrong and trying to trick you. This places doubt not only in Senua’s mind but your own too and I absolutely recommend playing this game with a headset to get the full effect of the voices constantly chatting way in your own mind. They are properly unnerving and also play an important part in the puzzle element of the game too where for example one section of the game has you pretty much in complete darkness so you have to use the voices as well as subtle environment audio cues to help guide the way.
Ninja Theory was one of the first studios to use motion capture techniques to really capture detailed facial animations to effectively portray characters emotions and push storytelling to new heights in the gaming genre. With technology advancing so greatly in this field what Ninja Theory has achieved with Hellblade is awe-inspiring. The character of Senua looks and acts so lifelike and this is also testament to the actor, Melina Juergens for portraying her so wonderfully. You can sense the struggle of Senua’s physical and mental battles along with her vulnerabilities as every tiny detail is showcased through her facial animations. Not only is the motion capture exceptional but visually Hellblade’s is stunning. It even surpasses Uncharted 4 and Horizon: Zero Dawn as best looking game on the PlayStation 4! Playing this game on a PS4 Pro with a 4K TV that has HDR enabled is a visual dream. The game takes advantage of this by having a wide range of different environments to journey through including fiery nightmare worlds which has hideous arms reaching out at you, to gorgeous, peaceful beaches with some of the best wave mechanics I have seen in a game. There is also thankfully a photo mode included within the game and you will easily spend as much time capturing gorgeous shots as playing through the actual story.
Hellblade’s story journey is split between visual puzzles and hack and slash fighting combat. The puzzles aren’t too complex and include using the environment to change its perception, such as searching for runes within the scenery that might be disguised as out-branched trees or hidden within the buildings structures. There are also portals too that when travelled through alters the shape of the scenery so you can progress through the levels, for example, having an initially broken bridge now repaired. It all adds to the sense of having to confront illusions within Senua’s fragmented mind.
The fighting in in Hellblade is relatively infrequent but does build near the end of the game. Combat feels satisfying, it’s fierce yet fluid and with the combat camera so close to Senua it also makes it very claustrophobic and tense. Combat doesn’t change much though from slashing, dodging and parrying and while I found it well-structured and fun, some might find it repetitive, especially as there a so few enemy types. Bosses are included at the end of each level. They are all intimidating and well designed with their own separate attack patterns that require different techniques and skill to overcome but don’t expect Bloodborne style boss battles with 2 or 3 stage alterations.
I really struggled to find negatives for this game. I know that the combat won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and some will wish it there was more fighting/weapon variety to it too. My only gripe is that the game has only been released on digital format. At only £25 it is a complete steal, especially as the length of the game is fairly sizable taking me a good eight hours to complete which included finding all the collectables and getting the Platinum. This game needs a physical release and I guess as Ninja Theory self-published it financially it makes sense to test the waters first with a digital release. I know a vast quantity of people, usually myself included, that don’t tend to buy digital and prefer to have an actual physical copy that they can add to their collection. Ninja Theory are therefore potentially missing out on a huge market share and Hellblade deserves to sit proudly on display, in retail stores for the world to see. I would easily re-purchase it to have a physical copy and I would be somewhat shocked if Ninja Theory never releases a physical edition.
Hellblade succeeds in its goal to unsettle and overwhelm the player to create a unique experience unlike anything you will play on the PlayStation 4. With a rich and interesting story and an incredible strong lead character that is completely relatable to anyone who is or has suffered from mental illness, this game is a true masterpiece. I can’t quite believe this was produced by such a small development team and hats off to Ninja Theory for taking a risk and self-publishing this game. Their creativity and passion really shines through. It’s a thrilling, thoughtful and beautiful experience which will make you question your own sanity