Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows the titular character Senua, on a personal quest of redemption in which she must literally go through hell. The game is based around Norse mythology and Senua must travel through the gates of hell in order to appease her deceased beloved. The story focuses heavily around the issues of mental health and the game features a disclaimer in which it is outlined that professionals have been a part in giving a realistic depiction of psychosis. The story is fairly mysterious, with snippets unfolding as the game progresses, but it is clear from the start that Senua has been through some truly horrific events.
The events of Senua’s life up until the game starts have caused a fractured view of reality as well as causing her to have a myriad of voices in her ear, sometimes helping her but usually filling her with doubt. These voices are used as a story telling device but also to give puzzle hints and warnings in combat and help keep a level of immersion that is lost with other titles when large tutorial boxes pop up. Hellblade is all about immersion and encourages the player to work things out, which is one area is succeeds very well. The story manages to remain intriguing throughout until the big reveal at the end.
Hellblade is described by the developers as an “independent AAA game”, and the graphics reflect this wonderfully. The game is stunning to look at throughout and is up there with similar titles such as Horizon: Zero Dawn in terms of beauty, although a sense of scale is missing due to very linear gameplay. Senua travels through gloomy forests, torch-lit dungeons, murky swamps and golden beaches; each has a personality of its own and looks gorgeous. The lighting effects are impressive throughout and more that once I found myself stopping to marvel as the light filtering through the trees or flames dancing from torches causing ripples of light on the stone walls. Senua herself is truly impressive and doesn’t conform to the stereotypical heroine in terms of looks which is refreshing. Her facial expressions are animated perfectly and she has a wide-eyed, almost scared expression throughout mirroring her fear of what is happening around her. The textures on her clothing and hair are well rendered and I was particularly impressed with the dirt and wounds that build up as Senua progresses through the story. The sound is equally atmospheric and fits well with the overall feel of the game, music is used more for effect that constantly as it would interfere with the voices but this method does work well.
Hellblade is a little difficult to clarify in terms of what it is trying to do which leads to a slightly disjointed feel. The write-up on the PlayStation store describes it as an action adventure, which is technically true although the combat feels sparse, leaving puzzles as the dominant gameplay mechanic. The puzzles work well and are fun for the most part but the downside is they are almost all the same. They are based around runes and involve the player finding a shape in the environment that matches a rune seen on a locked door; this could be a gap in a wall, a shadow on the ground, a formation in a tree or even a strung up corpse. These are similar to the Riddler trophies in the Arkham series and are fun to begin with but do start to feel a bit repetitive towards the end. It is frustrating as when the game shies away from the rune puzzles in favour of something else, it truly shines. The set of puzzles in which Senua must find illusion gates which are used to change the environment if the player walks through them, are some of the most satisfying and fun. Another section in which giant masks are used to change time, helping Senua traverse a dilapidated great hall by switching between past and present is great fun but again, not seen enough. The puzzles are a little on the easy side in general, very little is explained in terms of the mechanics of the puzzles so each takes a little time to work out but once this is done, none will take more than a few seconds to work out. This is disappointing as the potential is there but does not feel utilised throughout the game.
The Combat in Hellblade is where the game truly shines and it is gloriously satisfying. For those unfamiliar with Ninja Theory, they are responsible for Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Journey to the West and the Devil Mat Cry reboot among others so are no stranger to combat games. Hellblade however is arguably the best they have ever produced. The combat in Hellblade is simple yet incredibly enjoyable. Each blow leaves a mark on the enemy and as a player, I have never felt more in control of the fight. No hints on combat are given at all so combos and powerful moves are all discovered due to experimentation and stringing together moves feels fluid and natural. Enemies are relatively similar throughout but come with enough variety to remain interesting, each needing a shift in tactics to defeat them. Towards the beginning, enemies come at Senua 1 by 1 but towards the end, Senua must fight multiple enemies simultaneously. This results in players having to listen as well as watch while fighting. If an enemy manages to get behind Senua and take a swing at her, the voices will shout a warning leaving just enough time for her to parry the attack. This adds another dimension to the standard fighting mechanic and resulted in some of the most fun fights I have ever had.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a very linear experience which adds in part to the disjointed feel that I was left with upon completion of the game. The only collectibles are runes which tell various stories based around Norse mythology, which are very interesting but pretty easy to find. With the lack of collectibles and lack of any sort of map, it almost feels as though exploration is discouraged and at times makes the game feel like and interactive movie rather than a game. Senua walk/runs incredibly slowly and there are sections in-between the puzzles and combat in which the aim is just to get from A-B. Although the scenery is beautiful, I found these sections to be quite tedious at times and was desperate for something to happen. The game lasts around 8-10 hours and offers virtually no replay value as there is no new game plus or chapter select, but the relatively cheap price reflects this.
Despite the linearity and quiet sections, the combat is some of the most fun I have ever played although it would have been nice to see a little more of it. I would very much like some sort of arena type DLC in order to play a little more of it but that may just be wishful thinking! The puzzle sections are clever but simple and although some are ingenious, they never quite manage to achieve greatness which is a shame.
Overall, Hellblade is an immersive experience with a harrowing story that gives an insight to the mind of somebody with mental health difficulties. The combat is a blast and the puzzles are clever, albeit simplistic and there are times that the game is close to greatness. For the price, Hellblade is definitely worth a look and I hope this is not the last we see of Senua.