+Astonishing use of audio and visual queues providing an immersive cinematic experience
+New motion capture technology uses provide a movie-like experience out of a game
+Combat is quick, difficult, and offers little forgiveness
+No loose ends within the games story
–Minor glitches and bugs during cutscenes
Warning: This review contains a hefty amount of spoilers. If this is not something for you, we suggest you please head back to our main page and find an article that may be more suited for you. If you continue on, please know you are reading on at your own discretion and our reviewer can not be held liable for you doing so.
From the moment I first stepped into Senua’s world, I was instantly greeted by something unforeseen, something terrible, and something that would take me by the hand in order to guide me through Senua’s world. A world I would never imagined would be real to those whom live with her ailment. An mental illness known as psychosis. Initially, I thought my adventure would be one of healing, redemption, and vengeance against those whom wronged her and her beloved Dillion.
The games tension isn’t one that is a burden to those that play the game. Instead it’s one that pushes players to the brink of insanity so that they may understand the world as Senua does, and push themselves to fight against the inevitability that her curse will one day win. The chilling horrors that she sees will be something you will only become slightly accustomed to during your visit to the Northern Lands where the Viking’s rule.
For those unfamiliar with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, it’s the latest release from the minds behind Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, DMC: Devil May Cry, and Heavenly Sword. Unlike their previous titles, Hellblade is a departure from the subtle titles before it, and one that takes on a form of critical importance in the current day. It’s an experience I’ve come to admire, an experience that has placed itself as one of my favorites of all time, but it’s because of something it does.
The game tackles a topic that is personally important. One that is often under-discussed, and remains taboo in much of our modern society – mental illness. It does so, however, with both great care and intelligence. It is one that does not push aside or hold back the affliction that has haunted Senua all her life. It’s a theme that has been so carefully married into the game with rather remarkable production values that don’t disclude the games gorgeous, haunting, but lifelike visuals, music, and unsettling use of binaural audio (3D sound). To be honest? It’s my ideal game. It’s one that doesn’t hold back, it’s smart, it’s confident, and it shows a love to its very, very, specific vision that the team had in mind.
For some, this vision Ninja Theory shares could mar their experience, it could push them to not play it, and ultimately forget of the games existence. Why might you ask? It’s a game that is a literal descent into a woman’s madness. It’s a game that pushes you into the role of Senua, a Celtic warrior of the Pict tribe. She is a woman with a dark past and an even darker future ahead of her. She is a woman who has lived much of her life in exile, but has returned home to find her husband, Dillion, murdered by vikings, in a sacrifice to their gods.
Lost, broken, and hurting, she undertakes the task of heading to confront those gods in order to demand her love back from them. If this sounds familiar, it may, as it is a theme in several adventures we’ve experienced before such as Dante’s Inferno and God of War. What follows soon after Senua arrives, which is our opening scene as she is paddling her way into the land of Viking’s is a harrowing journey. A journey to the underworld where she will find herself facing horrors she would never expect to face, ones that ultimately lead her face-to-face with the goddess Hel and her own personal darkness.
“It isn’t bravery that drives her. It’s fear”
In the moments of leading up to our first encounter with Senua, you find that the voice isn’t actually a narrator at all: it’s one of the many voices within Senua’s own mind. A voice that has appeared due to her psychological trauma that stems from her childhood and adult lives. To be short, she has started losing her grip on reality, and it only worsens as the game progresses. This is truly highlighted as a fact when one voice speaks out underneath our narrator, “We are always here,” the voice says. The narrative voice even states that she is “coming closer so as not to awake the others”.
As you will know from your starting moments, her head is full of voices, some that will taunt you, others that will cast doubt upon your actions, and others that will chastise you for one single mistake. Others will also offer up conflicting views on the world about you, but are intermittently silenced by Druth whom tells another story about the Norse people whom Senua is about to face. At moments when the voices are quiet, the silence can become deafening, worrisome even as they are what helps tell the story in bits and pieces, and offer a guiding hand on what should happen next in case players find themselves lost.
However, the voices aren’t the only thing that haunts Senua. In the game we learned there is another part of Senua that has haunted her life known as the darkness or “rot” as the game so elegantly likes to call it. While the “rot” is an essential part of the game, the core mechanic is something a bit more infuriating to those who may struggle with the games puzzles and combat mechanics. The “rot” will grow on Senua based upon players failures and as punishment, it could be infuriating as it could lead to a perma-death situation, which is one well-integrated within the games narrative in its own.
This sensation isn’t something horrible, but instead welcomed in an age where games don’t punish the player as seriously as it may seem. However, one occurrence I had is the fact the game isn’t near as punishing as it promises to be. In several instances I found myself dying more than what the perma-death threatened would happen, but at the same time, I did find myself questioning the perma-death and decided to test it more aggressively.
Little did I know, my battle with Surtr brought this truth out, and quickly I found myself restarting the game from scratch. All my relics that I had found telling Druth’s story had been lost. This still comes to say: Be careful, the game is not near as forgiving as one may think, and permanent death does exist. It’s just not as persistent as one may thing, but it doesn’t cause the small ebbs of loneliness that hound Senua constantly to resonate through out the game.
Her loneliness, her sorrow, and her spiritual pain are resonated consistently through out the game as you undertake her lonely quest in this third-person adventure game. It’s a game that will take players across the marsh’s where once great ships docked, but have been reduced to remnants of their former selves, to the scorched villages where Vikings sacrificed to the gods, the lives of whom those they’ve conquered, to the bloody depths of Helheim itself where Hel, the goddess of death and daughter of Loki rules supreme.
The visual creativity is impressive, gorgeous, even at its most brutal places where ones own mind may find the nightmarish landscapes too much to bare. To be honest, not even DOOM, which serves as one of my favorite games of all times can hold up against the visual direction of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The even more surprising fact about this attention to detail? Is the fact that a team of only 20, a minuscule number if you compare it to the likes of the hundreds games such as Grand Theft Auto V or DOOM have/had. It’s a detail that carries on through the game as Melina Juergens’ performance as Senua shows its ever-growing weariness on our female lead. Over the course of the game we see her clothes become a mess, her war paint has begun to crack and become removed, her skin now coated in dirt, blood, and rot.
Her nightmare fueled journey has become branded upon her flesh and within her mind. At times, it’s almost hard to watch the Oscar deserving performance Juergen’s performs as Senua struggles to survive her encounters with ferocious monsters one could only imagine. What makes this the most captivating and absolutely disturbing thing of all? It’s hard to decipher what is real and what is not. It’s impossible to know if the flames that engulf the screen, or the harsh, jagged symbols that fill the screen are reality or merely tricks of the gods. The truth is? We will never know. To eliminate this element would be to eliminate the mystique mind that is Senua.
While graphics, animation, and sound design are superb, we’ve lacked a discussion upon the very foundation the game has been made. It’s gameplay. Much of the game takes place outside of combat. Combat is rather dense in occurrence, but when it happens, it happens quickly. Because combat is not at the forefront, Ninja Theory has excluded the games basic tutorials for a rather straight forward pause menu.
Puzzles, for those of you whom have played any puzzle game will be familiar with. Some are as simple as finding markings hidden throughout the area, some being embedded within the terrain itself while others require a bit more thought. Some of them being based upon your location on the map as you stare upon fragmented bridge pieces, hidden doorways, and even enemies that lay in wait for Senua to come by. The most intriguing piece is the fact the puzzles are hard to depict if they actually exist at all.
Because the gameplay is straight forward as it is, it’s quite easy to pick up and learn. Combat is a typical blind of light attacks being bound to square on a PlayStation Dual Shock 4, while heavy attacks are bound to triangle. Players will find timing blocks with the press of R1 can reward players in counter attacks where enemies are left stunned due to your timing. If players are looking to engage combat quickly, L1 is a great option. Pairing it with either heavy, a stun attack from the circle button, or even a light attack can send enemies into a quick daze.
While the L1 pairing is nice, it does leave Senua vulnerable, and enemies are not forgiving. Some will knock Senua down for the count in a matter of a few blows. Luckily for Senua, the Pict warrior is stronger than she looks, and will brush it off with grace if players are quick enough to press buttons so that she may recover. As stated, Senua’s adventure isn’t great just because of its narrative, it’s great because the game is a living, breathing, interactive movie experience. It’s one where players will find themselves instinctively pressing buttons that correlate to what Senua needs to do in order to stay alive.
Thankfully, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice never has a dull moment. In three playthroughs I still find myself drawn in, captivated, and learning more-and-more of the story through each of the voices in her head. While the puzzles remain the same, fighting never does, and neither does each little thing I learn. While I could tell you plenty more about the game, it’s hard to truly portray what Ninja Theory wants you to experience, since each of us experience things differently.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – PC and PlayStation 4
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Release Date: Available Now
That being said, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that will be an absolute-need-to-play versus reading a review. It’s unique, different, and brings an entire new experience to what a interactive cinematic game should be.
Our review is based upon a retail version we purchased. For information about our ethics policy please click here.
Final Score: 9 out of 10
About the Writer:
Dustin is our native console gamer, PlayStation and Nintendo reviewer who has an appetite for anything that crosses the boarders from across the big pond. His interest in JRPG’s, Anime, Handheld Gaming, and Pizza is insatiable. His elitist attitude gives him direction, want, and a need for the hardest difficulties in games, which is fun to watch, and hilarity at its finest. You can find him over on Twitter, Google+, and or you can find him on PSN with RaivynLyken.