Ninja Theory have established a reputation for making games that are solid, if average mechanically, but really memorable in terms of storytelling. With one glaring exception being DmC: Devil May Cry, where the game had solid and fun (if weaker than previous DMC games) gameplay, but unbelievably terrible story and script. With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, their first fully independent production, things looked a bit different from the announcement. And I’m glad to say, that what we got is a really unforgettable experience.
Looking at the game from a purely mechanical perspective, things aren’t that different from what Ninja Theory did before. It’s an action adventure, except this time with almost no platforming elements, with quite simple, but engaging and fun combat system, and strong emphasis on environmental puzzles based around perception and shifting reality. These are things Ninja Theory experimented before and they’re given enough focus and attention to not be as average as they sometimes were in previous games. So, this time combat controls are still as simple as in, say, Enslaved, but the combat itself is much more tight, claustrophobic, parry-oriented. With just enough room to make mistakes, but not as much as there were in previous titles and with a more “heavier” feel. And puzzles truly try to play around the main themes of the game about seeing, or not seeing, things from a very different perspective.
But it’s those themes that make the game work so well and tie the whole experience together. Because, you see, Senua, the main character of the game, is suffering from rather severe psychosis, and it leaves a permanent mark on everything that you see, that you do and what you experience through her. It’s a venture into Scandinavian/Viking mythology and a hero’s journey to save the soul of a love one, but also a very interesting venture into psychology and experiences that change us, some more than the others. Without spoiling the way the game gradually tells the whole story of what led up to this quest she is undertaking, I will just say that her life of being a very different person wasn’t exactly a pleasant one and things she went throughout clearly didn’t help with her already weakened psyche. So by the beginning of the game, when she ventures into the land, pillaged by vikings, she is already constantly hearing voices, experiences frequent hallucinations and flashbacks and suffers from delusions.
Which is something that is handled, both in terms of script and acting, and especially in terms of presentation, exceptionally well. The “furies”, who constantly speak to you, via really well designed positional audio (playing with headphones is a must), giving hope and sowing doubts, laughing at your failures and giving helpful hints, fatalistically accepting defeat and encouraging you/Senua to move on and serving as a narrator of the story are such a great idea, I’m surprised no one played with audio in similar ways to such success in games before. The flashbacks and hallucinations, which employ terrific visuals, which often mix real life actors and in-game visuals to fantastic and haunting effect (something that Ninja Theory employed before, but truly perfected here). And truly amazing performance by the actors, especially the main character, elevate the whole story above what it could’ve been otherwise.
Because, if I’m being honest, the story itself, while interesting in its delve into Scandinavian and Celtic mythologies, is a bit too overdramatic and predictable on its own. Without the amazing acting, the pacing, the audio-visual mastery and even the interactivity of this being the game, the story would’ve not been that engaging. But with all things combined, it makes up for one of the most unique moving experiences in gaming.
Which is not to say, that it’s without fault. Even discounting the biggest issue the game currently has – bugs, mostly ones connected to (very limited) backtracking or revisiting areas, which are already getting patched out, – game has several pacing and mechanical issues that might bug you. For example, both combat and puzzle sections at times feel too long, with several fight and puzzle sequences being extremely tediously long, since by the middle of them you already “get it” and want to move on to something else, but the game keeps on giving you more of the same. There’re also “collectibles” in the form of pieces of Scandinavian mythology told by one of the background characters, which feel mostly out of place, since they’re placed around as gamey “get them all” and even give you a little “reward” (tiny cutscene that provides additional insight into one element of the story), but often feel completely at odds with the pacing that the story itself wishes to have.
And one thing that I cannot not mention, despite how petty it might sound, is that the choice for the ending credits song is the most baffling decision about this game I can think of. Because after hours of terrific audio design and moody score and songs, a completely out of place dream-/synth-pop song kicks in. It’s jarring, tonally and stylistically completely out of place and, given the lyrics, it felt as if some of the developers children wrote it and demanded it to be put into the game. I always felt that any type of music, even the one that you might hate, can still be incredibly fitting for a scene/part of the game if selected right. And this piece of music was selected as wrong as they can go.
With all that said, those problems, even bugs, didn’t personally bother me that much or got me less interested in playing the game. The game might’ve been a bit shorter, might’ve been a bit better and more polished. And might even become so in the future with updates. But even as is, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is something I’m glad I’ve experienced. It’s a very unique look into the hopes and fears that we all live with, but under a microscope that makes them all bigger and more twisted. It talks about things and experiences a lot of other forms of media don’t really like to touch upon. And it is a really good story-driven action adventure game. I highly recommend playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Just don’t forget to use the headphones.