Ninja Theory games are known for amazing combat systems, unique characters, and engaging stories. With Hellblade, they took the development of the game and these aspects to the next level of quality. An independent triple A game they call it. They outright stated that the game is fairly short and that the price will be set accordingly. This is certainly a bit different than what the rest of the industry provides, and certainly not what the gamers are used to. Lower budget more often than not means that compromises will have to be made across the board but in Hellblade, sliders for everything except game length are tuned to the max. How did it turn out and why should you care? Let's break it down.
The story of Hellblade follows Senua, a Celtic woman as she journeys to the land of the Northmen, and the Norse version of hell called Helheim to rescue and resurrect her beloved from the clutches of the goddess Hela. Sound pretty cookie cutter right? Truthfully, it's far from it. If you only play without paying much attention to the exposition or the details scattered throughout the game, you could certainly go through it thinking that this is a straight-up fantasy where you fight all sorts of fantastical creatures and gods. You could, but you would be stupidly wrong. See, Senua suffers from severe psychosis and her illness permeates the entire game. I have to hand it to the devs in using mental illness in such an amazing manner to convey this amazing and deep story.
All the way to the end, you will not be sure if the things unfolding in front of you are real or just an aspect of Senua's illness. Could be a combination. What is certain that everything she sees, as well as every enemy she faces, represents fear, horror and the struggle that she experienced in her life. It's ultimately a very personal experience as Senua primarily faces herself. Her inner darkness that stems from her troubled past. Her illness warps the reality around her, bringing to life these fantastical stories that her tribe passed on to the new generations. Stories about gods, demons, life, and death.
As the game recommends in the beginning, it's best played with a pair of headphones and the intro scene will immediately make it clear as to why. You will feel fully immersed as Senua's inner voices start professing their doubts and fears about her quest, and you will already feel for the main protagonist mere minutes into the game as she pushes through them and continues toward her destination.
The gameplay portion of the game is split into several segments. You will mostly travel from destination to destination, soaking in the amazing atmosphere, all the while listening to voices of Senua's mind describe events from her past or current ones. Occasionally you will find stone tablets that will further explain the lore of the world that inspired most of Senua's version of hell. And let me tell you, this is amazingly done. I can't remember when was the last time I was so engaged in a story where no other character exists and this is mostly due to the insane and mystical atmosphere that exudes from every pixel of this game.
The other part of the game is the combat and the occasional puzzles. They, on the other hand, are kept simple. Combat consists of light and heavy attacks along with blocks and dodges. No flashy combos or anything. It's realistic, gritty and no-nonsense, perfectly fitting the rest of the game. Those expecting a typical Ninja Theory flying around the screen juggling enemies type of combat will be disappointed. There are only a couple of enemy types but they are not exactly tough, except when they gang up on you in greater numbers. Even the bosses don't present much of a challenge and require just a little bit of experimenting in order to figure out how to permanently shut them down.
Puzzles mostly come up when you need to open a certain door which will present you with a rune that you will have to find in your immediate surroundings.You do this by lining up certain objects in the environment to the shape of the rune, lining up a tree to a fence from exactly the right angle for example. Most of them are fairly easy, but sometimes the game can be very exact about you lining up objects which can lead to some mild frustration if you are not patient.
It's great that both the combat and the puzzles are explained by the way of Senua's voices that are already an integral part of the game, so you don't break immersion for a second while playing. Only once or twice did text pop out to explain something and that was only when it couldn't be conveyed through gameplay. One of these things is the darkness that infects Senua's hand. The game warns you that if it reaches her head – it's game over for you. It will delete your save and you will need to start all over again. A promise of a permadeath is a nice touch to raise the stakes but in a game this easy, anyone who's ever played any game of this type in their life will breeze right through and even forget about the feature.
VISUALS AND AUDIO
As I mentioned, this was marketed as an AAA experience and it fully delivers on that front. The game looks absolutely fantastic. Texture work and lighting are all stunning across the board no matter your platform of choice. Attention to detail is par to none as the levels synergize greatly with the overall story and the atmosphere of the game. Everything is presented in a manner that serves the story and your immersion into it. There is no text (for the most part), no explaining, no hand holding and no low health warning across the screen as even the HUD is completely absent the entire time to really drive the immersion to the max.
A dark, fantasy Norse myth never looked better and the psychosis element really gave the developers an excuse to go crazy with all sorts of effects to wrap it all up into a great package. With that being said, I only rarely noticed some texture pop in and an occasional frame rate drop when my entire screen was on fire as if Surtur himself is about to jump out, but nothing that really brought the game experience down. Keep in mind that although the game is greatly optimized it still requires quite a bit of power from your system with plenty of graphical options to tweak around when playing on the PC.
A couple of times in the review I stressed how the story is delivered in an amazing manner and how Senua's inner voices are the main protagonists on that front. Going from that I can tell you that the voice work is absolutely amazing. From the female voices that whisper threats, fears, and doubts, to the shaman that spouts exposition and helps with the puzzles, as well as the rest of the cast – they really hit it out of the park and when coupled with other atmospheric sound effects add to the immersion of the game immensely. Another thing that helps on that front is the often underused binaural sound that literally puts you in Senua's shoes as you play.
Music is not on par with the voice work. It's still highly in tune with the rest of the game as the orchestral action and atmospheric pieces are played, but nothing exactly memorable.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice will take about 6-8 hours of your time. And I personally was left hungry for more. It's a unique experience that had me hooked from the intro scene with the whispering voices of it's expertly done voice work to the gut-wrenching atmosphere. It's certainly not a game for everybody as it features less combat than what you would expect from a Ninja Theory game but it more than makes up for it in terms of story and presentation. It offers a unique look at mental illness and how it was perceived back when people took natural occurrences for manifestations of gods.
If you buy and love the game, like me – sure, you could considered it short, but there are plenty of full priced $60 games floating around clocking in at 8 hours of gameplay. Consider all the above and add-in the fact that the game is only $30 and there is no excuse to miss out. It is an all-around great experience that hopefully sets a trend that will fill the void of shorter and cheaper triple A experiences.
|+ Amazing visuals and atmosphere||– Slight technical issues|
|+ Great voice work and story presentation||– A bit short and not challenging|
|+ Simple yet engaging combat system||– Some unresponsive puzzle solutions|