After spending about two and a half hours playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice last night, I can honestly say that my excitement for this new Ninja Theory title was well-deserved. There is so much to say about this game, and I could go on & on. However, in order to save you all some time, I’ll just touch on a few of my favorites. Come with me on this journey into Helheim, friends.
The first thing that struck me was how absolutely stunningly gorgeous this game is! The motion capture is nearly flawless – truly bringing out every nuance of emotion on Senua’s face, and capturing the difference between moving on land and wading through chest-deep water. Every one of our heroine’s movements is captured in exquisite detail.
In addition to the motion capture, the way that Ninja Theory was able to render the environment is some of the best I’ve ever seen. When wading through the aforementioned water, the ripples and reflections that the devs were able to achieve is nothing short of amazing.
Beyond the environments & motion capture, however, the level of detail in the graphics is also used to very cleverly show you where to go (as there is no HUD in this title), give you an idea of when battles are about to occur, and show off nuances of the condition of Senua’s deteriorating mental health.
Second, there’s the sound in this game. Oh, the glorious sound! As I wrote in one of my previous pieces about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the developers & sound designers used binaural audio in order to show off the voices in Senua’s head; and WOW, does it ever work well! The various voices that speak to Senua (and to one another) really add a depth to this game that I have not ever encountered before. These hallucinations also occasionally break the fourth wall, and it really adds to the immersion – at times almost making the player question their own mind (or at least that was the case for me).
The incredible sound design is also used to a wonderful degree during the fights in the game. The clashing of swords, the sounds of steel slicing flesh, and the grunts of large enemy combatants give the combat in this game a lot of ‘oomph’, and allow the player to almost feel every strike.
Speaking of combat… That’s one thing I feel like I should touch on, as it quickly became one of my favorite (and most frustrating) aspects of the game. I love the combat because of its fierceness, the evasion & counterattack based system, and the visceral nature of it (it’s wonderfully brutal). On the flip side of that, the combat required a steeper than normal learning curve for a couple of reasons. First, as there’s no HUD, you really have to keep one eye on your enemy and one eye on the way the entire screen looks. As Senua takes damage, the screen will darken & become bloody. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself injured and unable to dodge effectively.
Second, there’s the fact that, while Senua is a fierce & very capable fighter (seriously, try holding the run button when you attack), she does not evade very quickly, or with any large degree of distance. Timing becomes crucial in order to effectively dodge the crushing blows dealt by the enemies in these fights; especially when dealing with a particularly annoying mini-boss who uses speed to his advantage…but I won’t spoil that for you.
Now that we’ve talked about the stuff that goes into almost all “hack & slash” style games, let’s chat about one of the cooler parts of this title, and one that the artistic side of my brain was positively giddy about: forced perspective puzzles. These. Are. FASCINATING. I love puzzles in games that truly get the player to think about how to approach them, and really don’t have a way to just “brute force” the solution(s). Not only are these puzzles (quite) challenging to solve, but they’re also quite beautiful to look at, and really speak to the talent of the Ninja Theory team.
The last bit that I want to tell you about, dear readers, is how well Ninja Theory did in taking on the topic of mental illness. Throughout the portion of the game that I played, it became very apparent that the devs were not looking to turn Senua into an object of pity or ridicule. Instead, they really seemed to want to show the player what it’s like for her to face every day with the constant intrusive thoughts & hallucinations that she experiences. Some of which she seems to have come to grips with, and some that still haunt & disturb her deeply. Through it all, Senua remains a badass.
For those of you who are counting on a cakewalk experience, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice may not be your cup of tea – unless you can quickly get comfortable with the phrase “rage-quit”. However, if you truly enjoy a challenge, and want a real feast for the eyes & ears, then this game is DEFINITELY worth downloading. I’m having a blast so far, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into Helheim to see what trials Senua faces next.
4.5 Illusory Runes out of 5
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is out now in digital-only format for PS4, PS4 Pro, and PC, for $29.99 (USD).