Ninja Theory is a highly talented studio and were for many years very quiet on their next project. They’re last venture was the highly divisive DMC back in 2012, which I personally liked but many fans boys didn’t. From this point, it seemed like Ninja Theory were heading back to their roots with a surreal, dark fantasy with highly engrossing combat and dark, mature themes at its core.
Hellbalde: Senua’s Sacrifice centres on a young warrior who journeys to Helheim, the Nordic equivalent of Hell to find her beloved. Senua travels through a forsaken and cruel world that harbours many challenges that test her courage, brawn and mental welfare. Among fighting physical foes that wield iron and hate, Senua will also tackle the various voices in her head and an unstable vision of the world before her. The deeper Senua traverses Hell, the worse her fragile mind becomes.
Ninja Theory has accomplished a very difficult task, presenting a mature analyse of a serious medical condition that afflicts millions of people today. They’ve done so in an environment that’s both immersive and enables many of themes to thrive in an engaging and abstract manner. Senua is a troubled Celtic warrior who believes she is cursed by “Darkness” when a number of voices in her head try to influence her judgement as best they can. She believes the only way to rid her of this curse is to find her beloved, who was tortured, killed and sent to Helheim.
What Hellblade does extremely well is to craft a metaphor on mental illness, through the guise of a warrior’s journey to Hell and one that centres on a “curse” as a major infliction. Senua is unaware that her past and the terrible things she has seen and been part of, has affected her mind in the most unforgiving way. On surface level, Hellblade is extremely effective and underneath its skin, lies a more complex and staggering tale of mental health. Not forget the portrayal by actress Milina Juergens is absolutely captivating.
Senua’s journey takes her through various challenges, fighting those who appear as monsters, with warrior kings made from fire, tricksters that can bend physics to their will and aggressive brutes that will tear the flesh of bone with no remorse. Every step of this journey is gripping and something that makes it so, is a blend of sound design and the game breaking the forth wall. Often Senua will look the player straight in the eye and discuss a variant of horrible experiences that drove her to this point. Players wearing headphones will hear the cackles, whispers and mocking taunts of various voices that can guide, encourage Senua or more so belittle her at the worse moments.
The sound design is genius as an effective form of immersion and dynamic gameplay, the best since Dead Space back in 2008. Ninja Theory has excelled at their skills of presentation for effective visuals, sound design and storytelling. More impressive are the links between the narrative and gameplay elements, with one of the more creative mechanics being the formation of patterns and symbols to open locked door. These objectives have Senua traverse the local area and form symbols by alighting various objects in the landscape and foreground. Highly cleaver as this relates to an aspect of psychosis, with a character forming symbols and meaning from random objects in her environment.
In terms of gameplay, Hellblade shows some great concepts and for the most part their highly effective in execution. Lateral elements have a strong foundation that open up some interesting gameplay mechanics, that all relate to the theme of mental health. Granted while many of these ideas are genuinely thought-provoking, they often repeat and play out the same way with each encounter. There were only a few of these segments were another element was in place to change the pacing, structure or level of difficulty.
What does break up this emotional journey and the lateral elements is of course combat, centring on a personal conflict between Senua and her foes. The game takes a similar approach to Infinity Blade where players will enter a claustrophobic arena and fight a number of enemies with an over the shoulder perspective. Combat mechanics are nothing new and amounts to the generic level of fighting with light and heavy attacks along with counters and a special move that slows down time.
Yet the presentation is very nice and holds a high amount of intensity during these fights, with a good variation of enemy types and effective camera work. The more enthralling aspect is a perma-death feature that wipes all progress if the player dies too many times during the campaign. This is a neat idea but a little daunting as the game is much longer than you may think. Having read reviews and viewed gameplay footage I thought this might be a somewhat short game but actually, the journey can last around 8 – 10 hours. So while this feature works well in terms of narrative and immersion, it can be extremely annoying if you’ve reached the end and need to start all over again!
Particularly as the combat can range from forgiving to relentlessly brutal, yet you can adjust the combat settings if it’s really the story you came for.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an enriching experience that’s filled with sorrow, disturbing beauty and a shocking look at mental health. There have been many writers, directors and artists who try their best to capture the essence of mental health and create a thought-provoking journey that explores the fragmented nature to psychosis. While many may claim Hellblade to take itself too seriously, it goes beyond words that Ninja Theory have done a damn fine job at connecting everyone outside the issue into seeing it first-hand. Gameplay is wonderfully linked to the character’s own story, with elements of mental health playing a big part in lateral elements and combat. The sound design is phenomenal and the visual presentation is staggering, even more on the Xbox One X.
This is truly a masterful game that deserves praise for its intelligent recreation of a troubling issue that many don’t understand while others are heart-broken by it every day.
We know this should’ve been Bafta’s game of the year.
++Thoughtful and meaningful story-telling
++ Dynamic and highly engrossing sound design and visuals
+ Good lateral and combat elements
- Some repetition
An Xbox One copy of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was provided by Ninja Theory for the purpose of this review