What a game!
Appropriate as a sequel was announced just this month as a part of The Game Awards surprise announcement of the Xbox Series X (seriously, that name), Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an interesting take on the action exploration genre.
I recently picked up the game sight-unseen from a Steam sale, only knowing that it looked graphically amazing, but without much of an idea of the gameplay.
I might be the only person on the internet, but I liked developer Ninja Theory’s prior title, the rebooted DmC (Devil May Cry) they made, which was a much faster-paced action title in the vein of that franchise.
Hellblade is a more interesting take on that gameplay to me because it relies more on the environment – puzzles, various riddles that use the theme of the game to their advantage, and then pairs that with slower paced, more strategic combat. The game uses an interesting structure to deliver what is effectively a tutorial – teaching a single new gameplay concept in each of the first two sections of the map you explore, and then using those mechanics and lessons later to bring the game together into a more cohesive whole.
However, what really brought me into the game wasn’t as much the gameplay – much like Gris, the game is simple and a lot of the gameplay comes from simply exploring the maps and taking in the sights – but rather the story.
Hellblade is a game that doesn’t make much clear early on, other than a clear theme – Senua, your character, is possessed of a strange psychosis, hearing varying voices in her head, some encouraging, some disparaging, and they are both story elements as well as gameplay instructors – they’ll tell you to dodge and evade in combat, and they’ll often highlight when enemies are trying to flank you. What is interesting, and novel, is rather than leaning hard on mental illness as a trope, the game takes great care to depict the symptoms of psychosis in a very real way, bringing in a team of psychologists whose sole role on the project was to ensure the game did the depiction of the illness justice.
It works incredibly well. I can’t claim to have experienced psychosis personally, but the game never makes it feel like a punchline or a simple setup for the theme of the game. It feels serious, and the game’s story takes a lot of effort to show the very real effect of the trauma Senua has experienced. As the game rolls on, you come to understand more of the events that have led Senua here, to the gates of Helheim, and without spoiling it…it is pretty bleak.
The story takes place over 7 fairly large areas, with a good mix of exploration and platforming, combat, and puzzle-solving, and couples it with lorestones that fill in the backstory of the game, both the events specific to Senua and the Norse mythology that is used to flesh out the setting of the game.
To take a step back to the gameplay, one of the things I really liked about the game is that it makes having no user interface work – the game uses the voices inside Senua’s head for the guidance a traditional HUD would provide, and it makes this work even better by using smaller-subsections of each map per segment of gameplay. I never felt lost, even as the game ratcheted up the difficulty and increased the size of the map segments.
The game also makes use of some genuinely different gameplay settings in a way that I haven’t seen – there is a segment where you are “blind” and location matters – it sounds annoying, but in action, it actually works well and creates something that doesn’t sound like it would work at all but does!
All of this comes together with a outstanding visual and audio presentation. The game recommends using headphones for proper sound placement – and it is a recommendation I would take seriously. Coupled with the aforementioned excellent graphics, the whole package is a stunner that will make you take screenshots for the whole duration of your playthrough. The only thing I worried about was the uncanny valley being reached, and while it does happen (environmental textures with bump/normal mapping are a little lower resolution and pixelated), the game overcomes it just with sheer artistry, adding some strong visual filters to further communicate the themes of psychosis and confusion which also help to mask most objects that might pull you out of the game.
Overall, at the sale price I got it at, it was worthwhile for around 6 hours of play. At full price, it still provides pretty good value, but short of a bonus detail in an ending if you find all of the lore stones, there isn’t value in any repeat playthroughs (short of maybe understanding more of the story) so it is very much a one and done type of game.
However, given all of that, I am glad for the time I spent with it and would recommend playing it for the experience alone, if nothing else.