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The mind is a fragile thing…

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    Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    The mind is a fragile thing…

    Let me start this review by pointing out how much of an oddity "Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice" really is in the gaming industry. Developer Ninja Theory has been making "Triple A" games for awhile now, with their last big release being the Devil May Cry reboot "DmC" (which definitely divided the community). Triple A games usually entail big budgets and publishers though… you just don’t see "Indie Games" with very high production values or budgets, which usually makes it really easy to tell at a glance if a game is truly "Triple A" or not.

    Hellblade however attempts to find somewhere between Indie and "Triple A" to exist (I suppose you’d call this a "AA" release?). Being a digital-only title, releasing at $30 instead of $60 (to reflect that this is indeed a shorter experience than most "Triple A" games) and being self-published are all signs that point to this new market.

    Ninja Theory really is trying something new here… but now that we’re done looking into what they are doing (which I think is interesting, at the very least), let’s talk about what’s important: Is this game any good?

    The mind is a fragile thing…

    You’ll play as Senua throughout the game, a medieval Pict warrior woman, but right from the start it’s pretty clear that Senua… isn’t in a good place. Senua is broken. She actually has pretty severe mental problems, including hearing (multiple) voices and bouts of psychosis, disorders that they describe as "the darkness" during her time period. Still, Senua is on a mission that she knows there’s no coming back from: a journey to find the Norse Goddess Hela in Hel… and try to barter with her to release her dead partner’s soul.

    OK, let’s get this out of the way first and foremost: Hellblade is a very short game. I expect that most gamers can get through this adventure in a single afternoon if they tried (clocking in at around 8 hours or so, give or take). What it lacks in length though it definitely makes up for in experience. Senua’s mental issues are on full display throughout the game and not only will you experience her "reality" but you’ll constantly hear the voices as well (as a side note: you should really play this game with headphones on if you can as the voices come from all angles).

    As a whole, this story is all about Senua and how she deals with a devastating loss and her own "darkness", all heavily steeped in Norse and Celtic Mythology (which is pretty interesting). You’ll find "Lorestones" as you play through the game that also tell stories based on those mythologies as you play. Frankly, the story itself is absolutely engaging from start to finish thanks to how Senua’s illness is shared with you. You’re just engaged constantly due to the voices and you never quite know if you’re doing the right thing or if Senua’s quest to see Hela is even the right thing to do. All of the above combines to make this story an experience and honestly the bonafide highlight of the game as a whole.

    Bonus: I was impressed to learn that Ninja Theory actually worked with several mental health professionals and neuroscientists to get their input while making this game. I’ve played plenty of games with unhinged villains and even a few with unhinged protagonists, but none of them have felt this… real before. Very impressive.

    Facing your demons…
    (Game Play)

    As you may suspect, Hellblade is an action game. Well… halfway, at least. It mixes action (swordplay) with a few different types of puzzles. When you aren’t doing either of those things, chances are you’re just walking towards your next destination (which will result in another fight or puzzle).

    The combat system in Hellblade is rather simple. You have quick and strong melee strikes as well as a parry/block button and evade button. That’s it. Granted, there’s a few more things you can do that the game doesn’t really spell out for you. Perfectly blocking an enemies attack will let you get a free counter-attack. You can also "focus" in order to slow down time and attack faster (which is needed to get through some boss fights and tougher enemies). The game also has no "HUD" (on-screen display) whatsoever, but frankly it doesn’t need it. If you are close to death, the screen will pulsate with slightly red borders and enemies that are severely damaged show slash marks all over their body. Your "focus" ability also recharges over time and is shown on a mirror Senua wears. None of this is really pointed out to you, but it all works and the game is better off for it.

    I particularly liked how the voices Senua hears are incorporated into the game play. These voices may be unnatural, but they are all for self-preservation and will often warn Senua if there is an enemy behind her (which is a godsend), as well as give you general battle advice and sometimes even encouragement (although discouragement comes often as well, to be honest).

    In the end… the game play is just rather standard. Compared to most combat titles, this game play is just very shallow, which is bound to be noticed, but whether or not its necessarily a bad thing with a title this short is debatable for sure…

    The look of the old world.

    As you can probably guess based on the story, Hellblade looks very much like a Nordic-inspired game. Nordic runes are a big part of the game’s puzzles, castle ruins and wooden shrines dot the landscapes you’ll explore, and various viking halls and ships round out the theme nicely.
    Things look great here throughout the game as a whole, with a fully movable camera (that Senua doesn’t like to look into), great atmospheric design, and great facial capture.

    I ran into some pop-in and had the camera clip through a couple walls, but even in such a short game these moments are few and far between. Overall, the level designs are stellar and give the game some great atmosphere. The developers particularly liked to play with Senua’s perception of her surroundings in a few key areas throughout the game (one of the Nordic Gods you face is a master of Illusion) and these areas were quite fun to play through as a result. While Hellblade may not have a "Triple A" price tag, the graphics certainly didn’t get the memo!

    Voices in your head…

    The main draw in the audio department has to be the voices. Like, it’s got to be. They are with you constantly, and recorded to make use of your headphone’s surround sound feature so it constantly comes and goes from multiple angles. There’s a LOT of story-telling in the game as well though. Each collectible rune you find comes with a story attached to it, which plays as you continue exploring and are usually Nordic-themed and quite interesting (tales of the Nordic Gods, usually). Now, that’s all voice acting that’s tied into the game play, but I’ll also give props to the voice actors in general. Senua’s actress in particular (Melina Juergens) just did a fantastic job and definitely deserves praise for the range of emotions she brought out. Very impressive!

    As far as the game’s soundtrack goes, there’s a lot of atmospheric tracks in general here. Dark, foreboding tones make up a lot of the tracks, but they are also punctuated by choir pieces, which fit the tone of the game well (Nordic chanting…). The soundtrack may not be the main audio draw here, but it’s solid and provides fantastic atmospheric tracks nevertheless.

    Who would take two trips to Helheim?

    Being a short game with a straight-forward story, Hellblade really doesn’t have much going for it in the way of re-playability. In fact, the only reason I can think of for wanting to replay it is perhaps if you didn’t get all of the collectibles in the game, and you wanted to get the trophy for doing so (I should note this game is a very easy Platinum Trophy as there’s only that one collectible trophy that isn’t gained by just playing through the game).

    If you wanted, you could play through with another difficulty I suppose, but even this seems a bit pointless as the game as an option to toggle an "adaptive difficulty" as you play (something akin to "if you play well, enemies will become harder" that I only really realized after I watched other people play and have an easier time than I did). Overall, there just isn’t much to say in the way of re-playability for this title other than the price point was definitely made to account for that fact.

    Overall: 8/10

    In the end, Hellblade is an experience as much as it is a game. Granted, this is a short title but short doesn’t mean bad by any means, especially when the developer prices the game to reflect that. As long as you are OK with a rather "standard" combat system and the lack of re-playability, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is quite the experience, with a great story, great atmosphere and graphics, and fantastic audio that all combine to leave a lasting impression. Have fun and keep playing!

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