Release date: August 8th, 2017
Price: $29.99 on Steam
I doubt you’ll come across another game that comes close to what Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice achieved with portraying mental illness in a video game. Their dedication to authenticity, research, and hard work created an experience unlike any other due to how the visual presentation, sound design, and game mechanics were seamlessly interwoven with the symptoms of psychosis. Ninja Theory completely surprised me with how adeptly they handled this subject matter.
Right after you start a new game, you’ll immediately run into the phenomenal sound work put into this game. It’s no exaggeration to say that headphones greatly enhance the experience. Senua hears voices in a 360-degree space around her and headphones can better emphasize the binaural sound effects. The voice actors do a splendid job in playing their roles and creating an apprehensive and tense atmosphere. The voices react differently to what’s happening and do everything from helping her achieve her goals to taunting her. They undeniably increased my sense of paranoia about the reality of situation while the proximity of the voices in some cases did much to leave me unsettled.
The psychosis that Senua suffers from alters how she perceives the world, giving the game many opportunities to delight or horrify the player with its imagery and take on her mental condition. You don’t have just the voices to worry about. There are horrible visions and painful memories to witness. The game doesn’t lie when it warns of disturbing imagery. You’ll see plenty of gore, but there are a handful of some horrible things that don’t rely on the ick factor that made me like the game more for it. One of the neat things about how she sees the world differently from everyone else is that the gameplay also reflects that. The puzzles aren’t very difficult and most of them revolve around the idea of changing your perspective and/or aligning seemingly unrelated objects in a way that creates a rune. I didn’t have too much trouble with it after understanding what I needed to do.
You can plan on seeing plenty of fantastic vistas that make good use of the Unreal 4 engine. The game knows how beautiful it can be which is why I suspect it included an optional photo mode that I did make use of from time to time. I might have died several times trying to capture the right moment, but it was worth it. I’d also recommend bringing in the camera close to Senua’s face to see all the detail put into it.
The other major gameplay component, besides the puzzles, comes in the form of a somewhat simplistic combat system with limited depth. You’re not going to need to memorize a long list of combos or worry about utilizing a bunch of different gadgets. Instead, you have your light attack, heavy attack, evade-to-roll, and melee stun attack. Senua can also Focus which restores her health to full and slows down time for her enemies to give her some room to breathe and cut down her foes. After a while, I did notice some little things that aren’t explained. You can use the sprint button to alter all your attacks and there are hidden combos in place that you can discover with the right button presses that result in different sword strokes and thrusts. Later in the game, you’ll also have something else to make the combat a little more interesting. The combat grew on me over time as I began to utilize everything I had at my disposal, but I can see it disappointing some people. It’s not the major draw of the game, but there are some combat sequences that gave me reason to pump my fist after victory. The final battle was also handled very well.
Senua’s strongest points are the masterful audio work, the visuals, and the story. Her character felt fully developed and genuine which made the story all the better. She embarks on a quest to save her dead lover by traveling to the Viking version of hell. The way the game keeps giving us glimpses of her past throughout the entire journey made her feel more believable. After playing through the game, I felt as if I knew Senua. How can a person not after witnessing all that pain and suffering? The way it all comes together in the end surprised me with the emotional impact it had. It’s an extremely personal story about Senua and that’s one of the key factors that make it so good. The writers didn’t lose any of their focus and the actress portraying the protagonist gave a sincere and heartfelt performance.
Besides the combat’s depth and some alignment fiddling for some of the puzzles, I don’t have much to add when it comes to the negative aspects of the game. I noticed some sound loading issues when restarting after a death, but it comes back after several seconds. Oh right, there was one part where I couldn’t see some stairs that led up because of how dark it was. I saw the ones leading down just fine. I needed to bust out a guide for that one part. Curse you, darkness.
Anyway, I eagerly look forward to the next Ninja Theory game and hope that another developer in the game industry will take a chance on doing something different from everything else. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the best gaming experiences available of the year. Any of its shortcomings are greatly overshadowed by everything else the game achieved; however, the combat will most likely be off-putting to some people. Still, give the game the chance you tell you its excellent story.