It feels like Ninja Theory is set on proving themselves with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and they have done so successfully. Hellblade is a visually stunning achievement, with a heavy layer of psychosis, fluid combat, creepy voice acting that can get under your skin, and a haunting tale set in Viking/Celtic mythology woven together.
If you’ve not heard of Ninja Theory before, they are the guys who made Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West (one of my personal favorites), and DmC: Devil May Cry. Hellblade is their attempt at creating something unique and powerful, and for the most part, they have accomplished that goal.
You play as Senua as she makes her way into hell to fight for the soul of her dead lover. She is also plagued by severe psychosis which twists her perception of reality. The voices in her head are terrifyingly creepy and often remark on your actions – both that you have committed and are about to commit – in uncanny ways that can get under your skin. They would taunt and question you incessantly, to a point where both Senua and, vicariously, you as the player are buckling under the weight of holding on to sanity. The same voices are put to use in nudging you in the right direction, giving you hints to solving a puzzle or even warning you during combat. Since the game has no hud or even any environmental text or prompts, the voices do an excellent job of way-pointing and guiding the player.
The gameplay is in third person as consists of equal parts exploration, puzzle solving and combat. The combat starts of pretty simple at first as you dodge, parry and strike against more basic enemies. Later on as you come across tougher enemies and bosses, you need to be more precise with your hits and be ready to fall back or even get more aggressive and be willing to run in and land heavier hits. The combat has a good weight to it while being fluid and fast at the same time, and its really fun and satisfying. The enemies are varied enough and well designed. Some of the bosses are outright freakish, and with multiple visual effects and filters thrown on to the screen, some of the fights can get grueling and terrifying. The game doesn’t tell you all the moves you can perform, but I played around trying to make Senua do different attack moves, and was surprised to figure out some combos myself. And since I enjoyed discovering that, I won’t knock against the game for not telling me. The game got a lot easier as I learned how to knock aside enemy shields, run up and lunge into them and even switch between enemies.
Before you get to the bosses though, you need to do some exploring and puzzle solving. And while some of the puzzles have some clever twists and interesting elements to them and are presented extremely well, they can get a bit repetitive after a while. The game still managed add variety to them across levels, but the basic logic behind them is not to dissimilar. They are not bad, but I wouldn’t mid doing away with some of them and replacing them with either more variety or more combat. Once again, because there’s no hud, markers or indicators, the game relies on clever visual presentation and I enjoyed that thoroughly. Thee over the shoulder camera can feel a bit too tight at times, but it feels just right during combat, and that’s what really matters.
Senua is also carrying an infection of sorts called “The Rot”, and it’s represented in the form of a black mark on her hand. As you keep dying the infection spreads, and once it gets to your head Senua will die permanently and your save will be deleted, forcing you to start again. The game makes this very clear early on, and this makes every combat encounter even more intense, specially when you take a few hits and are really struggling to stay alive. This feature might put off some people – no one wants to lose their progress in a story driven game – but I like how much compelling it made the combat, asking you to be more aware of your surroundings and learn enemy patterns to adapt on the move.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an impressive looking game. Powered by Unreal Engine 4 and some really good motion capture, both the environment and the characters look fantastic. Senua’s hair is probably up there with Aloy’s hair in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Different regions look different enough, with good usage of lights, shadows and environmental details to being them to life. Facial animations are some of the best you’ll have ever seen in games, with some of them looking almost life like. The same goes for combat animations, both Senua’s and the enemies’. Lunging, parrying and executing combos feel natural because of how good they look and lend a smooth flow to the combat.
I had a ton of fun with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and am looking forward to replaying some of the boss fights.Ninja Theory has a really good game on their hands and I am hoping to see a sequel. I would love to see both a more open world approach to this game and even one with just the boss fights. As it is, Hellblade is up there with some of the best video games released this year.