Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review

Dan Webb

As far as underrated developers go, I think it's fair to say there are few as big as Cambridge-based Ninja Theory. While its first game, Kung Fu Chaos, failed to encapsulate the masses, the studio's second title, the PlayStation exclusive Heavenly Sword, was lauded for its fresh take on the action-adventure genre. NT's entire history reads like a case of the "nearlys" and despite making so many right steps, the team has just never quite made the big leagues.

Enslaved was a critical success, but failed to reach the numbers it needed to be a commercial one. Nearly. The rebooted Devil May Cry, DmC, was again a critical success, but fans paid more attention to Dante's new hair than the excellent gameplay on offer. Nearly, although at least that one did the numbers… somewhat. My point is, Ninja Theory is criminally underrated, but with Hellblade, I think it may have found its niche, in the same way that Telltale has done for so many years. That niche being short, sweet and engaging triple-A experiences that fall in the budget price bracket. I mean, who can say no to that?

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice throws you into the shoes of troubled young woman Senua, as she ventures into her own metaphorical hell to save the soul of her lover, Dillion, while battling her own inner demons along the way. It’s a brave narrative that deals with mental illness, psychosis, paranoia and the like, but it does so in such an eloquent way that it never feels shoved down your throat. It’s a disturbing affair at times, one that can genuinely make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s all the better for it. It’s a powerfully written, evocative and poignant narrative, one that we’ve not seen before in the world of video games. Well, not to this level.

Senua is brought to life not only by some excellent animations, but by the stunning performance of Ninja Theory video editor turned supremo actress, Melina Juergens. Yes, the story that Ninja Theory has penned is a compelling one, one that gets its hooks into you early, but it’s brought to life and smashed into the stratosphere by Juergens who is flawless at every turn. The mouth animations can look a little odd at times, but that’s only down to the fact that the rest of the facial animations – especially the eyes – are impressive that it’s a case of uncanny valley.

While battling through demons and manifestations of the mind, Senua’s accompanied by the voices in her head. Not only do they act as the player and Senua’s self-doubt, as well as their fears, while highlighting their failures, they’re handy gameplay mechanics too, guiding the player on their journey through surreal and sombre lands. Creepy and disturbing, yet helpful. Reminds me of a stalker I once had.

The story-driven, third-person action adventure title could almost be seen as an evolution of the whole 'walking simulator' genre, with some truly clever puzzles and fight scenes intermingled. It's hard to pigeonhole it, that’s for sure, but it’s to the game’s credit that it is so difficult to categorise. It’s clearly apparent that the game is at its best when delivering its story, as opposed to, say, the combat.

While the combat isn’t exactly what I call weak, it’s definitely repetitive. I go back on forth on it. One minute I’m like, 'this is stylish and impactful', while at other times I think 'it’s simple and shallow'. It’s a case of doing the same thing over and again, in tight combat arenas. Sure, it may be a metaphor for the internal battle that Senua is facing, but that’s a cop out of an excuse.

The game’s puzzles are top notch, though, and Ninja Theory does some interesting things with night and day, illusions, perceptions, angles and shapes. They’re fresh, unique and add to the game ten-fold. If it wasn’t for these puzzles, the game would severely be lacking in engagement outside the narrative.

Hellblade’s issues come from its occasionally formulaic design. After a protracted stretch of puzzle, fight, door, puzzle, fight, door, the game’s predictability can often upset the freeflowing narrative. Its lack of signposting is an obvious design choice, but one that can be confusing for the player, while it can suffer from a case of dire checkpointing on occasions. The big issue for me though was how the game at times had you just running from place to place with very little to do. To say the pacing was a little off on occasions is probably an understatement. These niggles, however, are not enough to detract from what is otherwise a wonderful experience.

While everyone else is striving to create hundreds of hours of content for full retail price, Ninja Theory has decided to go down another avenue, creating a stunning audio-visual experience with a compelling narrative for the measly price of a budget game. It’s short and there’s no replay value, but the it’s one hell of a ride and one that people should get behind. It’s subject matter could have been touchy if not handled correctly, but it’s safe to say that Ninja Theory has nailed it in terms of tone and delivery. Granted, it’s not a perfect game by any means, but Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a harrowing experience in an incredibly conceived nightmare world. It’s definitely worth your money.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a harrowing journey into the fragility of the mind. It’s a masterpiece in storytelling, and while the game mechanics itself might not complement that throughout, they do a decent job of allowing Ninja Theory to deliver a mature story revolving around a sensitive subject matter. We hope that this opens up the door for more budget priced triple-A experiences, because this one was one hell of a ride!

Form widget
88%
Audio
95%

Stunning acting throughout, an incredible score - wonderful all round. It’s basically ear pornography. Oof!

Visuals
90%

It’s a bloody gorgeous game, from the animation and realistically rendered characters, to the stunning mythological Norse world itself.

Playability
80%

You’re going to be playing Hellblade for the story primarily, and while the puzzles are excellent, the combat can be a tad repetitive.

Delivery
95%

One of the most mature and evocative stories in video games in years. It’s also one of the most intense 6-8 hour experiences I’ve had in some time, one that doesn’t let up for a second. It’s only £25 as well!

Achievements
70%

Hard to judge them, to be fair. Ninja Theory opts to not detract from the story by focusing on too much else. Easy 1,000G, for sure, if you’re interested.

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