Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that sets out to accomplish a lot. Ninja Theory is taking a stand with this title and attempting to prove that a short, compact AAA level game can be more rewarding than a feature length title that lacks the shine of a big studio production. In addition, the developer is carefully trying to represent mental illness tactfully and use it as a core gameplay theme without crossing the line and becoming offensive or exploitative. Somehow, the team manages to pull all of this off with incredible grace in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The $30 game puts players in control of a Celtic warrior on a quest for love and vengeance for somewhere between six and ten hours, depending on how quickly players catch on to the game’s puzzle mechanics. Senua, the titular character, is on a journey to the Norse land of the dead, Helheim. She has no guide or mentor during the doomed quest but instead is accompanied by an eclectic range of voices in her head who have varying motivations and attitudes. Some cheer her on and help her just when she needs it most and others tear her down and belittle her from start to finish.
The game’s sound design is without a doubt its most stunning feature. Players who have the options to tackle this title with quality headphones on will not regret the immersive experience. Voices come from varying directions and can often help lead Senua in down the right path or, on occasion, take her straight into danger. Due to the game’s minimalistic approach and lack of a supporting cast, the voices really are essential to the gameplay experience and the voice acting is absolutely spot on. This game could not have worked without believable voices that carefully walked the line between terrifying and comforting and somehow the team executed perfectly.
In addition to the great sound design, the visuals definitely delivered on the promise of an AAA experience. The game’s landscapes are stunningly beautiful when they want to be and equally unsettling when needed. This absolutely looks like a $60 title and, although the world is a bit on rails, everything still feels vivid and engaging. The immersive experience is intensified by the lack of a HUD in the game. Players have no minimap, radar, or inventory to distract from the sights and sounds that Senua is experiencing.
One of the few aspects that break the immersion of the hellscape that Senua is puzzling and battling through is how much the protagonist is unable to interact with the majority of the world around her. Senua can climb when there is a ladder or a ledge in front of her, but the game definitely has a strict path that it expects the player to take. Climbing random rocks or roaming off the trail is not much of an option. This can be a little frustrating when the world is so stunning that it is hard to not feel the desire to roam and explore. Luckily, the promise of the next puzzle or fight around the corner is motivation to follow the pre-determined trail.
The puzzles vary in difficulty but have a bit of an increased level of the challenge early on due to how little guidance the game offers players. The challenges, which must be completed to unlock doors or open portals, are actually quite fun once players understand what is being asked of them, but this is one of those rare instances where it feels like a bit more of a tutorial may have gone a long way.
Early in the game players find out that each time Senua dies on her quest, corruption will continue to grow in her body until she eventually loses her mind and players lose all of their progress. This threat of permadeath (where it’s real or not) added an incredible level of tension to the playthrough. We only died about five times during the full experience, but every combat encounter or deadly puzzle was that much more intense with the constant threat of a death adding to Senua’s rot.
On the subject of combat, Hellblade keeps things surprisingly simple. There are only a few core mechanics to master (light strike, heavy strike, dodge, block), but the game’s wave-based fights are very rewarding. Combat is a bit rare during the journey, but when an encounter does begin, players know they are in for a lengthy and deliberate battle. The combat system is similar to games like Dark Souls in that button mashing will not get the job done here. Players need to carefully dodge attacks and land strikes to build up a special power that allows Senua to slow down time and sneak in for the real damage.
The tight combat system makes for some interesting boss fights and it definitely feels skill based. There are no major power ups in the game, so players become more powerful by becoming better at mastering their timing and understanding when to use their special time slowing ability. Don’t worry, the voices in your head will speak up if they don’t like your approach…
Senua’s story is heartbreaking and Hellblade’s world certainly isn’t a happy one to spend a lot of time in. For that reason, maybe the limited campaign time is a bit of a blessing. Despite the serious subject matter and dour tone, Hellblade is an experience that shouldn’t be missed for any fans of adventure-based puzzle games. Players who are drawn to the title for its approach to combat will likely be impressed by the fighting system but may be disappointed by how few and far between the swordplay encounters are. At the price of $30 though, Hellblade is an easy recommendation for any fans of quality storytelling and beautiful world-building.
Some puzzle areas are a bit more open and allow Senua to explore off the trail. Although the punishing combat received a lot of attention during the early gameplay reveals, the bulk of gameplay in Hellblade is actually focused on solving a variety of puzzles that open doors to gated sections of the map.