GAME REVIEW: Hellblade: Senuas Sacrifice
Maxwell Alexander on developers tackling a taboo subject
Title: Hellblade: Senuas Sacrifice
Platforms: PS4 (tested), PC
Release date: August 8, 2017
Rating: PEGI 18
Reviewed by Max Alexander
If you were to watch a trailer for Hellblade, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was going to be a new Souls-like game.
A Celtic warrior, battling demons in visceral combat through dark, dank dungeons; parrying and rolling to survive.
It doesn't take long to realise we might have misjudged what Nina Theory are doing here.
Only moments into the opening credits, we are presented with two names that are not normally associated with video games. Mental health adviser - Paul Fletcher and historical advisor - Elizabeth Ashman Rowe.
Mental health in video games is somewhat of a taboo subject.
The topic of psychosis, especially, is one that most forms of entertainment media in general will shy away from. So to say that what Tameem Antoniades and his team are taking on here is a huge risk, is a bit of an understatement.
The fact that a medical expert is given top billing over your standard developer heads should let you know that attention to detail and respect is very much something that the developer, Ninja Theory, takes very seriously.
When you first load up the game it is suggested that you wear headphones whilst playing - and I couldn't recommend heading this advice more.
Hellblade is very much a game that relies upon its sound design.
In the opening scene when we are introduced to Senua, a distressed looking young Celtic warrior, paddling a log through the thick fog, we are also introduced to the demons in Senua's head.
Voices that are constantly arguing, constantly putting her down, constantly telling Senua that she isn't good enough to succeed in her mission. Without headphones, the full extent of how overbearing these voices in Senua's head are, are lost.
The voices aren't a complete hindrance though and are actually there as a mechanic, as well as to serve the narrative.
There is no HUD, and to make up for this, the voices will guide you to a degree; warning you if there is an enemy behind you; shouting at you when your health gets low; letting you know you're going the wrong way.
It's somewhat reminiscent of the narrator in 2011s Bastion. Only here it's used a little differently, and arguably makes more sense.
Hellblade is a stunning game. Stunning in a horrible, bleak and twisted way.
Environments are littered with dead bodies, fire and brimstone; getting darker and darker as you progress into this hellish landscape.
Senua herself, is portrayed beautifully using real-time motion capture. Facial expressions are captured brilliantly and really make for uncomfortable viewing when watching Senua react to the horrors before her.
The type of full body motion capture that Ninja Theory use, coupled with the binaural recording techniques used for voice hearing, make Hellblade a very easy game to get completely immersed in.
And to this end makes for a rather distressing experience, as you fill the tormented shoes of Senua.
As impressive as the technical and narrative feats are, game play can often feel a little hollow.
Walks through long stretches of the game on a rather linear path are only saved by the terrific story and script on show here.
Blocking your progress through the game are locked gates covered in runes.
Players will be tasked with finding points in the environment that resemble these runes - be that the shadow of a tree or the way a series of crucifixes are lined up.
It's a mechanic that does get a little old after a while, as you a forced to find each rune before entering a new area.
Other puzzles follow a very similar set of rules. One of perspective.
Perspective is a important thing in this Hellblade, and it was only after completing it and watching the accompanied featurette, did I realise that the puzzles were actually themed around real life experiences the consulting patients in recovery had been through themselves.
Experiences like finding hidden patterns in the environment and believing them to have significant meaning, or the world completely blacking out or melting around you; presented in such a way that feels natural to the world.
I wish, though, that we didn't have to spend so much time on one particular style of puzzle. Searching for the runes can really grow tiresome and slow the experience down.
There are even moments in the game when the voices in your head are questioning why you are even doing this.
Hellblade breaks up the puzzle sections, however, with fairly robust combat sections.
Battles usually pit you against one or two enemies at a time; ramping up the enemy count and type of foe as you progress.
Battles don't feel as analogue as Dark Souls, but this is clearly a huge inspiration for the game.
Like Dark Souls, running in and slashing away will usually result in a quick death. Players will have to be more tactical in the approach to combat. Countering and dodging enemies to create an attackable opportunity.
In your first battle with one of the "North Men" enemies, the game will force you to lose.
This is where we are warned that permadeath is in effect for this game meaning if you die too many times, it's game over. For good.
You will have your save file wiped and be forced to start again. You keep track of this by a black mark that slowly creeps up your arm.
If the mark reaches your head, it's game over.
Now a word of warning; there are minor spoilers ahead.
After beating the game, I went back through and tested this out by dying numerous times on purpose. And it would appear that there is no such thing as permanent death in this game, despite being told that there is.
After three or four deaths, the mark would stop moving up Senua's arm and stay fixed to a capped position until reaching the next area.
It seemed that each section had a limit to how far the the mark would travel, and it only moved beyond its limit after clearing a section of the game.
It seems a strange design choice to say that there is permanent death, to then find out there actually wasn't.
Was this something that the devs originally put in, but then backed out of, or was there purpose to it?
I can only think that the purpose of saying there is a permanent death function in the game adds to the tension of each fight. Making every battle feel desperate and a struggle; where risks to win a fight feel genuinely dangerous.
It all adds to the sensation of feeling vulnerable, and adds stress that, maybe, if they had not said anything, we might have otherwise missed. Every cut that Senua receives feels agonising because of that fear of a genuine loss.
Everything, it would appear, then has purpose in creating an experience unlike any other that has been attempted before.
One that I think people should experience, but one I would have a hard time recommending to everyone.
To say it was fun to play, I feel, perhaps, misses the point entirely.
Every time I sat down in Senuas world, I left feeling emotionally drained and rather on edge.
Nevertheless, I'm glad to have walked with her, seen the world through her eyes, and perhaps got a better understanding of what people who suffer from an illness like this have to battle with, if only in a small way.
What a small team from Cambridge has done here is worth experiencing.
Delivering something that few video games have been able to achieve before it.
If you do pick up this game, I do highly recommend watching the featurette that comes free with it.
Games aren't always about beating levels and achieving high scores, and Hellblade is a terrific example of what the medium is capable of - delivering a story in a way that only an interactive media can.