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Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: Aug. 8, 2017


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PS4 Review - 'Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice'

by Cody Medellin on Aug. 21, 2017 @ 12:01 a.m. PDT

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, based on Celtic myth, is an experience focused on delivering a deep character in a twisted world, with brutal uncompromising combat.

Buy Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

For most people, Ninja Theory is a developer known for action. Its first title was the multiplayer fighting party game Kung Fu Chaos, but its other titles nicely fit into the single-player action game mold. They also have some solid stories, from the tragic tale in Heavenly Sword to the postapocalyptic re-imagining of the Chinese classic Journey to the West in Enslaved and an alternate take on Capcom's Dante with DmC: Devil May Cry. When it was first announced, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was thought to be another attempt at a solid action title that would resonate for both critics and fans. What we got is a game with a truly powerful story.

You play the role of Senua, a Pict warrior shunned by her clan due to the sayings of her father. She returns from a healing pilgrimage only to witness the corpse of her love Dillian hanging as a sacrifice to the gods of the Norsemen. Taking Dillian's head in a cloth, she goes out on a journey to the land of the north, seeking a way into Helheim to rescue her beloved, even if she doesn't necessarily know how to do that.

It doesn't take long before you realize that Senua isn't like most protagonists. If you read the warning posted after the introduction, you'll learn that the game revolves around the subject of psychosis — dubbed "darkness" — and that Senua suffers from it. The darkness is manifested in a cacophony of voices that speak to her constantly. There is one main voice that is responsible for providing insight into her plight as well as progressing the story, but the other voices enhance the situation in various ways. Some voices say your actions are a bad idea while others try to encourage them. Some voices mock, and some outright condemn you. The voices can provide some levity as well as cruelty. This is especially true in the second half of the game, when a voice of pure malice comes out of nowhere to torment Senua to simply end it all.

The psychosis also comes through in the visuals, which vary wildly. Some scenes feature objects that are mirrored or completely out of focus as they dance around your field of vision. Other scenes are bright enough that extreme light bloom and lens flare occur for no apparent reason. Objects frequently appear too numerous to count, various flashbacks and distorted imagery can suddenly appear, and some of it plays out at faster speeds. The whole thing can be chaotic or confusing, and people suffering from psychosis frequently have to deal with it.

The first time you hear about something like this happening in a game, you'll think it's a gimmick. Several horror games do this to confuse the player, while the Kane & Lynch series tried to delve into psychosis, although it only highlighted half of the duo's instability without much purpose. Here, the subject matter is treated with more respect, as it is presented as a perspective on a way of life. Players aren't left questioning whether something was real, since you only see things from Senua's point of view and everything is taken at face value.

It also helps that the setting lends itself to the subject matter without much difficulty. For the most part, you're headed into Viking territory, and a number of characters from their mythology are adversaries for you to conquer. The beast Fenrir, Hela, and a few giants stand in your way, and their settings vary so much that you might not feel that these are figments of Senua's psyche. Grassy areas bursting into flames and shores filled with wrecked Viking ships provide a rather bleak atmosphere, while the bowels of Helheim are terrifying, with rivers of blood and outstretched hands constantly grabbing at you.

All of these things come courtesy of the graphics, which are probably the best use of Unreal Engine 4 to date. Environments are lush with detail, and there's very little in the way of stretched-out textures or clipping to break the setting. There are loads of lighting tricks and particle effects on display to breathe some life into the dankest of places, and it does so with a frame rate that's stable enough to feel cinematic. The real highlight is the character models. The bodies are almost flawless, but Senua's face is perhaps the biggest accomplishment of all. It looks real, especially when you see the actress who did the motion capture for her. Her eyes, facial expressions and mouth movement are the most impressive things about the graphics, especially during scenes that have Senua looking at and addressing you instead of just speaking into the void.

While the graphics do a very good job of painting a beautifully flawed world, the audio is the technical point that will leave people talking. The musical score is brilliant and conveys despair and sadness, punctuated by a few moments of bliss. The vocal performances are also absolutely perfect, and their implementation will catch people's attention. The game uses binaural 3D audio to simulate the voices in Senua's head, and the technique is used to great effect, as the voices come in at different volumes and pitches, and they revolve around you when they all speak at once. The game recommends using headphones in order to get the optimal effect. Basic stereo speakers can't do the audio justice, and while a surround system would theoretically be a good equivalent, it translates the varying volumes but not the surround effect.

We've praised the story and presentation, but the gameplay is what makes the experience click. The action is methodical, with a call-and-response combat system that resembles recent, slower action titles. Blocking and dodging are often your first moves, and your attacks only occur once you see an opening. There's not much flash, as you only have basic combos with light and heavy attacks, and your kick forces openings when none exist. You can slow down time if you dodge enough attacks, and the voices in your head really help out, as the camera is often close to you in battle and the game has no HUD. Comments about your condition are a good indicator of how close you are to death, and they also warn you about attacks coming from your blind side.

One of the more interesting aspects of combat is its use of dynamic difficulty. Unless you set the difficulty yourself, the game adjusts the fights depending on how well you're doing. Do poorly against one opponent, and the game will dial things back to make attacks easily readable and give you more energy to slow down time. Do well, and the game makes enemy attacks more frequent or adds more combatants at a time, sometimes overwhelming you to the point where you have no room to dodge. The system may not allow for the kind of punishment that some players may expect, but it keeps things from getting boring.

Most of your time is spent in exploration, not combat. As mentioned earlier, your journey into Helheim means that the environments can be rather dynamic. One stage has you looking through enchanted gateways to see two different versions of the same space. Another has you trying to keep an active source of light to stave off death, and one stage has you navigating with only a scant amount of light as you try to be quiet and avoid those that'll kill you on sight. Fascinating at times, frightful in others, it brings about the joy of discovery that people enjoy in walking simulators. You'll also find runestones that give more insight on Norse mythology from an outsider's point of view.

At the same time, Hellblade relies heavily on one type of puzzle that deals with perspectives. Most puzzles have rune markings that lock doors, and you must look at the environment from different perspectives to create a rune. Solutions can include shadows cast on a wall, trees intersecting, and scorch marks on the ground. A few puzzles have you rebuilding bridges by lining up the floating fragments in such a way that it looks like the structure is complete. Their use in the game remains clever from beginning to end, but it would've been nice to see more environmental puzzles.

About the only flaw one can levy against the title is a feature that scares you after your first fight. You're always destined to lose that initial skirmish, and the game warns you that every defeat means the darkness will take hold, as evidenced by the blackness of her right arm. Once that darkness reaches the head, the journey ends, and the game threatens to reset your progress. It can be a terrifying prospect since the game is a decent length, but the mechanic is something of a ruse. The dynamic difficulty is designed so that you're rarely in a situation where you'll die too often. In one instance, the arm rot receded when we died instead of progressing. Investigations done by people online suggest that the mechanic may exist, but unless you really work to activate it, the warning is a good motivator to elicit a good performance from you.

While the game features no other incentive to reply it outside of increased difficulty, it comes with a "making of" featurette, which is still a rarity in games nowadays. Instead of covering the technical parts of the game or the actors, the featurette covers how psychosis is used in the game and the lengths the developers went to for authenticity. It's a novel approach, but it would've been nice if the piece provided equal coverage of mental health research and the technical aspects of game development.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is an absolutely pleasant surprise. There may be only one kind of puzzle to tackle, but it never seems to get old, especially when the stages keep it fresh. The combat may not be as flashy as the developer's previous titles, but there's more than enough strategy to keep the combat challenging. What will keep this title in people's minds is the story's focus on mental illness that is respectable without making it a mere gimmick. Coupled with a truly stunning presentation, Hellblade is certainly a title worth playing.

Score: 9.0/10

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