Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice PC, PS4
Much has been sacrificed here, although it shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Created by a team of just 20 and self-published, Ninja Theory was always putting itself in a tricky position with Hellblade. Its intentions were noble: to make a game centered around the still-taboo subject of mental illness. Bolstered by the studio’s trademark graphical flair, smooth thirdperson hack-and-slash combat and a reduced price point, the aim was to revive the ‘double-A’ game in a meaningful way. Unfortunately Ninja Theory is so focused on its novel, in-game portrayal of psychosis that it has forgotten to build a decent game around it.
It is undoubtedly well-meaning. Novice actress Melina Juergens turns in an excellent performance as psychotic protagonist Senua, who has a truly harrowing time of it. Senua’s first death is a particularly awful experience. The combination of Ninja Theory’s mocap work and Juergens’ nerve-shredding shrieks makes Suena’s demise feel uncomfortably real, and more than justifies the pre-game warning screen. Startup disclaimers are nothing new, but here players are consenting to put themselves in a state of psychological distress, especially given one of the main mechanics is an approximation of what it’s like to suffer audiovisual hallucinations. Using 3D binaural sound, mocking whispers swirl back and forth inside the headset almost constantly while you are controlling Senua.
Ninja Theory has worked with neuroscience and psychology experts to recreate what it feels like to hear voices, and its implementation, even without a frame of reference, is deeply affecting. The voices are not always talking to Senua, sometimes merely about her: hissing spitefully about her inadequacies as a warrior, a daughter, a lover. If you’re struggling to finish a puzzle, there’s a sting as they chuckle at your slowness; sometimes they deign to give you helpful clues. In combat, they recommend you block a blow, dodge, or back away, and when we catch ourselves wishing aloud that they would pipe down, it’s clear that Ninja Theory has achieved the desired effect.
If only the rest of the game could meet that bar. There are, barring a couple of weak exceptions, only two kinds of puzzle. Opening doors sealed by runic shapes involves using a zoomed-in Focus ability to find and line up the shapes with matching environmental objects – tree branches, architecture, shadows and so on. The process is clumsily introduced, cast in darkness and dependent on backtracking. With no tutorial to speak of, we solve it accidentally.
The second kind is more inventive – not that that’s saying much – and concerns illusion: circular gates that reveal invisible walkways once looked through, perhaps, or Focusing in the right spot to align translucent shards and create a path. Both kinds are insufferable by game’s end, repeated endlessly with little in the way of expansion or variety. The logic behind them is simple. The execution of them is anything but: unreadable level design and terrible signposting thwart us at every turn.
The combat, fluid as it first seems, suffers the same problem. Unaided, you must work out the controls by yourself, though the system is minimal enough that it works: there are light and heavy attacks, a dodge, a close-up melee, and a block. It’s all responsive, sure, and some experimental mashing yields gruesome combos. Against enemies acting alone or in small groups, it’s fine, stick flicks moving the auto-locked camera between them and any ambushes a consequence of your own bad positioning. Enemy attacks have huge wind-ups, and the AI baddies politely take turns. Yet when larger mobs arrive, things quickly become infuriating. Wrangling the camera is impossible: you’re unable to unlock the view, and it will autoswitch to whichever enemy hit you last, leaving you disoriented and without adequate control over or escape from a 360-degree attack. Hellblade’s way of increasing difficulty is to throw more of the same grunts at you in increasingly populated, tedious and exasperating encounters. All is made particularly terrifying by a gimmick revealed early on: die too many times throughout the game, and the rot in Senua’s arm will reach her head, whereupon it is game over and all progress is wiped. Perhaps this is merely an attempt to induce paranoia in the player; we don’t plan on sticking around long enough to find out.
And that’s your lot, over and over, for eight hours. Perhaps a second run might make more sense of the incomprehensible story, a scattered tale spanning Norse mythology and personal grief that tries to be significant but ends up approaching parody at the close. Most disappointingly, the relatively brief runtime struggles to support Hellblade’s sole inspiration, Senua’s psychosis. Despite apparently going to great lengths to avoid cliché, too much of Hellblade’s depiction of Senua’s affliction takes the form of lengthy stretches of our hero kneeling with head in hands screaming, looking at autonomous doppelgangers in mirrors, and chief antagonist Hela repeating the same vague lines about ‘the darkness inside’. Even the hallucinations grow tired and schlocky by the second hour, the two well-spoken female voices relaxing into a rhythm of stating the blindingly obvious and helping you out in puzzles. Ultimately what was intended as a thoughtful depiction of a terrible mental illness has ended up casting it as something of an asset: a helpful superpower that can give you the strength to soldier on through the darkness, so long as you can put up with the odd breakdown here and there. That, we suspect, was not what Ninja Theory intended. It’s certainly not what we had hoped for.
Here players are consenting to put themselves in a state of psychological distress