Hell­blade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice PC, PS4

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Ninja The­ory For­mat PC, PS4 (tested) Re­lease Out now

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

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