Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
DEVELOPER NINJA THEORY PUBLISHER NINJA THEORY PRICE US$ 30 AVAILABLE AT STEAM, GOG, HUMBLE hellblade.com
Hellblade is a bold departure for UK developer Ninja Theory, a deeply atmospheric narrative-driven adventure that sidelines the studio’s traditional emphasis on fluid and stylish combat in favour of immersing you in the mind of its lead character. Hellblade is a misstep for UK developer Ninja Theory, a messy mish-mash of genres whose repetitious mechanics fail to satisfy or support a confusing and, for all its displays of emotion, oddly uninvolving story.
Senua looks like a 2017 video game action hero. She’s lean and taut, dreadlocked and face-painted. She physically resembles Aloy from PS4 game Horizon: Zero Dawn, but mostly in a way that highlights how female leads are still few and far between when it comes to action games.
Despite the default third-person over-the-shoulder camera, you see a lot of Senua’s face over the course of the 4-5 hour game. And it’s quite a face. In stills it looks quite realistic and is a great showcase for Ninja Theory’s continued ability to make games that look really really good. During the plentiful cutscenes Senua often turns to face the camera - often, in fact, turns to look directly at you, as if she somehow knows you’re watching her. No, it’s not real, there’s no one there. The performance is raw; rage, desperation and fear all vying to be the thing that pushes her over the edge. Those dead eyes, though, that slack-jawed mouth. Once you notice them much of the tension dissipates.
Senua is making a journey to hell and, hopefully, back. She’s getting a crib note version of Norse mythology. She’s there to avenge lay to rest memorialise
rage, desperation and fear all vying to be the trhing that pushes her over the edge
her dead lover kill the bastards who did this rip asunder the very foundations of Valhalla destroy every last fucking god she can find. She’ll stop at nothing. Turn back.
Her journey consists of a lot of walking. There’s a jog button. Senua walks through a series of vaguely Nordic environments solving puzzles to open the artificial doors that block her progress, fighting the occasional group of enemies, and listening to the voices in her head. Don’t listen to them. No, I must. You can’t do this. I have to. Just a little further. Follow the fire.
Though initially alarming, Senua’s competing internal monologues cancel each other out in their bid to keep you second guessing yourself. They occupy this weird spot that’s part affecting insight into her state of mind and part exhausting background noise I sometimes found myself tuning out.
The puzzles test your ability to observe the world around you. For the most part they’re simple enough they’re too easy. Early on you’ll encounter a door locked by a runic symbol, for example a vertical line crossed at its midpoint by a shorter, slightly angled line. Somewhere in the surrounding location back down the path no the other way, over the bridge maybe from a certain vantage point that tree stump and that branch there it is, inside the hut, the missing planks in the wall. Find the rune in the wild and the door will magically open.
Later puzzles get more complex just
barely and add variation, such as the portals that alter the landscape was
that bridge there before? when you walk through them from a certain direction. The pattern remains, though: find a door, determine the puzzle type then backtrack through the area you just traversed and pay close attention to the environment, rinse and repeat. The puzzles tend to feel too gamey out of
place in a way that doesn’t sit with the internal drama of Senua’s journey and they never threaten to make you think outside the box, just follow the dots. Look out! There are enemies, too. I can’t do this, I can’t beat them. A few times each area Senua will encounter a handful of enemies to dispatch. They come in waves, at first one at a time then later two and even later more. Senua’s got a fast attack, a heavy attack, a block, a dodge and a sort of kick that pushes enemies away or breaks their guard. The camera pulls in extremely close for these fights too close making it impossible to see where are
they? behind you. Often the only cue you’re given of an incoming attack is the voice in your head telling you look behind you didn’t you just say that?
Surprisingly, Senua is not the most agile warrior. Her dodge barely seems to move her out of the way of a swinging sword, but Hellblade’s combat is just a case of timing. Hit the dodge button
not yet no, that was too soon wait for it at the right time and she’ll shrug off the incoming blow regardless of the sluggish animation. Button mashing the attacks in between dodges will do the trick wait
was that a combo? and there’s a focus meter that lets you button mash in slowmotion once built up. There are a few bosses, too, whose expanded movesets you’ll need to learn okay I need to dodge
this attack and when he crouches like
that he’s going to jump and I need to be there to punish him when he lands.
After the first fight Senua contracts a curse in her right hand. The game implies threatens that the curse will spread through her body with each death and you will die until it reaches her head at which point her quest will be over. Then just in case you didn’t get the message are you stupid? text appears on screen to state that your save game will be deleted if you die too many times. Don’t die, don’t die I can’t, I can’t get up, Senua no I won’t let it happen. It lends each combat encounter a tension that the actual fighting mechanics fail to deliver. It’s an illusion. But what if it’s not? It’s a trick don’t trust it. Maybe you’re already dead? With medicore puzzles and combat, Hellblade is left to rely on its story its
art direction its harrowing audio Senua herself. I won’t lie: I wanted to know what happens. I never really connected with Senua’s goal but I wanted to know why she was willing to put herself through all this to get there. DAVID WILDGOOSE