Hellblade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice

Not-so-heav­enly sword

PCPOWERPLAY - - Review -

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

High Lord Wol­nir on va­ca­tion from the Dark Souls 3 cat­a­combs.

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