HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE
Disappointing dark-ages odyssey isn’t sharp enough
Reality bites, and illusion strikes back, in this psychological adventure through Viking hell.
When was the last time you questioned what you’re seeing? Because for all its faults, Hellblade can conjure moments where reality feels like a loose concept. Perspective is the key to this frustrating Norse adventure, whether it’s trying to understand the fragmented psyche of the titular character or just figuring out which hulking Viking warrior is clubbing you from behind. At the centre of the story is Senua, who is on a journey into the mythological Norse land of Helheim, struggling to save the soul of her beloved. It’s a simple set-up made fascinating by the portrayal of her psychosis. In both obvious and subtle ways, we’re shown how the condition affects the warrior, from the voices she hears in her head to the way she views the world.
For the first few hours, inhabiting Senua’s mind is a successfully disconcerting experience. What could have been a relatively simple journey through an imposing landscape becomes arduous and appropriately daunting, as voices chatter away constantly. Some advise, others chastise, but all put you on edge as they whisper ominously. They certainly help bring an unusual (and respectful) flavour to the more standard elements that make up the action.
These include puzzle solving, which takes up the bulk of your attention. Putting the focus on finding hidden symbols to open locked doors, they play like a simpler version of Batman’s Riddler perspective puzzles. Sometimes you’ll
need to find a shadow on a wall, and at other points you’ll need to line up the environment.
While a few later stages add interesting wrinkles to the process (a personal favourite sees you dip in and out of different versions of the same area), it’s a basic concept that has you searching for meaning in the world around you. As a representation of psychosis it works, but as a puzzle mechanic it’s inconsistent. Sometimes it’s too simple to be satisfying, leaving you feeling like you’re doing busy work for the sake of it and at other times it’s a little too obtuse, as you wander around an environment until you stumble onto what you’re meant to find.
The other main element is fighting the Norsemen who populate Helheim. Considering the pedigree Ninja Theory has for combat, it’s surprising how sparingly it’s used in the early stages. A pared-down system which puts the focus on timing, there’s a mean heft to duels as you chip away against imposing warriors. Note the use of the world ‘duel’ there. When fighting one-onone, this system sings, but the more enemies you tackle, the more the flaws in it rise to the surface, as it becomes hard to keep track of who you’re meant to be fighting.
While the unsettling power of Senua’s voices initially glosses over any flaws, they lose that disquieting quality when you realise they’re also a crutch to aid you. To immerse you in the journey, Ninja Theory’s done away with any on-screen information and tutorials. To help communicate concepts, the voices pick up some of the slack. They’ll draw your attention to shadows that might solve a puzzle or enemies that are about to attack you throughout. The tension they create dissolves to indifference as you try to parse what’s useful and what isn’t.
While the depiction of psychosis is admirable, considerate, and well-handled, (if slightly flawed) there’s no doubting this is a technical triumph. From the realistic details on Senua, where you can see the paint cracking on her skin, to the motion capture that allows actor Melina Juergens’ powerhouse performance to shine, this proves a small studio can capture the look of a AAA blockbuster.
Plus, it’s backed up with appealingly grim and grotty art design. Whether it’s a burning tree with bodies hung from the branches or a particularly gnarly-looking corpse, there are images that’ll stick with you long after the credits roll.
The main problem stems from the fact that all the beautiful design is in service of an inconsistent adventure. The intrigue and distinctiveness help make up for the flaws in the first two acts, but not in the third. The later stages suffer from the way the difficulty escalates in increasingly frustrating ways.
“THERE’S A MEAN HEFT TO DUELS AS YOU CHIP AWAY AGAINST WARRIORS.”
The level design’s occasional obtuseness becomes more of a problem as areas you are meant to find become harder to spot. The story suffers as disjointed elements are added to Senua’s backstory, muddying it and reducing the emotional impact. Combat takes a terrible turn into crowd control. Early fights test you by pitting you against one or two enemies, but by the end you’re fighting in cramped spaces against overwhelming waves of them. It’s a sad slog, and it stings that it could have been so much more.
HELL AND FLAK
There’s a common factor in these problems, and it’s the fact Ninja Theory just keeps chucking more at you. There’s enough variety in the key systems early on, but that disappears for the second half’s maddening puzzling and numbing crowd combat. Add on the scattered story pieces that struggle to coalesce and there’s a bloat to these important aspects that eventually wears you out.
Maybe that’s why Hellblade is much easier to appreciate than it is to play. From the unique development process that’s brought a higher production value to indie games to tackling themes that most forms of media seem to avoid, its success would send a welcome message. But the goodwill generated by certain areas isn’t enough to compensate for the stretches that disappoint. While there are moments that achieve what Ninja Theory set out to do, they’re few enough that it’s hard to recommend Hellblade without serious caveats.
For all its good intentions and moments of skin-crawling tension, the areas it impresses in aren’t as important as the ones it doesn’t. Ultimately, it leaves you hollow. Ben Tyrer
INFO FORMAT PS4 ETA OUT NOW PUB NINJA THEORY DEV NINJA THEORY
Right We’re not entirely convinced this isn’t a heavy metal album cover.
Left Dangling bodies are a visual motif throughout Senua’s hellish journey.
Above Large bosses, like The Beast here, require more concentration to defeat.
Right Senua’s visions are naturally woven into the story in an unobtrusive fashion.
Above We can’t argue this isn’t a visually arresting experience.