Do you like great games? Do you like hearing someone ramble on about a great game that came out over half a year ago? Well you may just be in the right place. Ladies and gentlemen, my late review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
After finishing this game the other day (a day or two before I started writing this review), I felt a way I don’t recall ever feeling after playing a game. Ever. The game had an actual impact on me, and a big one at that. I went in with high expectations and after playing it, those expectations seem like insults. Anyway, let’s get into why I feel so strongly about this game.
I’m going to start with the only big negative that comes to mind for me — because I’m pessimistic like that — and that is definitely the length. It’s a very, very short game. In itself, a short game isn’t bad, of course, but if you’re one to look at how much time you get out of your money when buying games, the 6-ish hours (maybe 8 if you’re particularly bad at puzzles, like myself) this game provides will likely make you hesitant to drop £25 on it. It should be said, however, that the story doesn’t suffer here like it does in some other shorter campaigns such as in the Battlefront 2 reboot. Ninja Theory did a great job at telling their story with every moment you spend in the incredible dark and dreary world they have created here.
Now for the positives! I think I’ll start with the backbone of the game: story. The story this game tells is probably the best I’ve ever experienced. Be it video games, movies, TV shows, my limited knowledge of books, whatever; I have never experienced a better story than the one in this game. It really hit me harder than any piece of storytelling ever has. Without spoiling anything, the way the plot unravels is just incredibly satisfying. You are first introduced to the protagonist, Senua, as she is rowing through a dark river with a multitude of dead bodies coming in and out of sight, while being barraged by voices, as she goes on her way as if she didn’t really care. They were just a mild nuisance to her. It shows she is almost desensitized by it, which tells us that she’s had psychosis for quite a long time now and has eventually gotten used to it. As the story progresses and it starts to get more intense, however, you see her start to be more and more effected by it. The voices are integral to the experience too. Besides providing a creative way to develop Senua as a character, expressing her deeper thoughts, fears and emotions, they actually give you the occasional hand in gameplay, warning you when an enemy is about to attack you from behind and just pointing out things that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. To make sure I don’t spoil anything, I won’t talk about the story anymore, but if a brilliant, meaningful story is what you’re after in a game, this will not disappoint you one bit. That’s a promise.
The gameplay is arguably the most important part of video games. They can make an otherwise awful game great fun and an otherwise incredible game almost unplayable. In Senua’s Sacrifice there was no such problem. The gameplay was split into two parts. There is combat and there are puzzles, usually in the form of symbols hidden through the level which you have to find, both of which are a joy to do.
The game leans a bit more on the puzzle side and it’s clear to see why. While I believe the combat in the game would hold up in a good action game, the euphoria of figuring out how to line up that one symbol you just couldn’t find is simply unbeatable as far as small bursts of satisfaction go. Throughout your playthrough you will also encounter what I guess would be described as portals, which change different aspects of the world around you. For example, say there’s a fallen down tree in your path. You would have to find a portal and when you go through it, the level looks exactly the same except now the tree never fell. It sounds simple, but I still don’t know how the devs did it the way they did. Besides from that, there are also shard-like, floating objects that have segments of an alternate level on them that you might have to line up to repair a bridge or something along those lines. The game really approaches the puzzle genre with novel ideas, which is refreshing because puzzles tend to break the immersion of games.
As far as the combat goes, there isn’t really much to say. It’s incredibly fun, but it isn’t really all that new. Its essentially The Witcher 3 but a little slower, and with a couple features sprinkled in that make it stand out a bit. I used both heavy and light attacks, which I rarely do in games. I also enjoyed the deflect mechanic and dodging; stunning and charging worked as expected. The only thing I haven’t seen in a video game’s combat system before was the way they implemented the focus ability. You charge up this ability as you fight, and when you use it, it makes certain enemies attackable (which isn’t always possible straight away) and it also puts your enemies into slow motion, making your attacks far quicker. It isn’t a revolutionary system by any means, but the combat is fun — particularly towards the end — and makes for a great distraction from the puzzles.
The world within a game can, and usually does, have a huge affect on the way you play. In this case, there are usually obstacles that slow you down as you are trying to solve a puzzle, making you more concerned about what you do and where you go because it is frustrating to slowly backtrack to where you came from because you didn’t notice something. As far as actual aesthetic goes, the fact that you are inside the metaphorical interpretation of the mind of someone with a mental illness is made very clear (although the literal interpretation would be that you’re in Helheim). The world is usually dark and foggy, with swamps, forests and fiery areas that are rarely ever replaced with joyful landscapes unless Senua’s own mind is taunting her. Throughout the game you will see many brilliant visual descriptions of the mind of someone with mental health problems, or more specifically, psychosis. The extremely artistic approach to world building is something very rarely seen in gaming, but it is done very well here.
A few quick notes before I conclude the review: It tells you at the start of the game that there is a perma-death mechanic after you die a certain amount of times and, while I managed to get through the game without being put back to the start, I definitely felt the tension and I personally believe it added to the experience; you should definitely wear headphones while playing this game (binaural audio); and finally, every aspect of audio is very effective, most notably the background music in the final mission.
So those were my thoughts on Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I enjoyed this game so much I actually wanted to write about it. That is very rare for me, at least when it comes to positive thoughts about something. I highly recommend you play this masterpiece as soon as possible if you haven’t already. If you want a score, assuming 5/10 was average, this would be a 9.5/10 for me, and while I can’t promise you will enjoy the game as much as I did, I genuinely struggled to find a problem with it except for it’s length, which doesn’t bother me personally. I know how easy it’d be to write this off as an overreaction, but I spent a long time trying to think of negatives for this game, and even after that, I still felt the same way. This is the best game I have ever played.