This is the era of the cinematic video game. Crisp gameplay is no longer enough; games must also now be paired with hyper-real visuals and rich, intricate storylines. Some games even go as far as hiring and visually recreating famous movie actors and actresses to bring their characters to life. Even with this elevated playing field, a gem or two does sometimes rise up and shine as something truly special. For me, Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has some of the characteristics necessary to be considered one of those gems.
The game opens with a warning screen which also serves as something of a boast: Senua, the protagonist and title character, suffers from severe psychosis. Both medical professionals and people who suffer from psychosis in real life have helped to shape the way that Senua portrays this illness. And the results are as beautiful as they are truly unsettling.
If there is any one thing that Hellblade masters, it is atmosphere. The visuals are always beautiful, dark and entirely immersive. The world constantly shifts around you, distorting your view from haunting to hellish and back again. Senua herself is amazingly expressive and believable. It is hard not to put oneself in her shoes, and that is a terrifying position to take. The audio is more impressive still. Headphones are a must. From the opening sequence on, intrusive voices burst out from seemingly every direction to taunt and question the player. Aside from being a major key to setting the atmosphere for the game, the voices also serve to carry the player through the story. The character voice acting is equally amazing. This mix of aesthetic appeal and functionality is hard to accomplish, but Hellblade certainly does it.
Visuals and storytelling are definitely important, but gameplay matters, too. This is where Hellblade might fall short for some gamers. Combat is spaced out between long periods of storytelling and puzzle solving, and though the story remains gripping, the puzzles quickly become repetitive. The combat suffers from this same predictability and repetitiveness. For the first few fights, the game’s visuals and some crisp and exciting combat animations are enough to get one by, but by the end of the game I was becoming a little bored of familiar enemies and a predictable, drawn out dodge and counterattack formula. I found myself pushing through combat in order to get back to the cutscenes, rather than the more typical reverse situation. These issues, coupled with some sporadic major FPS drops, made the game feel like it was dragging at times. However, the game includes an interesting corruption mechanic which punishes players for dying, in or out of combat. If the player dies enough times, their save is wiped and they must start over entirely. This added pressure helped combat remain somewhat tense throughout the game, especially during the boss fights.
As a cinematic experience, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is truly exceptional. As a game, however, there are some rough patches. That being said, I believe that the good far outweighs the bad with this title. For its masterful take on psychosis, or even the gripping voice acting of Melina Juegens’ Senua alone, this is definitely one worth checking out.
Here is the Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Video:
Hellblade is available for PS4 and PC on Steam.