The idea of an “independent triple-A” game is quite obviously an oxymoron, but still Ninja Theory make a convincing attempt at it with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. A triple-A game by definition is created by a massive developer and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. Ninja Theory is attempting to break the mold by creating an experience that feels like a triple-A title, but was cheaper to create, cheaper to purchase, and is a shorter and more focused experience. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice could easily be passed off as a niche triple-A title with its stunning visuals and production value. I really support Ninja Theory’s efforts as the industry seems to only focus on triple-A and indie games, so few games are released between these polar opposite designations. I would love to see more games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice that are not cheap little indie games but are not massive and sprawling triple-A titles, a happy medium would be appreciated. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a narrative-driven hack-and-slash which details the experience of Senua, a Celtic warrior who suffers from psychosis.
It is evident right from the beginning of the game that mental health plays a key role in this game. Senua hears whispering voices in her head at all times, these voices gossip about Senua and occasionally aid or discourage her journey. The player is actually described as one of the voices that guides her. It is imperative that if you play this game you must play with a binaural headset, as these voices are critical to building tension and immersion to the experience. Not only does Senua hear voices, but it is apparent that much of the game is played in Senua’s mind. What she is fighting is often not real, and she visuals terrible imagery as a result of her psychosis. I would describe the game as a psychological-thriller, tons of unsettling atmosphere and a constant sense of dread are instilled by Senua’s psychosis.
Moreover, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is undoubtably a dark game due to the nature of its content. Horrifying depictions created by the mind of Senua make it clear that this game is not for the faint-hearted or squeamish. Senua journeys through Helheim, the Norse version of Hell to save the soul of her beloved. She fights gods and foul creatures alike as she journeys through Helheim. The game has a heavy emphasis on Norse mythology, and I quite liked how some classic Norse tales are dictated to the player as you travel through the world. It may be just a small thing, but I really did enjoy hearing accounts about Sigurd, Odin, Thor, and the rest as I walked from place to place. Furthermore, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterclass in immersion. There is no heads-up-display (HUD) like in most games, there are no obvious tutorials, there are no button prompts, the only thing on the screen is Senua. Even the default difficulty in the game is “auto”, meaning that if you play well it automatically gets harder and if you play poorly it gets easier. Nobody has to mess around with the difficulty settings, you just play the game out and it will find the appropriate level of challenge for you. All of this combined with the psychological themes in the game made me really feel like I was actually one of the voices accompanying Senua. It is very easy to get immersed in the world, the atmosphere, voices, imagery, and lack of HUD really make the experience engrossing.
It is obvious that the gameplay was not the main focus of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It is primarily meant to be an immersive, artsy, and narrative experience. The motif of Senua conquering her “darkness” may be a little heavy-handed at times, but for the most part the game hits the mark. Where it falls flat a little is in the gameplay department. Combat is initially a little slow as you get used to the controls, but as the game progresses it quickly ramps up. Your swings and strikes feel properly weighted and the controls are very responsive and easy to learn. The voices even play a big part in combat as they warn the player when an enemy is attacking you from behind, allowing you to dodge or parry and enemy that you did not initially see. Everything feels fluid and intense, and this is complimented by the pure spectacle of the combat. Loads of visual effects and beautiful animations accompany your attacks, making the whole experience engrossing. The issue is that the combat is not very deep, there are only a few enemy types and you mostly fight every enemy the same way. Once you master parrying no enemy could possibly pose a threat to you, and eventually the combat becomes tiresome and repetitive. Towards the end of the game, there are long and drawn-out sections of combat that feel like you are fighting an endless wave of enemies. By this point, the excitement of combat had worn off and it felt like a slog to battle my way through hundreds of copy-pasted enemies over and over again. This could have been solved if more complex enemies were introduced towards the end of the game, because by the half-way point I felt like I had seen everything the game had to offer in combat.
The other aspect of gameplay are the puzzles. Most of the time progression is blocked by some form of puzzle. Sometimes you had to find a specific rune shape by lining up environmental objects. For example, aligning some trees and houses to create a “M” shape. Other puzzles include walking through magical gateways in the right order. Or finding a way to create a bridge by looking at it from a certain perspective. Generally, these puzzles were not great, but they were inoffensive. They are not particularly hard and they require very little thinking. For the most part I did not hate these puzzles, but I was not really in love with them either. Towards the end of the game the puzzles actually got somewhat interesting, but mostly the puzzles felt like filler. Apart from puzzling and fighting, the main thing you will be doing in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is walking. This is a narrative heavy game and plays as such. If you want constant action and are not okay with just soaking in the environment, atmosphere, and emotions that the game provides than this game is not for you.
All in all, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does precisely what it set out to do. It is a visually stunning game that could be passed off as a triple-A title, and it tells a surreal and twisted story about a woman suffering from psychosis. It is easily one of the most immersive games I played, and its atmosphere was captivating. While it does struggle a bit from the gameplay perspective, it does not significantly drag down the experience. Both the combat and the puzzles are passable, and at the very least are not frustrating. While I wish they both offered more depth as the game went on, they were not offensively bad either. For these reasons I give Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice an 8/10. It is an enthralling experience that portrays the effects of psychosis and grief on the mind of a Celtic warrior.