Hellblade is the latest game from the creators of Heavenly Sword, Enslaved and the infamous Devil May Cry reboot; DmC. However, unlike their previous games’ emphasis on action and platforming, with Hellblade, Ninja Theory has decided to focus their latest efforts on narrative experience and less on fast-paced action gameplay which has historically been their core strength.
Since experimenting out of developers’ principal competence is a risk that rarely pays off in game development, the real question is whether Ninja Theory is able to course correct after the stylistic misstep of DmC, where the developers were specifically criticized for choices they made for story and characterizations.
Aside from its narrative focus, the risk taken by the developer with Hellblade holds even more true due it being planned as a hybrid budget title. Ninja Theory even released a statement calling Hellblade “an experiment in trying to break the mold, trying to rediscover the lost space in between indie and AAA.” and it certainly is that.
As a linear story focused action-adventure game, the main success of Hellbalde is that it is a good model for the current gaming industry, and a perfect example of a shorter game with AAA presentation and production values marketed on a smaller price point.
As mentioned before, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game squarely focused on showcasing a very specific narrative experience, and takes its story as the primary driving force for the gameplay, presentation and everything therein.
Set in the backdrop in the era of Vikings and Norse Mythology, the story of Hellblade follows Senua’s point of view, as she embarks on a harrowing journey towards underworld, and faces trials and tribulations that not only challenge her physically, but also strain her mind and grasp of reality.
The story takes the players on a ride that is less of an exciting adventure and more of a somber character study; a very personal tale of Senua dealing with loss, sorrow, regret, fear and pain. These feelings are all presented in-game, in a mix of abstract and literal interpretations from the visuals to the expressive actions of the main character dealing with her psychosis.
Hellblade’s narrative revolves around the premise of Psychosis, a compelling subject matter that is seldom touched in video games with seriousness or given its due. However, Ninja Theory gives the topic the respect it deserves, and consulted neuroscientists and trusts to properly capture the experience of psychosis and its effects on the human mind, and it clearly shows.
Throughout its story, Hellblade consistently focuses on the effects of Senua’s mental illness and her constant struggles with visions and voices that play on her insecurities. The player is made to feel her plight and share in her sorrow as her anguish is unraveled with each story thread.
All of this is realized through the implementation of motion and performance capture technology, the results of which are amazingly detailed face model, remarkably dynamic facial expressions and dazzlingly fluid facial animations.
However, what actually brings this tech to life is the brilliantly expressive and nuanced performance capture acting by Melina Juergens, which is made even more impactful by the fact that she, surprisingly, has no prior acting experience and started as a freelance video editor for Ninja Theory.
Complimenting her incredibly touching acting is the incredible achievement of her vocal performance, which captures every emotion going through Senua’s mind and the resulting despondent sighs, anxious breathing, nervous stutters and desperate screams; all organically come together to bring the digital performance to life.
Beyond the performance of its lead actress, Hellblade’s sound design comprises of sounds and noises that heighten the feeling of restless anxiety with sounds of droplets, drips, crackling fire, creaking wood as well as the slew of voices inside Senua’s head.
Whispering voices that populate Senua’s head offer both Context and Content, they not only provide the disturbing feeling of creeping and unnerving psychosis, but also organically provide hints and clue players in the right direction.
All of the above is beautifully brought together through the game’s 3D binaural sound design that goes a long way towards creating a haunting atmospheric effect that surrounds the player all throughout the game.
This atmospheric quality is not just limited to Hellblade’s audio and is also present in the game’s graphic design which demands the players to get immersed in its visuals that envelope the whole screen, unencumbered by any bars, meters, timers, maps, user-interfaces or HUDs.
Hellblade boasts amazing visuals that look on par with visual juggernauts like Order 1886 and Uncharted at a distance, however upon closer look the game lacks AAA level of polish in its textures, occasional camera clipping and lack of other minute environmental details.
However, for its price point, Hellblade is peerless when it comes to the production values of its visual presentation. The game features amazingly detailed character models, phenomenal lighting and fluid animations that are enhanced by close camera position that adds to the unease for the player, mimicking Senua’s claustrophobia and paranoia.
Hugues Giboire, the art director of Heavenly Sword, returns to work on Hellblade and delivers fantastic graphical fidelity and a dark and bleak art design that incorporates Nordic designs and runes to create a world made of desolate ruins, forests, beaches and marshes that are painted with a mix of vivid and washed out colours like Blood Reds, Algae Greens, Cloudy Blues, Burnt Yellows, Coffee Browns and Ashy Greys.
While it does contain its fair amount of battle encounters, combat is not the focus of Hellblade, and the game is fairly less action focused than any of the Ninja Theory’s previous games. Hellblade features a gameplay loop that comprises of exploring environment, opening closed paths via visual puzzles, partaking in sword combat and repeating it until the payer reaches the end-level boss.
The exploration gameplay element involves lots of walking and soaking in the environment and atmosphere in the game’s fairly linear level design. These walking segments of the game are usually book-ended with areas that block player progress by either spawning hoard of enemies or a hindering environmental puzzle.
Most of the puzzles in Hellblade incentivize the player to explore the environment, match certain Rune shapes with elements within the environments, as well as navigate illusions and perspective based non-Euclidean obstacles.
These visual puzzles are clever enough that they aren’t blatantly obvious, but never obtuse enough to frustratingly stump players for an extended amount of time.
There is a realistic weight to Senua’s movements, that not only deliberately slows the pace of exploration and puzzle segments but also carries over into the game’s combat mechanics.
Action in Hellblade is all blade on blade combat, that has a meaty feel to it, which is somewhat similar to Dark Souls, in that it requires precise hits while engaging one enemy at a time.
While the game features a fairly simplistic combat mechanics that allow player to mix dodge, block, parrying, quick and strong attacks, it has a raw and visceral feel to it; which combined with the weighty movements and close camera position, can become fairly unnerving and claustrophobic, and later on, quite chaotic and overwhelming.
However, despite its positive qualities, combat in Hellbade can become fairly repetitive, which is in no small part due to the game’s extremely limited enemy variety. This is further exasperated by the fact that, near the end, Hellbalde starts padding the game with excessive number of waves after wavers of enemies, that completely ruins the flow of the game.
Hellblade’s atmospheric somber journey takes around 7-9 hours to complete; and while the game could have done without the repetitive combat padding in its later levels, on the whole it is able to provide an extremely satisfying gameplay and narrative experience.
Although the game does feature collectables in shape of Rune stones, that explain lore and unlock extra story content upon completion, Hellblade is ultimately an unabashedly linear experience. While this linearity limits its replay value, it also allows the developers to carve out an impactful experience that binds together it’s puzzles, its environments and its story under the thread of its core theme.
The main protagonist’s psychosis is so well integrated into the fabric of this game that it organically permeates from its narrative into Hellblade’s gameplay mechanics, where Senua’s visions link with the game’s visual puzzles, while the voices in her head lead to in-game hints and clues.
Hellblade also uses this theme of encroaching psychosis to create tension and real stakes for the player, with an explicit threat of perma-death and erasure total and all in-game progress after an unrevealed amount of failures. It is a pretty clever in-game threat, that explicitly puts the player in the shoes of the character and perfectly mimics Senua’s predicament.
It is these little things, the attention to detail and the resolve to take these risky choices, that elevate Hellblade from a routine adventure game to a quality experience that might even be worth the price of admission at full $60 price point. However, as a $30 game, Hellblade is absolutely worth a look for anyone interested in a deep and haunting cinematic gameplay experience.
To be fair, Hellblade is definitely not an experience that would appeal to the mass audience. Unlike most games, Hellblade is not a game about player empowerment. it does not offer fast paced combat, it doesn’t contain bright colourful environments and doesn’t offer any loot or powerups.
Despite all that, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is exactly the shot in the arm that the current game industry needs. It is creepy, ambiguous and unflinchingly sincere in depicting its unconventional theme, a much-needed type of game that focuses on tackling riskier concepts and providing a streamlined experience that sacrifices length and variety, to guarantee a quality cinematic experience at a budget price.