Ninja Theory’s latest hack and slash action game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is not your usual brawler, as it successfully melds brutal melee combat with a compelling story of a young, Celtic woman suffering from damaging psychosis. It’s a strange and unforgiving journey through the fractured mind of a warrior and the dangerous world around her, and while not every gameplay element found in the game works as great as it should, the sum of its parts makes for a worthy adventure that everyone should check out.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Developed and published by Ninja Theory
Available on the PC and PS4.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tells the story of the titular warrior Senua, as she journeys through the land of Hel in search for the soul of a loved one named Dillion, while being plagued by harrowing voices, peculiar visions, and mysterious foes that torture her relentlessly throughout her quest. It’s an uncomfortable but illuminating examination into the mind of a person suffering from psychosis, and while it’s set in the Viking age – a place full of swordplay and savagery, it’s still presented with accuracy thanks to the consultation of a group of neuroscientists, professionals and people who have the condition. It’s not your typical adventure narration for sure, but the constant barrage of voices, strange imagery, and Senua’s palpable suffering make for a powerful, engaging and often frightening tale that will keep players going to see how it all ends and questioning what is real and what is not.
The game is also made better thanks to the superb visuals and excellent sound, which round out the presentation nicely. It’s definitively one of Ninja Theory’s best looking titles to date, with beautiful and realistic character designs – especially Senua and her haunting facial expressions, excellent environments and terrific lighting. The sound is also spectacular, presenting a unique binaural system to realistically convey the many voices that Senua hears during her journey, which assault players from all directions. It’s terribly effective, and perfectly conveys what Senua experiences with psychosis as she quests for the soul of her loved one, making for a memorable experience that lingers even after the game is done.
The game itself is a third-person adventure that blends short brutal combat sections with stretches of exploration and puzzle solving as Senua makes her journey through foreign lands. The experience is pretty linear and isn’t too complicated with straightforward gameplay, though some elements are as good as others.
The combat is definitively the highlight of the game, presenting visceral and brutal third-person melee fighting as Senua fights off relentless masked attackers with a sword in hand in closed-off areas. Senua can attack with a quick strike, heavy blow or melee attack to deal damage, dodge and block to get away from enemies or protect from incoming blows, as well as use a slowly charging ability to slow down time in order to gain the edge in battle. The game doesn’t really tell you how to fight, but instead forces you to learn by experience as you face off against mysterious, skull-wearing enemies that require different tactics to overcome, rewarding players with a sense of growth as they master the mechanics. Fighting one on one isn’t all that challenging as players quickly learn to strike and parry blows, but soon enough players will face off against more than one attacker, and must learn how to control space to overcome the odds as well as how to parry and focus at the right time to maximize offense and survive. It’s fun and it’s constantly challenging as new enemy types arrive to slay Senua, and I always felt like a badass as I faced increasingly difficult odds and emerged the victor.
The exploration and puzzle elements on the other hand are a bit hit and miss. While exploring the ruins of a mysterious land full of forests and Viking architecture is eye-candy, it occasionally gets boring as players run forward to get to the next fight. This holds true especially during the beginning of the game, though it does improve towards the end of the game when there’s a bit more variety. The same applies to the game’s puzzles, which mostly rely on players seeking to replicate Celtic runes and symbols that lock the path forward by searching the immediate area for shapes that are similar and focusing on them. These puzzles break up the pace by giving players a break from the combat – which is nice since they’re often tense, and while they do tie into the plot, they often feel like they were added to extend the game’s length. The game does feature other puzzles and scenarios that are more varied and are actually some of the best sequences in the game, but they happen mostly during the latter half and appear less often then the rune matching sections.
While not every element found in the game is perfect, there’s still plenty to love in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and it should satisfy both fans of action games and intellectual adventures. The story does a fantastic job at offering a new perspective on an often neglected subject, and the action in the game is superb, presenting brutal melee combat that’s both a pleasure to play and watch. Though it might not hit the mark with the repetitive rune puzzles or occasionally boring exploration, Ninja Theory’s latest is still an incredible journey that should be experienced as soon as possible.