A long time ago, years now in fact I played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and I found it pretty engaging and also quite beautiful. Ninja Theory, the company behind Enslaved and other games like Devil May Cry and Heavenly Sword have produced Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. I recently finished Hellblade and it made quite an impact on me so I'm here as always to tell you about it in a long winded and probably grammatically incorrect manner. Stick with me to find out my thoughts.
Hellblade is extraordinarily interesting and it sucked me in right away. Senua, the protagonist of the title, is a woman who is on a quest to go to Helheim, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology, to bring back the soul of her lost love. In a nutshell, that's the plot. And before you say something like, 'Just another Dante's Inferno or God of War revenge story' --It's definitely not.
There are going to be spoilers in this review guys, I'm sorry I just can't talk in depth at all about this game without spilling some details here and there. I'm going to try and keep it as minimal as possible and I won't give away anything that will break your experience. However if you don't want to read on I completely understand. I stayed away from reviews and videos as soon as I knew what this was and I'm glad I did. Let me just say that I fully recommend Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Understand though that Senua suffers multiple forms of psychosis and that is present, always. The splash screen even includes a warning about that and a link to find out more about mental health. With that in mind please go play this game and experience it for yourself. Otherwise read on.
Every Good Story Needs a Hook
Hellblade opens with a camera shot over the shoulder of a woman on a simple dugout canoe slowly paddling though a dense fog. The voice of a lady narrator whispers seemingly right in my ear and introduces the woman as Senua. She tells me that Senua's story has already taken place. That she has come to Hel where the drowned, the sick and the slain lie rotting the rivers and fields. That the dead don't always lie still in Hel, it isn't a place of rest. Further exclaiming that I may think Senua is brave to make this journey by herself, but bravery only means something to those afraid of death. I've paraphrased here but that's the background I got to set up the location and a basic feel for Senua herself. That drew me in close, literally I was on the edge of my seat. Then control was given to me and I began to hear voices.
The voices are actually present during the opening narration, but I just took it as a part of that narration. I soon noticed that Senua must suffer from a form of schizophrenia. I am not a psychologist, for the record, and I don't intend any kind of actual medical diagnosis for her character. So don't judge me, this is just from what I gather in my own personal knowledge. These voices are all around and I recommend playing Hellblade with a good set of surround sound headphones to feel that effect. They ingrained themselves so deeply and fully: asking questions, giving advice, sowing discontent, even arguing with each other and I started relying on them to be there. I came to my first ladder after walking a beach with unbelievably realistic lapping waves, I'll go into them later, and to my right was a voice saying I should climb, on the left was a voice saying -no it's too dangerous, again on the right was a question -Senua what's up there?. I loved having them with me.
Then suddenly they were gone. And guys it was weird not having five people in my head judging my actions. Soon, a vision of an old friend -Druth, a long gone Irish captive of the Northmen begins to tell Senua stories of Norse mythology. Of gods and heroes and their trials and agrees to continue as long as he can join Senua on her journey. He serves as a story teller, voice of reason and a sort of early tutorial helper.
I came to a gate with a futhark rune and there was sudden burst of color. A voice told me to find it's shape to open the gate and soon I realized that Senua must also have Synesthesia. Images of this rune dance around the screen while flashes of reds and blues guide me in the direction I need to go to discover the shape of the rune binding the gate.
Some characters stand out in video games. Witcher 3 has Geralt, Yen, Triss, pretty much everybody for that matter and they're so well written that they feel like real people. The newest iterations of the Tomb Raider series has Lara Croft growing from a scared shipwrecked college student to a determined and brave, badass explorer adventurer. Senua develops so brilliantly as Hellblade progresses that I felt myself relating to her struggle. Her problems felt like my problems. She is determined to succeed no matter the cost; gods and demons be damned.
It's worth mentioning here that her psychosis is not the typical "insane" depiction you've seen in other stories. Ninja Theory consulted with neuroscientists and people who have experienced their own mental health diagnoses and as a result Senua is a deep, multidimensional person.
Alright so one thing you're going to notice about Hellblade is that it's not in a hurry to throw action at you from every corner of the room. A lot of this game is played while walking and listening to stories while solving puzzles. The futhark runes I mentioned earlier are a constant and speak to the skill of the level designers because of the clever ways they've hidden the shapes in the environment. Certainly there are more than just the runes and nothing is particularly hard to figure out but they feel satisfying to solve.
Despite the way it may sound, slowly walking around Hel doesn't feel boring. The world is beautiful and full of life even while being nearly devoid of anything living. There's so much to take in and study. Look closely at the land of Valravn and you'll notice it looking back at you. Every aspect of the environment helps tell the story.
Hellblade is not about physical combat, it's about the telling of a story through the eyes of a woman on a desperate mission. "The Greatest battles are fought in the mind" is something that is said more than a couple of times.
Of course when the action comes it does so with conviction. There is no tutorial for fighting as such. The first time Senua is confronted by enemies it's done to teach players the basics of combat in a sink or swim moment. The fight itself ultimately unwinnable and serves as an incredibly disturbing plot point that makes Senua's mission something real to her; a point of no return. The narrator comes back and explains that with each failure the rot of darkness will travel up her arm, adding the threat of the game deleting your save file should the rot reach her head. This never happened to me but by the end of my play through the rot was past Senua's shoulder.
The next couple of times I got into a fight I got the impression that combat wasn't very dynamic. At first. It took me quite a while before I found a block key that when timed correctly was also a parry. Hold the heavy swing and Senua will draw back in preperation ready to side step, backpedal, or press forward to carry out an attack. "F" on the keyboard is a bash or kick, shift while moving was a charge and could be coupled with an attack to break guards or stagger enemies. Space bar is a dodge and can be used multiple times to move greater distances away. All the while the voices have become a tool, "Behind you!", "Evade", "Don't let them surround you", "You will die", "Get up!". If Senua is knocked down she has moments to rally before the next attack kills her, progressing the ever present threat of the rot further up her arm. To say combat is merely dynamic is perhaps an understatement. However you handle confrontation make sure you learn quickly because once the fights start happening you're not that far from the first boss --Surtr the fire giant. That's not him above by the way, he's just a regular badass undead warrior who was kicking my teeth in at the moment. I'll put a picture of my favorite boss in this link here because I don't want to outright spoil it's image in the article.
Hel Is a Pretty, Creepy Place
So in case it hasn't become evident by this time, Hel is scary. And we're not talking about the Catholic or Christian burning circles type of Hell. This is the Norse, Hel. One of the nine worlds and ruled with authority by the half rotten giantesse, Hela. She watches her realm from her mountain dwelling, Helheim. This is where Senua's lost love now resides.
All around you is this constant feeling of discomfort. From the aforementioned voices that surround Senua to the environments that feel similar but somehow wrong. Even something as cleverly placed as the third person camera angle which makes you, the player, feel like you're just one of Senua's ghostly memories following her every move.
Weirdly though things also seem mostly normal, as they should because the nine worlds are similar in most respects to that of man. Waterfalls tumble in great ribbons from cliffs and snowy peaks surrounding the fjords. The sun hides behind a beautiful clouded sky and a breeze blows through the trees and wildflowers. Shipwrecks run aground from great storms lay broken and derelict about the rocky coastlines while waves calmly lap up on beaches strewn with pebbles. And those waves you guys! Wow.I mean look at that. It's not even that they look so good that makes them so great. It's the fact that I've never seen anything even come close to this in another game. And why is that I wonder? These are tessellated 3D objects that actually roll up on shore and recede back to the tide. As a wave comes in it appears to drag the beach texture with it giving a pretty convincing look of bending the light and rolling pebbles and silt onto the shore. Look from this angle. Pretty mesmerizing. But soon the illusion of relative calm is broken. Senua is pulled deeper into the rabbit hole head first and the discomfort becomes something akin to a nightmare. It's easy to think that she would wish for whatever disturbing imagery she was subjected to before. Not even the trials of Odin she's forced into with it's labrynths and utter darkness crawling with unknown terrors could compare to the interior of Helheim. Or maybe it's her own mind...
Yep. It's weird to think about nowadays isn't it? That a game set in a world like this would have no loot system. This isn't an RPG in terms of chasing gear and getting bigger and bigger shoulder pads. There's only one point in Hellblade where Senua makes a new acquisition and even that's only from necessity. She's not a stereotype lady warrior in a chrome bustier and heels. This woman has dredlocks because she doesn't bathe, who did in these times beyond ceremonial reasons? She is dirty. She is grimy. She wears frayed clothing and wraps that proclaim her Celtic family tartan and she carries a simple short sword. Her skin bares the marks of battles well into her past and the smear of blue pigment that she has applied.
Of course Hellblade isn't classified as an RPG at all. This is called an action adventure game. But what better use of the term "Role Playing" could you have than to take on the aspect of a character like Senua? She's only got her training as a warrior, the clothes on her back and several voices in her head for company. And you are along for the ride but in control of the roller coaster. You could look at her various psychoses as a sort of special power set as they do help her get through. But there's no UI, no HUD to show health bars or a character screen to check boxes with ability points.
Graphics and Optimization
Finally I'm here right? Took me long enough.
Alright well as the screenshots I've put in show so far this is a pretty spectacular looking game world. Animations are smooth, clean and wonderful to watch. It's possible to see Senua's musculature flex and move while she walks with purpose. The darkness in her arm pulsates just under her skin. The fur shawl on her shoulders moves with her and blows in the breeze. Likewise her hair moves, though stiffly as tightly wound rope might, giving a good feel to those thick dreds.
Enemies aren't given to us in many forms but they look pretty awesome and all the models in general appear well made. Lighting is really damn nice and it shows not only in that beach shot above but here below in how the bump maps on Senua's skin react to it. Some textures seem to be a bit lower resolution or stretched a bit further than maybe they should be but it never seems to detract from the scenery.At first I had a bit of an issue with the way game looked. It was grainy and seemingly out of focus. I didn't care for that much so I went about playing around in the options menu. As it turns out having post processing set at its highest was turning on film grain and chromatic aberration and that was really messing with the way things were presented. You can see for yourself here in the two images below.
Post is on the highest setting here and it's really screwing with the image. Some textures even seem to be overlapped and the color spectrum is showing though in reds and greens.
But here with post on low (it can't be turned off) lines are crisp and textures show much nicer. The film grain is gone and there just seems to be a better overall quality to the image. I eventually went up to medium post processing because I felt that maybe it helped the occlusion look better. That could be in my head though.
Ninja Theory released a patch 1.01.1 that resolved some issues with AMD cards and that helped me quite a bit in the post processing department. I kept my choises though and Hellblade runs pretty well. Certainly people with newer hardware will probably see better performance but I was in the 55 to 60 fps range most of the time with the highest settings.
There is a photo mode that you can turn on and off in the menu. However I'm not sure why one would turn it off, it's not an ever present feature taking up room on the screen. It's just about hitting a key that allows the scene to be framed, rotated, graded etc.
One potentially serious problem I found is that the load screens after a character death took a long time to complete. Almost to a point of ctrl+alt+deleting to the task manager and making sure the game hadn't crashed, and when it did come back up I was seeing less than one FPS for a few seconds. It wouldn't be such a big deal except the only time Senua dies is in combat and coming back right into combat that's taking place behind an extremely low frame rate nearly killed her again a few times. That had the potential to be pretty game breaking should that rot have reached Senua's head and I lost a save file. That never happened thankfully, but hopefully that will be addressed as well.
Recording footage was also a bit weird, sometimes taking a try or two to get ReLive to record the proper monitor. And more than once I had to scrap footage because it was recording at a very low frame rate that wasn't evident until I watched the video. I've never had either of those things happen before. They didn't happen all the time here obviously or I wouldn't have videos on the LP channel but it did happen.
Sounds and Music
With a game this atmospheric the sounds have to be nothing less than on point. Ninja Theory has not disappointed. Everything you hear, from the voices in Senua's head to the wind in the trees was expertly crafted into what you'll experience while you play. Voice acting in general by the way is also quite good. Again I'll mention that this should be played with a good set of surround sound headphones to get that full immersive feeling.
The soundtrack is very fitting when it's present. Usually it only shows up for combat where it's primal and guttural but then it's gone, allowing the ambience of the environment to speak for itself. I would seriously consider buying the soundtrack if it were available.
So as usual, here I am telling everyone how much I enjoyed something and recommending it highly. I love the environments given in Hellblade, they're beautiful and in some cases very disturbing. I wouldn't say that this is a horror game, but I felt pretty frightened at times. Combat is pretty tense and kind of scary. The Blindness Trial, which you can watch on the TwinstiqLP, YouTube channel, shows my apprehension and the level of immersion I was feeling. Boss fights feel like boss fights. Animations and level design are pretty superb, my god the waves, people!
Senua is a character made strong by her own convictions, her unbreakable will and yes her psychoses. Ninja Theory even went as far as to add the narrator comment "...there is nothing wrong with the way you see the world."
Look guys, this is a title with tragedy in its name. It's not happy as with lots of games these days people seem to want dark and forbidding and that box is checked. It's not balls to the wall, all out action either but when the party starts it takes the riot police to shut it down. To paraphrase a character line from something else I play regularly. This game starts slow, like an avalanche.
If you've read this far please make it a point to pick this up or at least place it on a wishlist. Hellblade is a AAA title with half the price tag at $30.00. It's only good for about 12 hours of your life but those hours are going to be spent listening to some well told stories of mythology and solving some well made puzzles along with some very good and satisfying combat strung in the mix. Plus it's so intense you may not want it to last longer than that. I'll probably play it again though.
System Requirements for Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice are as follows
- OS: Windows 7, 8, 10
- Processor: Intel i5 3570K / AMD FX-8350
- Memory: 8 GB RAM
- Graphics: GTX 770 with 2GB VRAM / Radeon R9 280X 3GB
- DirectX: Version 11
- Storage: 30 GB available space
- Additional Notes: Minimum spec screen resolution: 1280x720