Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review (Switch)
Release Date: April 11, 2019
File Size: 18.4 GB
Publisher: Ninja Theory Ltd.
Developer: Ninja Theory Ltd.
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the better half of my past two months were largely invested in some of the foremost third-person action-adventure/RPG experiences that the Nintendo Switch has to offer, namely in the form of Astral Chain and Dark Souls Remastered. With those out of the way, it seemed like as good of a time as any to finally investigate the buzz that has surrounded Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ever since it landed on the PS4 in 2017, the Xbox in 2018, and most pleasantly surprising of all, the Switch in 2019.
Developed by only twenty people at Ninja Theory, the formerly independent studio situated in Cambridge, England, which is now a subsidiary of Xbox Game Studios since Microsoft’s acquisition in 2018, the group set out to create a project with the look and feel of a big-budget, modern AAA title, but with limited resources and a workforce more reminiscent of your average indie team. The result is somewhere in the middle, an ‘independent AAA’ as Ninja Theory likes to put it. More importantly for our purposes, obviously, is the question of whether or not the result is any good? And while certainly an action-adventure game, among other things, is it in any way an ‘RPG’?
Before I delve into these inquiries, I want to note one minor difference in the format of this review from what typically follows. Given the unique and immersive nature of Hellblade, I’ve decided to combine the ‘Story’ and ‘Presentation’ sections as it would be difficult to speak about either of these as wholly separate facets. This will hopefully become clearer as we go on. After a discussion of these, I will briefly summarize the ‘Gameplay’ and offer my concluding thoughts as usual. With that said…
Welcome. You are safe with me. I’ll be right here, nice and close so I can speak without alerting the others. Let me tell you about Senua. Her story has already come to an end but now, it begins anew. This is a journey deep into darkness. There will be no more stories after this one.”
Story and Presentation
With these enigmatic words, spoken through one of the many narrators that live inside the mind of Senua, so begins your harrowing journey through a land that wreaks of death and ruin. The first item worth mentioning, at least from a technical standpoint, is that the game is best absorbed with a pair of quality headphones. Ninja Theory utilized binaural audio in Hellblade’s production to create a vivid 3-D soundscape, attempting to replicate the sensation of hearing multiple dynamic voices as if from the first-person point of view of the game’s lead protagonist, Senua. I imagine that a surround sound system would also be an ideal alternative, although I had neither on hand, having to suffice with rather mediocre earbuds. Granted that I presumably missed out on the full impact of the intended experience, nonetheless I was able to appreciate the masterful work that went into this area of the game’s design, feeling the reassurances and conflicts that arose between the voice in my left ear and that in my right as if they were both my own.
Set sometime in the Middle Ages, Senua is a surviving member of the Picts, a historical people who once controlled northern and eastern Scotland. Eventually, as I discovered through my own research after completing the game, Pictish society, along with their cultural identity, was gradually destroyed and/or assimilated into other more dominant trends, whether primarily as a result of internal strife, foreign invasion, or likely some combination of socioeconomic and geopolitical factors. Little is actually known about the cause that led to the disappearance of the Picts in later recorded history, and most of what is understood about their civilization has been derived from archeology, some stone writings that they left behind, and occasional references scattered throughout contemporary European writers at the time.
The Picts’ religion is believed to have been some form of Celtic polytheism and it is a mixture of Celtic and Norse mythology that shapes the backdrop of Hellblade’s spellbinding narrative. Moreover, the developers, working with mental health experts, advocates, and individuals who manage various forms of psychosis in their own daily lives, went to great lengths to construct a very specific and all too plausible real-world scenario that tackles mental health struggles head-on. Hellblade is a work of historical fiction that retells the experiences of someone who is a warrioress during the time that marauding Vikings began to devastate coastal villages on what is today known as the British Isles, pillaging and brutalizing their helpless victims.
This individual, Senua, has undergone a series of traumas in her past involving abusive and troubled family members and the loss of those most dear to her. To further complicate matters, she and her fellow tribesfolk can only understand the peculiarity of her psychotic condition–an aspect of herself which involves seeing and hearing things that nobody else can fully validate–in the context of superstitious beliefs that mistake human realities as either messages from the gods on high or a corrosive darkness beckoning forth from the evil spirits that dwell below.
The extent to which Ninja Theory succeeds at replicating an authentic portrayal of psychosis is not really a matter for me, someone who has no firsthand knowledge of its symptoms, to judge. As far as I can tell, the game was received positively by those whose input was sought and upon release it seems to have mostly garnered praise for its depiction. I will only say that the impression with which I was left is that the game is not only deeply personal and moving, it is humanizing and empathetic. Setting aside anyone’s actual experiences with psychosis, whether in modern society or in the barbaric world such as the one with which Senua must cope, as an attempt to create a video game mechanic centered around hallucinations and delusions, Ninja Theory’s best foot forward is effective, earnest, and for all intents and purposes, executed to near perfection.
Briefly following the opening cutscene and the first few minutes of gameplay, which brings Senua to the shores of a forested wasteland littered with cruelly tortured corpses, ‘the place the northmen call Hel,’ you learn the impetus of her arrival at this horrifying destination. Equipped on her belt alongside her sword, wrapped in tattered cloth, is the skull of her beloved, Dillion. She has come upon these lands seeking to retrieve his soul from the goddess Hela.
I’ll refrain from adding more details with regard to Hellblade’s storyline here as I fear divulging much else would spoil a narrative that is really meant to unfold as you explore the game’s unsettling environments. As well, part of the pleasure consists in trying to decipher which aspects of Senua’s reality actually persist outside of her perception, what’s to be taken as metaphor, representing something more profound within the recesses of her psyche, and so on. It’s one of those games that will have you pondering such questions and more as you advance towards its resolution, and will keep you wondering long after you’ve completed it.
While Hellblade is definitely an action-adventure game, it differs from most in that its combat sequences take back seat to what is really the main focus, that is, a narrative experience which is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Aside from the haunting utterances that are constantly taunting Senua, pushing and pulling her this way and that, the game’s atmospherics are often psychologically disturbing if not downright shocking in their exhibition of human savagery.
That’s not to suggest that the violence on display here is particularly gratuitous insofar as it serves a clear purpose in the context of the plot. And if you’ve played through your fair share of survival horror games, you’ll likely find that nothing you encounter in Hellblade is too repulsive. Nor is any of its gruesomeness in the ballpark of, say, The Last of Us Part II, if you know what I mean. Still, for the faint of heart, some of it can be a bit much to digest, especially given the emotional investment that the game invites you to place in Senua’s predicaments. Personally, I greatly appreciated the fact that in learning the fates of certain individuals from Senua’s past the narration was able to affect me so thoroughly.
On the whole, Hellblade’s story is one of redemption, of finding meaning and hope in a world that is vicious, spiteful, and ultimately condemned to annihilation. It is about overcoming one’s inner demons, silencing that chorus of naysayers that are often the loudest within; it’s about reconciling with past grievances and tragedies and fully embracing one’s self-worth. To the degree that Hellblade can be considered an RPG at all, it’s arguably only in the most literal interpretation of the ‘role-playing’ moniker: you assume the role of Senua and feel this metamorphosis into her character more effectively than most other games, whatever the genre, thanks in no small part to Ninja Theory’s superlative achievement of transposing Senua’s psychological anguish onto the mind of the player.
Naturally, none of this would have been made possible without a stunning performance by the game’s lead actress, Melina Juergens, who embodies the physical likeness of Senua herself. Juergens’ award-winning portrayal of a psychologically battle-scarred heroine afflicted with rage and sorrow, manifesting these contrasting emotions in each scene with nuance, precision, and an expressiveness impeccably rendered on-screen by real-time motion capture, is second to none. Indeed, all of the live-action performances and voice actors deserve every ounce of adulation that they’ve received, with special reference to the ‘Furies,’ the manic cogitations in Senua’s head that never cease to make their counsels heard. If there was one key point on which the developers absolutely needed to deliver a knockout, given the sort of mesmerizing roller coaster ride that they sought to contrive, it had to lie in the credibility of its main cast. I’m glad to report that every person involved totally crushed it on this front.
Graphically, Hellblade contains some remarkable moments despite showcasing the Switch’s limitations in others. There are photorealistic cutscenes that continually impress, even while playing in handheld mode, though when these all but seamlessly transition back to gameplay the visual disparities can be jarring. Par for the course, the mileage that Ninja Theory was able to get out of the Switch hardware comes up considerably short when compared to its PS4 and Xbox One counterparts, with fuzzier resolution, numerous objects removed from the scenery, and additional fogging to conceal distant details, or the lack thereof.
These are a few of the optical downgrades that plague the Switch port but honestly, unless you’ve played Hellblade on a more powerful machine or decide to watch a side-by-side comparison of the various versions on YouTube, the sacrifices that were made to get it running as reasonably smoothly as it does here probably aren’t going to make enough of a difference to affect your overall enjoyment. At the end of the day, I remained somewhat in awe of the fact that I was even playing a title of this caliber in the palm of my hands, and that it looks as good as it does, or in any case, good enough to justify a playthrough using headphones which, again, is the consummate way to soak it all in.
The last thing that I’ll mention before moving on to ‘Gameplay’ is the soundtrack that accompanies your time in the land of Hel. Compelling when it needs to be, the background music mostly consists of ambient noises which serve to heighten the tension permeating every corner of Senua’s grim world. When the fully orchestrated score takes center stage it is usually during the rush of combat or one of the many poignant confrontations that Senua has with her memories incarnate. Composers David Garcia and Andy LaPlegua draw from a range of genres and the result is something both touching and aggressive, tribal and modern. However, perhaps no track stood out to me—or got obnoxiously stuck in my head—as much as the tune that attends the closing credits, VNV Nation’s ‘Illusion.’
If it isn’t already self-evident, the ‘Story and Presentation’ of Hellblade won me over as few games do, both exposing the ‘AAA’ portion of Ninja Theory’s ‘independent AAA proposition’ in equal measure. But, as this is after all a video game at bottom, arguably the bigger concern that must be examined is whether or not Hellblade holds up as well where actual gameplay is involved.
For every battle won, a greater battle takes its place and so it goes until we fall. And in the end we all fall. Even the gods have their time…”
The core of Hellblade’s gameplay is fairly simple and comprised of three components: the detection of ‘Lorestones,’ rune stones which piece together aspects of Senua’s backstory and the lore that pervades her worldview; puzzles that involve more strange symbols and the recognition of patterns; and hack and slash action. I’ll briefly address each of these in the listed order.
The layout of Hel is more or less like one big linear dungeon. It has areas that are more open-ended but usually for each section there is only one way in and one way out. In many of these ‘rooms,’ to which they amount, you’ll come across Lorestones that can be activated when Senua focuses her attention upon them. They’re not necessary for progressing the game but interacting with them will trigger a short monologue featuring the scholar Drune, a figment of Senua’s remembrances who will impart bits of information that provide context for Senua’s past and the general narrative.
These are the game’s equivalent of finding memos or notes that fill in certain gaps, which so many other games employ, and while I appreciate the route that Ninja Theory went in using voiceovers to dispense the details, I still found them to feel slightly tacked on. There’s forty-four of these speeches that you can locate throughout your adventure, and doing so will unlock an extra brief cutscene towards the end of the game. It’s not much of a payoff so if you miss one along the way (and, unfortunately, you cannot return to previous areas once you’ve progressed beyond specific points), don’t feel too bad about it. I’ll just say that by the fortieth rune stone I was beginning to find the routine somewhat tedious.
Speaking of tedium, let’s talk about the puzzles. To advance from one room to the next, you will usually encounter a door with one or more runes etched upon it, or a bridge in disrepair that cannot be crossed until you restore it. In keeping with the theme of psychosis, the developers implement a unique visual mechanic that is intended to mimic the psychological process called pareidolia, or the tendency of the brain to superimpose patterns on objects not actually present in the things themselves. A common real-world example of this is when we detect faces or animal shapes in cloud formations.
To unlock one of these doors or amend a broken overpass, Senua must search her surroundings for structures that resemble the rune’s configuration or view the scattered segments of the decrepit bridge from a certain vantage point, making it appear whole again with the power of her mind. Both are neat little procedures that induce a few ‘a-ha!’ moments… at first. By the latter half of the game, when you begin to understand that the developers have really decided to repeat these same puzzles ad nauseam rather than think of something new and interesting to introduce, it all wears thin rather quickly. Very, very thin.
Finally, there’s the combat, and this is by far the best part of the gameplay outside of the enjoyment that I derived from the sheer creepiness of the environments (though, I’m not sure if ‘enjoyment’ is really the right word to use here). There is one thing that I need to get out of the way right off the bat: About 20-30 minutes into your journey, the developers troll you by declaring in large white lettering plastered across the screen that should you die too many times, ‘ALL PROGRESS WILL BE LOST.’ Please note: It’s not true! Not a darn word of it! I thought you should know that. Okay, back to the combat.
As a ‘slash ‘em up’ set in the third-person, the fighting sequences will feel familiar and intuitive to almost anyone who has played other games within the genre, making use of a lock-on system to keep the camera focused on the intended target as you strafe left and right, and including an assortment of moves such as Senua’s fast attack, strong attack, dodge, guard, kick, and so forth. The adversaries that you face off against rarely present too much difficulty though every skirmish provides an exhilarating level of intensity. Battles against the Northmen and the other few enemy types that the game introduces only occur at set intervals, and offer a refreshing hiatus from the more monotonous challenges that you’re required to overcome.
If there are any faults to be found in Hellblade’s approach to combat, I would levy two mild complaints: there is a severe lack of enemy variety and, when engaging with foes, the operations involved never develop past the basics, meaning that, in spite of being generally entertaining, swordplay also suffers from repetition as the game wears on. On the one hand, I realized very early on that Hellblade wasn’t meant to be the kind of game where you collect items, upgrade equipment, or strategize your victory by considering the effectiveness of different weapon classes. That’s just not the kind of game this is, which is fine. Truth be told, it’s really not an RPG in any way except perhaps in the very loose sense that I suggested earlier, nor does it ever pretend to be. Again, that’s not a problem.
On the other hand, though you do acquire one handy ability along the way, when you have essentially a single means of attack and the action retains its fairly straightforward style throughout the entirety of the campaign; when the kinds of enemies you fight against are limited to a mere handful in number; and when multiplying their presence on-screen, forcing you to engage with half a dozen at once, for example, is the sole innovation by which Ninja Theory sought to keep the gameplay from growing too stale, I can’t help but wish that there was a little more to it all.
Having said that, let me put a bow on this final point of discussion by highlighting three aspects of combat that Hellblade gets completely right: First, the animations look superb. Whether you’re kicking a shield out of the way or rolling past a potentially devastating blow from a two-handed axe, the fluidity of Senua’s movements are top-notch, possessing a realism that never appears awkward or unnatural. Secondly, the controls when clashing in battle feel extremely responsive. Thirdly, these tight mechanics lend themselves to an action game experience that is, despite my issues, on balance very satisfying and fun. That might not be all that one could desire here, but in my view it’s the lion’s share.
Hel will not give you the answers you want. But you mustn’t look away from the horror it does offer, because you cannot overcome suffering if you refuse to look at it.”
If I were only evaluating Senua’s Sacrifice on the basis of its ‘Story and Presentation,’ it would receive a ‘Great’ score without a hitch. My fleeting time in its hellish domain forged a lasting impression in my mind, a feat that games rarely achieve with such potency and distinction. Regrettably, my feelings about its gameplay were more mixed. I can’t deny that I still had a good time playing through it, and I would urge almost anyone who hasn’t entered Hel to give it a chance. However, I do have to qualify my recommendation.
Hellblade is a pretty short game, having taken me less than ten hours to finish. Now, you might be of the opinion that it is uncouth for me to mention what I’m about to convey, viewing any reference to a game’s price tag as irrelevant or wholly inappropriate in a discussion about its worth as a work of art. Fair enough. But as most people, including myself, often have to consider a cost-benefit analysis in their game purchasing decisions, it seems worth mentioning that Hellblade is regularly listed on the e-Shop at $29.99 and only available as a digital download.
In other words, it will eat up over 18 gigabytes of space on your Switch hard drive. Some might feel one or both of these factors to be too great a demand for a campaign that takes less than a weekend to complete and offers next to nothing in terms of replay value. There is a slick and fairly in-depth photo mode that allows you to edit screenshots but short of that it’s not a game to which you’ll be likely to return for quite some time, unless you simply take delight in repeating everything that you’ve just conquered and don’t require any reason for doing so other than the thrill of it. Again, fair enough.
In sum, I guess I came away from it all mostly satisfied. I’m certainly excited to see where Ninja Theory takes the franchise since they’ve announced a very good-looking sequel and now have the financial backing of a megacorporation like Microsoft. There is a lot on the gameplay side of things that can be improved and I have full confidence that Senua’s Saga will in every way be bigger, better, and more disturbing (I’m less confident that it will arrive on a Nintendo platform in the near future but that’s another discussion). I just hope the identity of the original is not lost to the extent that its narrative continues to push the envelope, both in its embrace of a taboo subject–which discussions of mental health oftentimes remain–and in the technical ingenuity through which Senua’s Sacrifice explored it so well. Those are, as it were, the chief grounds for my final verdict.