Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice: Review (PS4)
It’s nearly impossible to accurately describe, in writing, the experience of Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The roughly seven hour journey through the perception of the main character Senua is something that needs to be experienced in person. Ninja Theory attempted to deliver a true representation of the effect that psychosis can have on an individual. They spent years developing Hellblade working with neuroscientists, mental health specialists, and people dealing with the condition, all in an effort to deliver a truly groundbreaking game. As evidenced by all the critical acclaim and award nominations, they succeeded in that effort.
Influenced by Norse mythology Hellblade puts you in control of Senua, a warrior on a quest to Helheim to save the soul of her dead lover. Over the course of her journey you battle demonic entities all while the voices (Furies) in her head converse incessantly. They question each decision you make and rarely have her best interest in mind. There are a few instances during combat sequences where they will aid Senua, by telling her to watch out behind her for an incoming attack. Other than those moments in battle, the Furies are repeatedly telling Senua she’s going the wrong way and that there’s no point in her journey, cementing this inner-battle as a key part of this game's experience. Senua never has a moment of peace which means you as the player don't either. Before you start the game it recommends you play with headphones to experience the 3D binaural sound. I played half with headphones and half without because, frankly, the game simply became too overwhelming at times. I’d find myself talking back to the voices out of frustration - a testament to how real this journey feels throughout.
The other lingering element that torments Senua throughout is the constant fear of “the darkness” taking her over. “The Darkness” is represented by a rot that starts at Senua’s hand and climbs up her arm each time you fail. Failing enough times will allow the rot to reach her brain ending your game. That’s right: fail enough times and you have to start over from the beginning. Watching the rot grow reminds you of each time you fail adding an immense amount of tension anytime Senua is hurt during a battle. Those battles pop up relatively often forcing you to be cautious if you die a few times in the early stages. For the most part, the combat mechanics are simple and satisfying. However, my only real gripe about the game comes from those combat sequences, in which character movement isn’t always fluid (particularly when dodging) causing Senua to get caught up on small pieces of the environment. It can take the player out of the experience when there are these moments lacking in fluidity. It’s just a small gripe because it didn’t happen often, and overall didn’t harm the experience.
Hellblade is billed as an "Indie AAA game" and that is the absolute perfect way to describe it. Ninja Theory's goal was to create a unique and true representation of an individual dealing with a mental disorder, to create change in the perception people have about mental health issues. I can only speak for my own reaction and perception, but they succeeded in that goal. The flexibility of being an independent studio allows them to sell Hellblade only as a digital copy to ensure they can sell it for half the price of new AAA game releases on the market. While the price may be that of an indie game, Hellblade stood out to me as entirely on par with any AAA game. The environment combined with the absolutely stunning performance from breakout star Melina Juergens are without a doubt some of the best in 2017 - and it’s absolutely no surprise that Melina took home the Best Performance award last night at The 2017 Game Awards. The true emotion with every word, breath, and scream coupled with the perfectly sublte facial expressions deliver one of the best gaming performances I’ve ever seen. Ninja Theory succeeded in creating a one of a kind game that should be experienced by all.