Developer Ninja Theory promised that Hellblade would bring about the resurrection of the independently made AAA game, and after fighting through the darkness, demons and sheer audiovisual trickery on offer in Senua’s Sacrifice, we can’t help but praise their achievement.
Perhaps the best example of this comes early on, in the excellent Valravyn’s Keep section. To reach the winged bossman himself you’ll have to gaze upon his landscape through special gates. Look and walk through it one way to visit previously hidden areas, complete the vital tasks therein and head back through the same gate to see the landscape in its initial form. This is one of the many fabulous visual tricks on show in the game, that really help to further place you in Senua’s mindset, making you question your own sanity.
The combat is, as you might expect from a developer with a rich pedigree in the area, crunchy, satisfying, and, in this instance, wonderfully rhythmic. The controls are easy and intuitive too: one button each for a light, speedy attack, a heavy, sluggish attack, a guard and an evade move.
Timing really plays a part here, in a way that reminded us of the Guardian battles in Breath of the Wild, or the more obscure 3DS game Hana Samurai. Block at the right moment and the game slows down, leaving you time to counterattack. Good timing also allows you to use your focus (right trigger), which not only slows down enemies, but also unmasks those blighters hiding in the shadows. It would be an understatement to say we enjoyed the fighting in Hellblade, especially once we gained the ultra-powerful, aqua-glowing Gamr sword.
Undoubtedly though, the stars of the show here are the visuals, binaural sound design, and wonderful motion captured performances from the cast. We found it impossible to rush through the game, as every so often there’s a massive change in location or style that prompts pause to take it in. The lighting really is a dream, swaying both the player’s and Senua’s mood on a whim. It’s hard not to be in awe when darkness and depravity swiftly melt into glorious sunshine, vibrant fauna, soaring mountains or crashing oceans. Personally, I’d go as far as to say that this is the most effective use of lighting I’ve seen in a video game.
You can’t underestimate how effective it is when Senua’s inner voices blend and swish around the headphones, helping you to understand what it must be like for someone suffering from psychosis.
Cast performances have been gloriously rendered, really showcasing the gravitas of the story. Melina Juergens shines in her acting debut, her gutteral screams, whispers of confusion and range of facial expressions perfectly portraying Senua’s fragile state of mind. Elsewhere, a special mention must go to Nicholas Boulton, the man behind Druth, Senua’s rather vocal friend. Druth gives Senua advice along the way, and also regales the player with tales of Sigurd, Ragnarok and the Norse Gods every time you find one of the rune stones scattered across the gameworld. His voice is Scottish wonder, and we miss hearing his tuneful expression now we’ve completed the game.
Binaural (3D stereo) sound employed during the course of the game is yet another watermark in quality. You can’t underestimate how effective it is when Senua’s inner voices blend and swish around the headphones, going some way in helping you to understand what it must be like for someone suffering from psychosis. For us, that really makes the difference, placing Hellblade as the formative game to tackle mental health.
Hellblade’s brooding, intense music also gets a nod from us. The way the intensity rises and plummets, and combines with the visual trickery, is just pure magic. Unfortunately, the mood is spoiled at the end of the game with an absolutely mediocre, out-of-place stinker from band HNV Nation, though.
As fantastic as the game is, there are still a few issues that prevent it reaching heavenly greatness. We found certain objectives - such as the repeating perspective-based rune puzzles - became a tad repetitive as we reached the conclusion of the story. This is a real shame, as the concept itself is fantastic - another puzzle type in the mix would’ve prevented this fatigue.
Battles towards the end can also feel rather unbalanced, especially the fight against the hell beast Fenrir, and the bridge scrap against the Northmen. The former takes the lighting trickery one step too far, plunging you into a darkness so black that only the rumble from your controller can provide clues to his whereabouts. In principle this is genius, but it just doesn’t quite work out. The latter drops you on a bridge far too gaunt for the amount of sword-wielding bastards on it, resulting in many unfair deaths. It’s a real shame then that these two slobberknockers rely on cheap tricks to ramp up the difficulty.
So, as we reflect on our journey through Hellheim and Senua’s mind, we can’t help but be hugely impressed with what Ninja Theory have achieved. The stunning performances, visuals, binaural sound design and all ‘round trickery carry a brave story about mental illness and mythology unlike any other game before it. It may be on the short side, and lacking in replayability, but it’s an independent AAA production at a budget price, and an experience so effective and involving that we implore you to go and check it out for yourself.