Games review: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a descent into hell –

The makers of Heavenly Sword create a game with graphics to rival Horizon Zero Dawn and a story that demands to be take seriously.
Hellblade may be one of the most frustrating video games we’ve ever played. It clearly has good intentions, and there is much about it that is highly impressive – from the graphics to the combat to its willingness to address serious subject matter in its narrative. Some of these individual elements are amongst the best we’ve seen all year, and yet we’ve rarely ever played a game that seemed so much less than the sum of its parts.
In strict gameplay terms Hellblade is a third person combat game set in the early Medieval period, revolving around Viking raids in Orkney and a surviving Pict named Senua. The exact nature of her backstory is the central mystery of the game, but it soon becomes obvious that she has witnessed a particularly bloody raid which has left her mentor and love interest dead. Things are more complicated than that, but either way her troubled life has left her with a severe psychosis, that manifests as voices in her head and impromptu flashbacks to her earlier life.
This is not some random plot point, as British developer Ninja Theory has taken a lot of time and care to make sure the symptoms are portrayed realistically and sympathetically. But while we have no reason to doubt the authenticity the voices and blurry visions all seem a little cliché, and exactly the sort of thing a game would do even if the developer hadn’t done any research. Especially as half the time the voices in your head are just spouting in-game advice, such as telling you to watch out behind you.

The storytelling is flawed on a number of levels though, not least because Senua barely registers as an actual character until very late in the game. Before that she just wanders around looking understandably glum, and feeling more like a blank slate than a sympathetic protagonist.
The other problem is that it’s not at all clear how much of what’s going on is only in her head. Which is all intriguing enough at first, until the game stops trying to blur the lines and just turns into a full-on fantasy game with boss battles against Norse gods and descents into (a very memorable depiction of) hell. All the talk about ‘voids’ and overcoming ‘darkness’ just sounds like generic video game dialogue, especially when it’s revealed that Senua has ‘the sight’.
The script in general doesn’t seem at all authentic to the period, and after it started paraphrasing Nietzsche we began tuning out more and more.
There is exploration of a sort, in that you can often go long minutes just walking along marvelling at the scenery, but there are very few chances to actually miss anything – especially given the only collectables are snippets of Norse mythology to listen to. So in terms of gameplay Hellblade is an awkward mismatch of puzzle-solving and combat, with the two rarely overlapping and leading to a very oddly paced experience.
The combat is very good though. If the name Ninja Theory rings a bell, they’re the studio behind Heavenly Sword (which this bears a surface resemblance to), Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, and the unfairly maligned DmC Devil May Cry. The combat in Hellblade is a lot simpler than DmC, but there’s a real weight to every swing of your sword, that feels even better than in For Honor. Fighting has the perfect level of speed and responsiveness, with the feedback from blocking an attack being a particularly fantastic mix of visuals and gameplay.
There aren’t many enemy types, and the game never finds anything more interesting to do with them than having them walk slowly towards you in enclosed spaces, but our only real complaint is that encounters always seem to go on just that bit too long. Especially the exhausting, but not actually very difficult, boss battles.
Weirdly, the game threatens that if you die too many times it’ll wipe your save and you’ll have to start again. Which seems madness given the type of game this is and the fact that it absolutely refuses to explain anything about the controls when you start. We don’t mind admitting we were several hours in before we realised that jabbing the ‘X’ button lets you get up if you’re badly injured, which cost us a lot of deaths.

Sadly, the puzzle side of things is far less interesting. Strangely, most of it revolves around the Riddler puzzles from Batman: Arkham Asylum where you had to line up parts of the scenery to form a symbol (runes in his case). Apparently the optical illusions simulate an element of real medical symptoms, but really… there’s a reason they took them out of the later Batman games.
There are occasional variants where you have to look at a fragmented part of a bridge or stairway at a certain angle, so that it looks whole, but those are the only recurring puzzle elements. There is a brief attempt to channel Zelda’s light dark/world concept, and a clever bit where you can only move around by trying to sense where a breeze is coming from via the controller’s rumble. Although this is largely ruined by giving too many obvious visual clues.
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As you might be gathering Hellblade is a peculiarly mixed big, and no aspect is odder than the fact that the graphics are absolutely outstanding. Really, just astonishingly good. Ninja Theory are only a small team but some of the vistas, and Senua herself, looks almost as good as Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s an amazing achievement, and an important one given part of Hellblade’s mission is to prove that a middle ground can be achieved in gaming; with relatively small teams working on a modest budget to produce a less-than-full-price game.
But everything else is an awkward hodgepodge where nothing seems to gel together properly. The story, or at least what the game is trying to say about mental illness, the combat, and the puzzles all seem like they’re from completely unconnected games. We still hope the game is a success for Ninja Theory, as it it’s amazing what they’ve done with little more than a dozen people. We can’t say we enjoyed anything other than the combat, but sometimes it’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it.
In Short: A technical masterpiece with some of the best swordfighting combat in years, but the storytelling and puzzle elements come across as muddled and awkwardly mismatched.
Pros: The core combat is fantastic and the incredible visuals are amongst the best on the PlayStation 4. Ambitious and well-researched narrative.
Cons: The puzzle elements are horribly dull and the game eventually runs out of interesting things to do with the combat. Poor pacing and confused storytelling.
Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Price: £24.99
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: 8th August 2017
Age Rating: 18

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