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Posted on Nov 30th 2017 at 08:00:00 AM by (Disposed Hero)
Posted under Review, Ninja Theory, PS4, Steam, action, adventure, puzzles, horror, story


Despite trying to stay more up-to-date with new games this year, a little game known as Hellblade snuck out under my radar.  I remember eventually seeing the game's store page on Steam, but after quickly glossing over it, I dismissed Hellblade as a generic hack & slash game.  Once it went on sale, I gave the game another look, and noticed that it has more elements of psychological horror that definitely intrigued me.  I purchased the game and didn't wait long to start playing it, and I'm glad to say that my initial impression of 'generic hack & slash game' couldn't have been more wrong.



Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is an action-adventure game with an emphasis on story, puzzle-solving, and psychological horror.  Developed and published by Ninja Theory, it was released on August 8, 2017 for the PlayStation 4 and PC.  Described as an "independent AAA game," it was developed by a small team of approximately twenty developers and was released at a budget price of $30.  Despite being released with little advertising or fanfare, the game is considered a commercial and critical success, receiving positive review scores from most publications and selling far better than expected.


Scenes like this are what initially drew me to the game.

Set during the 8th century, Hellblade tells the tragic story of Senua, a Celtic warrior from the Pict clan, as she travels through Helheim in an attempt to save the soul of her dead lover Dillion.  Senua is not like most other video game protagonists, however.  Although she is a capable warrior, Senua also suffers from psychosis and experiences symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and voices in her head throughout the entirety of the game.  The beliefs of Senua and her people are steeped in Norse mythology, and these beliefs are often brought to life due to Senua's psychosis, creating a world that can be appropriately frightening and grim for exploring the dark themes that the game tackles.

The developers of Hellblade went to great lengths to research not only the mythology and lore of the Celtic people during this time period, but also the reality of living with a mental condition such as psychosis.  Psychologists and actual people living with psychosis were consulted throughout the making of the game in an attempt to portray the illness as accurately as they could.  It is commendable that the developers went to such lengths to better understand and portray something that is not often represented in media and is commonly misunderstood by the general public.


Believe it or not, the theme of hanging corpses was based on a psychosis patients' real-life account.

Hellblade's story is easily the highlight of the game.  Players are told very little at the start, but much of Senua's backstory is told throughout the course of the game, and this provides great insight into why Senua sees the world the way she does.  There are also runes that can be found and inspected, serving somewhat as collectibles in the game, and doing so will tell a story about the lore that much of the game is based on.  The story is intriguing and unique, and it is definitely what kept me coming back to the game.

Fortunately, the story isn't the only reason to play Hellblade, as the gameplay is also well done.  The gameplay is mostly comprised of puzzle-solving, and in order to progress from one area to the next, the player must solve different types of puzzles, including finding runes cleverly hidden in the environment and some pretty trippy perspective puzzles.  These types of puzzles are unique from what I've typically seen in other games and serve to emphasize the point that Senua sees the world differently from other people.  There is a decent variety to the puzzle elements, and fortunately they do not become tiresome before the end of the game.


Combat is fairly simple and satisfying.

There is also combat in the form of sword fighting.  Once combat is initiated, Senua will draw her sword and lock-on to an enemy, and from there the player can choose from a variety of actions including light attacks, heavy attacks, blocking, and dodging, among other things.  Overall, the combat is fairly simplistic, but it is fast, fluid, and most importantly, fun.  There are not many combat sections throughout the game, so the simple combat does not wear out its welcome before the game's end.

Graphically, Hellblade looks great, with a high graphical fidelity and an amazing attention to detail.  Melina Juergens' portrayal of Senua is outstanding, especially considering that she is not a professional actress.  Various color themes and weather effects are also used to emphasize the mood of each scene, and these touches are well done as well.  My only real complaint is that live-action characters were used during interactions with Senua.  I believe this was done to emphasize that Senua is experiencing a flashback or hallucination, but having a real person interacting with a character model can seem a bit awkward.  However, these scenes are well-done and are presented in a way that makes it work and is much less awkward than it sounds on paper.


Various hues are used to help set the tone.

Hellblade also excels in the audio department, with an attention to detail in its sound design that is rarely seen in video games.  Upon starting the game, you will be prompted to play with headphones for the best experience, and this is due to the binaural recording of the voices that Senua constantly hears.  These voices are almost constantly chattering about what's going on around Senua, and as annoying as that sounds, they thankfully don't become a nuisance.  The voice acting for all the characters is great as well.  There is not much music in the game, but what is there is subtle and effective.

In the end, Hellblade surpassed my expectations, and I'm really glad I gave it a chance.  It is a game that I would recommend to anyone who doesn't mind a slower-paced adventure and is looking for an excellently told and intriguing story.  Clocking in at around six hours, it is also a short adventure that doesn't overstay its welcome.  This was clearly a passion-project for the developers, so I'm glad that it was successful and am looking forward to seeing more projects like this in the future.


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Comments
 
I am like you, in that I initially ignored this game, thinking it nothing more than another hack n' slash, but the more I read the more I grew intrigued.  After watching a short review I am hooked and will be getting it soon.  I love that this game is also on GoG, so I can pick it up DRM free.
 
@bombatomba:  Hellblade reminds me a lot of Spec Ops: The Line in that it can really mislead people at first glance.  I'm glad to hear somebody else will be checking it out.  I hope you enjoy it!
 
I saw some footage of this game and read a couple reviews and was super intrigued. I picked it up during the Steam fall sale last week and can't wait to get into it!

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