With the ever-popular action adventure category of video games becoming more and more saturated throughout the years, developing teams are finding new ways to push the envelope for the repetition-riddled genre. After making a name for themselves with titles like DmC: Devil May Cry, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Heavenly Sword – Ninja Theory is back with another gripping action experience; but doing so by tackling the dark and merciless journey of a Viking warrior, aided by her haunting curse of psychosis and mind-rotting visions in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The path of Senua is a violent and disturbing one, bringing to life the realism of psychosis and interpreting what it’s like perceiving an alternate reality from what’s right in front of the player. The team at Ninja Theory did their research regarding this mental disorder, and it shows dramatically. The entire run-through of the 7 hour or so long campaign is brimming with haunting whispers, flickering lights and distant movements, ever pushing the twitching reality of Senua’s chaotic, and broken mind.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – Fighting the Curse of Psychosis
The game is extremely linear, following a given path of intricate puzzle-solving and staged combat experiences. The dark story of the Viking warrior and her quest to Helheim to bring her loved one back to the living is as endearing as any love story, but permeates with evocative dialogue, enveloping sounds and troubling imagery. The puzzles featured are innovative and unique to the story of Hellblade, but add a much-needed sense of depth to the overall gameplay. If not for the ever-present puzzles to solve, the staged combat doesn’t quite fill Hellblade with sword swinging hack ‘n’ slash battles like other titles from the Ninja Theory catalogue.
As you begin your journey to Helheim, the grave voice narrates over your slow trek to one new area after another. Hellblade is fueled off the drawbacks of psychosis. The constantly shifting reality of the scenery surrounding Senua is the source to figuring out the many puzzles, by either finding specific shapes scattered somewhere in the world, discovering and aligning segments of a symbol to create the full image or finding other discoveries hidden deep within the Viking world.
As you progress through, the combat in Hellblade will soon enough be introduced. Appearing in front of your from the ashes, enemies come in a handful of different forms. Quick acting sword swingers, shield-wielding brutes and giant warriors bringing down a heavy blade with extreme force are all part of the family of opponents found in Hellblade. Senua fights with a standard mode of attack, with both a light and heavy attack, a melee kick and, of course, the useful dodge technique.
Along with the defensive tactic to roll or sidestep, Senua is capable of blocking attacks with her sword, as well as performing a parry move to open up an attack window for extra damage. I mention this parry technique because the game simply fails to do so. What seems like an important combat ability, parrying is only discovered by the player when they time a perfect defence against an enemy’s attack. On top of the parry technique and other essential combat manoeuvres, Senua also has the ability to use her focus skill in combat.
Focus. Use Your Inner Eye
The focus skill while outside of combat allows Senua to “focus her inner eye” on important details and symbols throughout the journey. The focus technique is the primary ability to solving the puzzles that riddle Senua throughout her story. That being said, puzzle-solving is not the only occasion Senua will use this secret skill. During combat, using the focus skill – which is charged by connecting Senua’s attacks – will slow down time for a few moments, increasing the number of strikes Senua can land on her opponents. Though simple and unembellished, the what seems like shallow combat mechanics provide an incredibly exciting and thrilling experience when engaging in the vile monsters that come to take Senua’s life.
The curse that follows Senua throughout the game is both mental and physical. While the whispers and cynical chants eat away at her mental stability as she undergoes her harrowing journey, the physical torment endured from failing is just as disturbing. The lingering fear of losing your progress is a significant weight the player must carry as the black plague on Senua’s arm crawls upward with every player death. Once the webbing plague reaches Senua’s head, the game is over and the player must start from the beginning. Luckily, with a selection of combat difficulty, text-book staged combat and relatively short story length, starting over doesn’t seem as much of a chore as it sounds. Of course, there are some who claim that losing your progress never actually happens after numerous deaths, but is merely a bluff from the developers.
The winding and distraught road of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is something so powerfully stirring that playing through the linear campaign multiple times still feels fresh and thrilling. The isolated quest to defeat the horrors of Helheim, overcome the dark curse that haunts Senua and return her loved one back to the living is as enthralling as it is disturbing. The realism and time spent on providing an accurate reflection of what it means to wield the curse that is psychosis is impressively alone, not to mention the astonishing visuals and sound effects. Ninja Theory took their time with this one, and it shows, as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is easily one of the most memorable experiences from 2017.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice paints an image of just how powerfully haunting a troubled mind riddled with psychosis can be. Through the staged combat encounters, intricate puzzle-solving and dark storyline, Hellblade provides a uniquely grim twist on action/adventure gameplay. Those who make it back are forever changed.