Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Release Date: Out Now
Format(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC
After a very successful launch on the PlayStation 4 and PC last year, the team at Ninja Theory have finally brought their stunning third-person adventure Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice over to the Xbox One. It wowed gamers elsewhere, so it only seems fair that owners of Microsoft’s console should be able to get in on the action too, right?
I didn’t play it during its initial release, so it was a treat to finally play through Senua’s harrowing journey with all of the bells-and-whistles that the Xbox One X brings. Believe me, it made for a ridiculously stunning experience and one that’ll stay with me for some time – even if some aspects of gameplay weren’t as exciting as the rest.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice embraces Nordic mythology and puts you in the shoes of the Senua, a warrior who sees her beloved partner Dillion murdered by invading Northmen. Haunted by her own demons that take the form of a darkness that follows her (as well as voices in her head), she heads out on a journey into the Underworld as she looks to save his soul from Hela, the Goddess of the Dead.
The aforementioned darkness that follows Senua takes the form of psychosis – a real-life condition that sees people suffering from hallucinations and hearing voices in their head. It’s brilliantly portrayed in the tale, with Senua constantly hearing voices that both try to motivate her as well as drag her down during her journey, whilst her hallucinations add a frightening touch to the tale where you’re never quite sure if what you’re seeing in front of you is actually real or not. The team at Ninja Theory worked with experts in the field of psychosis in order to deliver an authentic experience of it, and truth be told after playing the game it’s a condition I wouldn’t wish upon my own worst enemy. It’s delivered tastefully and thoughtfully in the game though, and it helps strengthen the narrative experience in a unique way.
The one thing that you’ll notice immediately with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is just how stunning it is. A lot has been said about how it’s somewhere in the middle-ground of a triple-A and indie release, but there’s no denying that it has outstanding visuals that are easily more impressive than those seen in games that are armed with budgets well into the millions. Seriously, it looks THAT good.
The environments are gorgeously haunting and unique, the characters are well-designed and animated fluidly (we’ve got some serious uncanny valley vibes on show here), whilst the lighting and ambient effects really help bring the world to life. I played with the Xbox One X’s ‘Enriched Visuals’ enabled too, so everything looked that bit better in all departments.
Honestly, you’ll just be blown away by Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s visuals. Every sight and vista I saw had me in awe, and actually being to explore it all and see the depth and detail that Ninja Theory have put into every nook and cranny was great. I can’t wait to play through the game for a second time, if only to see all of its beautiful sights all over again.
The same attention to detail has gone into the game’s audio design, with the soundtrack offering a wide range of brilliantly fitting pieces and the voice actors giving a stellar performance in delivering a believable struggle for Senua. The different emotions conveyed by the voices in Senua’s head is clear throughout and they really help in delivering a harrowing tale. One thing I’d definitely recommend is wearing headphones when playing the game, though – hearing all the voices whisper and shout as if they’re actually around you really enhances the experience.
Gameplay sees you exploring the game’s stunning world, all whist solving a variety of puzzles that each take on different forms. There are two main types you come across, but they each base themselves around looking at the environment through different perspectives. It might seem like it’d be something you’d tire of during Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s seven-hour adventure, but the game constantly spices them up with a few neat twists the further you progress through the game.
For example, you’ll often come across locked doors that have glowing symbols etched upon them. It’s up to you to find these symbols in the environment, through they’re well hidden – some might demand you look at a tree from a very specific angle, some might only appear when you’ve lit a light to create a shadow, whilst others are hidden in plain sight but demand you pay attention to everything around you. It’s all very simple in design, but mixed with the sheer beauty of the world and the fun that comes with traversing it, they’re always satisfying to solve.
Another puzzle you’ll face in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sees you heading through makeshift portals that slightly alter the world, in turn removing obstacles or creating new paths for you to walk across. Working out which portals to walk through and in what order is up to the player to figure out, but again it makes for some enjoyable puzzling.
There are a few different puzzle types that pop up through the game and everything is simple in theory, but they’re all presented in an enigmatic way that ensures the player is consistently tested. I never faced a situation where I got frustratingly stumped by one of the puzzles, but I also never found them a cakewalk or a bore to solve. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice gets the balance just right.
In between exploring the world and solving its puzzles are plenty of instances of combat, with Senua often facing off against a myriad of foes at once in battle as she looks to balance out defensive manoeuvres with her own attacks. Unfortunately, it’s the one area of the game in which it doesn’t always necessarily deliver.
That’s not to say combat is bad, because it’s really not – Ninja Theory have experience in crafting fine combat systems in their adventures, and it’s the same with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. You’ll mix together quick attacks, heavy attacks, and melee attacks as you string together combos, whilst your defensive dodges and counter-attacking blocks ensure you’ve always got the edge whilst on the back foot too. Senua also has a focus attack that when charged allows her to slow down time as she unleashes a series of unanswered onslaughts of attacks upon her foes. You’re certainly well-equipped in combat and it flows together with both finesse and style.
It’s just lacking in variety. Every instance of combat begins to feel the same as you work through the game, whilst a lacking selection of foes to take down sees the game not really reaching its full potential. It starts to feel like you’re following a specific routine, with enemy attacks both easily predicted and easily countered after fighting the same kind of foe time and time again. There are a few boss battles which add an exciting twist to the formula, but there’s only a handful of them sandwiched in-between the countless mediocre encounters against the standard foes.
Again, I have to emphasise that combat isn’t bad because some showdowns with foes can feel like real spectacles. Just expect them to grow into slugfests that don’t really offer anything different to what you would’ve seen in the game’s first hour.