Senua, a Pict barbarian warrior, has a quest. She must journey into the Norse underworld of Helheim to fight Hela herself for the release of her true love’s soul. She must travel across miles of Norse held territory, solve runic puzzles to uncover the proper path, and will be challenged by massive Viking barbarians at every turn. She will have to do all this while also fighting against her greatest opponent, her own mental illness.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by Ninja Theory is an unbelievable game that just released on Xbox One this week. It’s gorgeous, fun, and my god does it force your mind to face some uncomfortable subjects modern-day humans typically avoid.
The first thing that stood out was the audio. The developers recommend the use of headphones, because the audio is so central to the story, and so dependent on location. Senua’s psychosis, the voices in her head, are constantly with you on your quest, whispering doubt into your ears, and at times warning you of an attack from your blind side. After all, if Senua perishes, the voices die too. These voices are so ominous, so unsettling, that my skin would crawl at points as they mocked me, and told me I was worthless.
The voices aren’t the only excellent aspect of the sound though, as the natural sounds of the Pictish and Norse worlds like babbling brooks, birdsong, and the ring of steel on steel are all visceral and raw. The other sound that would send a shiver up my spine, was that of the waves, as I explored the coastal areas. The sound of the spray and the bobbing of viking boats and corpses in the waters lent a massive sense of terror to an otherwise normal exploration area. I only ever notice the sound design of a game when it’s amazing or when it’s terrible, and this is simply beyond compare.
The graphics are very very good. I’m still playing on the original Xbox One, so there were some graphical hiccups on occasion, but even with that – this game is beautiful. Senua’s face is so emotive, with terror, bashfulness, confusion, and pure rage, without stumbling into the uncanny valley. Melina Juergens, the actress (and Ninja Theory’s video editor), who took on the role does an outrageously good job, and adds a layer of humanity to the character that is distinctly lacking from nearly every other game. Senua feels real, and your heart breaks for her over and over again, thanks to the amazing visuals, and Melina’s breakout performance.
It’s not perfect. It’s damn close, mind you, but there are some issues.
The combat is incredibly hectic, with enemies on all sides at times. I quite enjoyed the sense of dread that gave, as this slender barbarian woman is trying to take on massive viking warriors, but it can lead to frustration quickly, if you’re not constantly dodging. My hands would ache after some of the longer fight sets, because the need to dodge and parry is so constant, and my stress levels would have that controller creaking in my grip. Also, Senua’s move set is seemingly a greatest hits list from Witcher 3 and Dark Souls: dodge, kick, light attack, heavy attack, so it can get repetitive as the game gets to the final stages. As those are two of my favorite games of all time, I was perfectly fine with them, but even I got a little fatigued by the end credits.
Other than mild combat nitpicks, this game is a triumph. It’s artistic, it has a stunning motion capture performance, it deals with an incredibly heavy topic of mental illness, and it’s a pretty damn decent sword and explore game on top of it all. I’m not alone in thinking it was excellent, as the BAFTA’s essentially gave it every award.
Ninja Theory took a risk with this game. Mental illness, an unreliable narrator, the permadeath notification, all of it was quite far removed from the majority of what the market typically spends on. Hopefully the rest of the industry is paying attention to see what happens when a small shop releases an indie AAA, with brand new IP, instead of a low risk sequel. If you’ve not picked this up, you should do yourself, and the industry a favor, and purchase this immediately.
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