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Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice [2017 -- Ninja Theory]

Started by Starfox, May 19, 2023, 09:11 PM

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Originally published on October 27, 2017

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (that I'm going to call just Hellblade for the rest of this review) is a very hard game to categorize. Saying that it's an action game is very -- way too much actually -- restrictive. It's not a walking simulator either because there's too much gameplay for that... I think it's better to leave it uncategorized... That happens.

Hellblade is the story of a young Pict woman warrior (Picts with the Gaels were ancestors to the Scots) called Senua whom companion Dillion was brutally murdered (even sacrificed in a pretty gruesome way) by the Northmen and she embarked on a vision quest to Hel (the Hell of the Norse mythology) to find and save his soul. That's the bit that can be guessed when starting the game... however, the big deal of this game (and where the experiment actually begins for the player) is that Senua suffers from psychosis and you're actually in her head. Players will be confronted throughout the game to Senua's fears, inner demons, fantasies and, generally speaking, mental condition.

It's the point of the whole game actually, which was developed in collaboration with people who are either professionals of the domain (psychiatry) or who have actually suffered similar conditions in their lives. The idea is to allow people who never experienced such mental conditions to experience them by proxy via what Senua is seeing, living, hearing and experiencing -- I expect smelling too if computer games were capable of that but that's not the case and I'm not eager to go there -- and so to better be able to understand what people who actually suffer from psychosis are going through on a daily basis. For a gamer what is seen, heard and experienced through the game might be another fantasy but for people suffering from psychosis it's the reality -- several realities as the game is a compilation of experiences.

To achieve its aim the game relies on camera positioning, visual and audio effects like the "voices in your head" remaining with you almost from the start to the end. they are sometimes useful especially during combat -- for example telling you of an enemy behind you allowing you to dodge an incoming blow -- or to solve puzzles if you successfully distinguish those voices trying to help you from those voices trying to disrupt you, sometimes they are misleading, sometimes they lift you up and sometimes they put you down but they are above all almost constantly annoying which is the point after all; they will get on your nerves very quickly at the beginning of the game but then as you go along they'll become somehow more familiar and a part of your world like weird friends or family members. Visually, there are a lot of distortions, color shifting, world broken into a kaleidoscope, absolute blackness... those effects were created based on the testimonies of people who actually suffered from psychosis and where shown to those people during the game development for accuracy. Aesthetically speaking the whole ensemble created is actually something quite unique as far as video games go. I can't remember having played a game with that particular kind of aesthetic. What is the most troubling to gamers though are the few times when the camera rotate 180° so it seems that Senua is speaking directly to you, looking you in the eyes like if the player was someone else than the person controlling her... or maybe not. That's troubling of course because that's not something one usually see in video games. Like in movies, you don't want the actors to look directly at the audience unless you mean to achieve a special purpose.

For those who'd think that Hellblade is a walking simulator... far from it. Hellblade features a consequent number of puzzles but also of fighting sequences. The fighting sequences in particular are not for the faint of heart or the casual gamer. Even hardcore gamers will find them more than decent with the difficulty pushed to max. Several types of enemies are featured, each with particular weaknesses and strengths and there are a few bosses with special abilities. Senua disposes of the usual abilities of the warrior (she's equipped with a blade) parrying, dodging, quick and heavy strikes and the ability to lunge at her enemies and/or to kick them which may put them off balance allowing her to strike more efficiently. Problem is most of her enemies have the same abilities so it all translates in who's the better fighter. The combat animations and flow are really decent actually and the combat may be in some instance exhilarating, especially when approaching the end of the game (where enemies become even tougher and more numerous). Performing a perfect block might be difficult (the timing may vary widely depending on the enemy) but it is rewarding when done right. Senua can also use "focus mode" in combat, focus that is built with each successful strike she performs and when activated makes the time slow and her strikes more swift and powerful for a limited time. Focus mode is also essential to defeat bosses.

And focus is also essential to solve puzzles (although in this case it is always available, one doesn't need to build a pool then release it). In general focus allows Senua to distinguish more clearly things in her environment trying to make sense out of chaos and puzzles can generally only be solved with focus, starting with the rune doors. Those doors (there are quite a few in this game) feature a set of runes from 1 to 3 and Senua must find the representations of those runes in her environment, align them  correctly and focus to "acquire" them. Once this is done for all the runes of a door, the door is unlocked. The thing is that a rune can be virtually anything in the environment... some pieces of wood seen from a certain angle, some shadows revealed by a torch that has to be lit first, a combination of both... and so on. The game gives you clues in your search for the runes but what the game doesn't explain to you is how the clues work and you'll have to figure that out yourself. It's part of the psychosis element because the psychosis never explains to the people it affects how it is supposed to work so naturally the same goes for the player... no tutorial whatsoever.  Voices in your head will give you some pointers at time even though it will be drown in confusion in most cases. Once you find how it works though, solving Runes door puzzles is not particularly hard even though a lot of gamers find it infuriating (but that's part of the psychosis dudes). Runes puzzles are not the only ones in the game. Sometimes you'll have to reconstruct a part of the world reassembling broken pieces not unlike those of a shattered mirror, moving around until the pieces become part of the scenery. Such reconstructions will allow you to progress further...

Aside from the puzzles you will also be able to find a number of runes (not the same than for the doors). and focusing on them will trigger a voice in your head telling you a part of the Norse mythology which is quite interesting especially if your knowledge in this area is lacking. So it's a learning experience in more ways than one.

Technically speaking, there's not a lot of reproach to be made against the game. There was noticeably one of the first rune doors in the game that refused to open even when I did solve the puzzle correctly (that happened to me and other people as well the workaround in most cases was to stand at some distance of the door and repeatedly hit the activate key while moving forward until hitting the correct tiny spot that opened the door). Apparently the problem was solved in the latest patch but I didn't have time to try myself but hopefully if you have yet to play the game you won't encounter any door problem still it was a shame to miss such an irritating problem during testing (or maybe they were testing gamers' patience? With this game one never knows).

Another reproach cannot be made by myself but several other people experienced feelings of dizziness, nausea and/or headache while playing the game. I know what they mean because I did experience such feelings and for similar reasons but curiously it was in another game I reviewed a while back SOMA (I specifically stated in the review how I felt playing the game). For some reason I didn't feel the same playing Hellblade but other people did and I feel for them because I know what it feels like. It apparently comes down to the chromatic aberration used for visual effects in the game (same reason than for SOMA I guess). Chromatic aberration can be turn off in Hellblade but one has to fiddle with the *.ini files. I didn't as I didn't have the problem but I'm sure you'll find that quick enough via Google should the problem arise for you.

Visually the game is up there with the top players but with its own particular aesthetic which renders it quite unique. Still despite the game being quite beautiful it managed to remain light enough to not pose a huge problem to current mainstream gaming computers.

Hellblade is rather on the short side (around 8 hours) which considering the nature of the game might not be such a bad thing. It's not an exploration game, the path is rather straight forward and aside from finding the runes telling you stories you won't have to do a lot of searching everywhere. However the original price of the game reflects it's shortness (30 USD or about half the original retail price of a lot of AAA games like DooM 2016 for example and I got much more from Hellblade than I got from DooM).

It's also a great game to play considering the period of the year although pure fear is not strictly speaking the main topic here. I expect that a lot among you, like myself, have already played more terrifying games. But Hellblade does not focus on making you afraid, it focuses on making you experience and understand what psychosis is and it does a good job at that.

I don't know if of itself Hellblade will generate a new genre or if it will be a single experiment. That kind of tool is certainly very useful to mental health professionals who often lack the visual support to allow them to get a "feel" for the condition they are supposed to treat and for the patients who are anxious to make other people understand what they are actually going through and I imagine that it would be invaluable to both to continue working around such a software. From a gamer point of view I really don't know. Hellblade was a blast to play and I certainly don't regret playing it but would I play another game in the same vein? I guess that depends on a number of factors... Different era, different story, different characters... However I might not play a Hellblade 2 for example as I felt that Senua's story had run its course and there was no real need to say more. So if I had to play in the future a similar game it would have to be in a completely different setting. I'm not opposed to the idea though, if done right.

Guess what it means!