Indie developers have produced some of my favourite titles in recent years. Salt & Sanctuary would be one of the most notable ones as I spent a ridiculous amount of hours in that game. That being said, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one that I have been following and anticipating for a while now. Made by Ninja Theory – the team behind Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC: Devil May Cry – Hellblade was part of the developer’s proposal for a AAA indie game. What that essentially means is that it has the budget of an indie game while boasting the production values of a AAA title. To me, this was a really interesting idea and if there was any team that would be able to pull this off, it was Ninja Theory – and what a job they did.
Based around Celtic and Norse mythology, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows the tale of a young woman named Senua and her quest to retrieve the soul of her late love, Dillion. As she ventures to Hel to retrieve the soul of her beloved, Senua is at war with not only the legions of Hel, but also wrestles with the darkness that has been placed inside her since she was a child. It’s immediately clear that something isn’t quite right with Senua, as you hear various voices inside her head, which are echoes of her descent into an ever-intensifying psychosis. It’s at this point where I should point out that you are really doing the game and yourself an injustice if you aren’t playing with some form of headphones, as the sound design for Senua’s psychotic voices is incredible and makes the experience an incredibly unique one.
I find the game’s premise to be interesting, and not only does it draw from mythology that has been criminally underutilised, it approaches Senua as a character in a way that we don’t often see in gaming. Ninja Theory have brilliantly given players a female lead that shows both strength and frailty. Senua shows fierce loyalty to both her love and her quest (which coincide) and as she progresses to the end of her quest you slowly witness her sanity deteriorate but her resilience becomes more and more prominent at the same time. One of the big factors to the experience of playing as Senua is the voices that her psychosis imposes on you. As you traverse various environments and solve various puzzles, you will hear multiple voices saying things that contradict one another. Some encourage you, others tear you down. Some shout while others whisper and it’s this internal contradiction that not only gives people some minor insight as to what it’s like to suffer from psychosis but also adds depth and meaning to the way that Senua struggles through her trials.
In terms of gameplay, Hellblade takes the less is more approach to things. The screen is completely stripped of any HUD elements and that is a feature I really have to admire. One thing I’ve grown to dislike about a lot of modern games is that the developers seem set on shoving as much garbage on the screen as possible. Some developers like Visceral and Nintendo have found ways around this where vital HUD elements are instead displayed as bars attached to the player character’s back (Dead Space/Splatoon), but for the most part, we’re forced to look at junk that covers a sizeable portion of the screen. Hellblade doesn’t even give you a health bar, but don’t be fooled into thinking that means you can’t run out of health.
Hellblade’s combat is most easily compared to the combat that the Soulsborne games have, however it is nowhere near as punishing. You have your basic light and heavy attacks, a block/parry, dodging and guard breaks. The game doesn’t tell you this though (which I love), it leaves you to your own devices to figure this out when you encounter your first enemy. When it comes to difficulty, Hellblade isn’t very difficult. I played on hard and the only times I ever died were when I failed hazardous puzzles or when I was supposed to die, and I never fell in combat. The simplicity of the combat leaves it very open to be exploited. Almost every attack that enemies threw at me could be parried, which automatically triggered focus in the later stages of the game. Focus essentially puts the world into slow motion and leaves enemies vulnerable to a flurry of attacks. If I had to summarise the combat quickly, I’d probably describe it as a little too forgiving. However, that could just be the part of me that likes to butt my head against a wall for hours.
Hellblade’s mid-length campaign (which lasts for about 8-10 hours, depending on the player) features a variety of puzzles. Some of these are relatively basic in design but work well, while others have some brilliantly clever mechanics. There is one type of puzzle which remains a constant through the entirety of the campaign and that’s the rune puzzle. In basically every chapter of the game you will encounter a door that has one or more runes on them which block your progress. Once you have focused on these runes you will then have to venture out into the nearby area to find depictions of that same rune. The depictions can be shadows, reflections or just objects that take the shape of the rune when aligned properly. Some of these puzzles are harder than others, but by no means should they be overly vexing. The simplicity of the design makes it very easy to solve these puzzles but just as easy to miss the answers completely.
If you were to just look at Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you wouldn’t think that an indie developer had made it, and is definitely one of the prettier games that I’ve played. It utilises the best parts of Unreal Engine 4 (the same engine that powers many AAA titles such as Gears of War 4), and the excellent art design perfectly complements the sheer graphical fidelity that this title features. Players on the PS4 Pro can also have an upgraded resolution with the game running at 1440p on the updated hardware. As mentioned previously, the sound design also helps immerse the player in the atmosphere that Hellblade’s visuals set, but there’s not too much I can say about the sound design without spoiling some stuff. However, as someone who is a bit of an audiophile, Hellblade was certainly a treat.
I played the game on my PC at 4K with the highest settings and the game never dipped below 60 frames per second while v-sync was active. When v-sync was off the framerate shot up to about 150 frames per second, but I don’t have a monitor that would support a framerate this high, plus turning v-sync off would put me at risk of screen tearing (though I didn’t notice any for the time that it was off). However, where things got weird was when I changed my display from my monitor to my 4K HDR TV. When hooked up to that display, the game sat at around 45 frames per second at 4K with the highest settings. I have my suspicions that HDR was activated which modified the lighting, but from what I can garner full HDR support wasn’t put in the game. It should be noted that Ninja Theory was planning to add support for it in a future update, though that may just be for the PS4. For reference, my computer was running an i7 7700K clocked at 4.6 GHz and a GTX 1080 Ti clocked at 1708 MHz and 16GB of 3000 MHz RAM. From my time playing it on my regular PS4, the game runs at a very stable and well optimised 30fps, while on the Pro it runs at 60fps when in 1080p. Ninja Theory’s optimisation team should give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done, though it’s a pity the regular PS4 can’t hit 60fps.
I didn’t know what to expect from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but what was given to me was one of the most unique experiences that I have ever had from a game. Ninja Theory have displayed that they have what it takes to change the indie gaming scene. They truly bridged the gap between indie and AAA and this is only the beginning. Striking a balance between superb visuals, outstanding sound design, excellent character writing and a well written story which spans wonderfully rich Celtic and Norse mythology, Hellblade will go down as one of my favourite games of this generation and perhaps even longer than that. Well done, Ninja Theory. You deserve more accolades than this humble reviewer could possibly give.
Reviewed on PC and PS4