It’s rare that I ever feel completely immersed in a game. Immersion is a buzzword that’s thrown around a lot in reviews and marketing material, and it’s a feeling that not very many games actually capture. Completely transporting me into a virtual world, or into the head of a character is something that, while noble to strive for, is incredibly uncommon for how often it’s spoken about. However, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from developer Ninja Theory is a notable exception to this trend, and might just be the most immersive game in a number of years.
To start, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice must (and I cannot stress this enough) be played wearing headphones. Hellblade features, without spoiling too much, some of the most intriguing uses of an internal monologue I have ever experienced in a game. Most games that feature a protagonist that doesn’t interact with any NPCs use internal monologues as a way to convey the player character’s inner thoughts. Hellblade, on the other hand, creates a sort of stream of consciousness, that conveys more about its titular character than any game in recent (or even distant) memory.
Senua (the titular protagonist) is one of the most interesting characters in gaming this year. In a year that has already been stacked with strong female leads (from Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn to the return of Chloe Frazer in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy), Senua stands out as another dynamic and well-developed leading lady. While she’s presented as an incredibly brazen and tough warrior, beneath the surface she’s a much deeper and more compelling character. Her flaws are thoroughly explored, and they give her a depth not usually reserved for larger-than-life heroes. Her motivations are complex and interesting, thanks in part to her journey being centered around Norse mythology.
Even though I may not be head over heels for mythology in games (God of War has never been my thing), Hellblade (thankfully) does justice to its source material. My only experience with Thor and Ragnarok might be limited to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I was never lost or confused as to what I was doing as I progressed through the game’s world. Occasionally, I felt a little beat over the head with the lore talk of ‘pleasing the gods’ this and ‘hellfire will rain down’ that, though I won’t fault Ninja Theory for at least putting their own spin on Norse mythology.
While it’s plot and storytelling might knock the ball out the park, the area where Hellblade struggles the most is in its repetitive and often tedious gameplay sections. A good chunk of my seven hours with Hellblade was spent slogging through rudimentary environmental puzzles, which amounted to nothing more than padding to a game which could’ve easily been half the size. Some puzzles did feature narration that explains bits and pieces of Norse lore, but I often spent too much time walking around aimlessly trying, to get a shadow to line up on a rock the right way. It’s especially disheartening that, unlike The Witness from last year, Hellblade never expands on its puzzle formula in any way that ever felt particularly meaningful.
The other area where Hellblade stumbles is in its combat sections. Hellblade is by no means a “hack-and-slash” game, regardless of what its combat might suggest. Combat sections are few and far between, and despite the fact that they are mechanically sound, they don’t offer much variety in terms of enemy variation or encounter diversity. While I did feel like a badass slowing down time in order to cut open a demon, I could only chop up the same four enemy types before I felt like I was wasting my time on each fight. Boss fights, on the other hand, felt incredibly satisfying, and learning their move sets was both frustrating and simultaneously rewarding, not unlike a Dark Souls boss (without the double digit death count)
One last mechanic worth mentioning is what Hellblade claims to be a permadeath feature, where you’re told that if you let Senua fail too many times on her journey, the game will reset all of your progress. It’s since been reported by numerous outlets that it is in fact impossible to trigger this kind of an ending, which gave me a little breathing room as I struggled my way through each boss fight. However, while they may have tried to pull the wool over our eyes in an era where the internet will sleuth out anything you do the second you post it, what developer Ninja Theory was doing to create this sense of false tension within Hellblade is nothing short of genius, if not a little cruel.
This permadeath fake out was something I thought a lot about as I played through the nearly seven hour-long campaign. I found it supremely intriguing that a AAA studio would take the risk of turning off its audience by faking a permadeath feature for their new IP. That being said, while Ninja Theory has been promoting Hellblade as a “AA” game (with an appropriate $30 price tag), I couldn’t tell the difference between this and number of sequences in Horizon. Its combat might not be the best on the market, but Hellblade can certain give any contemporary blockbuster title a run for its money in terms of sheer graphical power and fidelity. It might run into a few hitches here and there, but on the whole, it’s a landmark release in terms out what a lower-budget experience can deliver graphically.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does almost everything it wants to do. It tells an interesting story with a fantastic lead character, and its unique narrative delivery and emphasis on Norse mythology are a refreshing change of pace in a somewhat stagnant industry. While its combat and puzzle mechanics may occasionally suffer from a feeling of repetition, it’s a minor complaint when you consider that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, while also redefining what we might come to expect from a lower priced “double A” game. The developers over at Ninja Theory should be applauded for their dedication to taking us all into the mind of Senua.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice might not deliver when it comes to hack-and-slash combat, but its world, characters, and approach to storytelling help it to redefine what we might come to expect from AA games moving forward.