One of last year's biggest surprises from veteran game developer Ninja Theory is finally available for Xbox One. If you still haven't played it yet then unsheathe your blade and let's see if it puts up a fight.
On the surface, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice seems like it could be yet another third-person action game where you hack and slash your way to victory. Although this is a little bit true, it's so much more than that. By watching the somewhat lengthy opening scenes where you see Senua paddling down a river with dead bodies strewn about, you know that you're in for one haunting adventure. The imagery reminded me a lot of a typical scene from Bloodborne and it's easily just as disturbing. Anyway, from then on, things get more and more twisted and at times, you'll question what's real and what's merely a figment of Senua's clearly overactive imagination. Is Senua carrying around someone's head? Is that tree watching me? Is there a figure looming in the distance? It's engaging stuff that'll keep you on the edge of your seat just waiting to see what will happen next.
Thankfully, the graphics and sound help paint this horrific world beautifully. As expected from a Ninja Theory game, Senua's animations are spot-on as she desperately tries to make sense of her life while occasionally finding fleeting moments of happiness. There are actual actors that pop up in certain scenes, too, that help illustrate the mental anguish that Senua is going through. The environments are incredibly eerie and atmospheric whether you're traversing a fiery maze, a bloody organic river, or almost complete darkness where you have to let your ears guide you. Meanwhile, there are voices that almost constantly communicate with Senua. I understand that they're there to manifest Senua's mental state and give the occasional hint but I frankly found them to be almost as annoying as an ASMR video. Whether you can tolerate the creepy voices or not, there's no denying that Hellblade looks and sounds amazing.
I wrote quite a bit already but have yet to discuss the gameplay. That just goes to show how captivating Hellblade's world is but I really should move on. For starters, the combat is impressively visceral as you must block, evade, and perform weak and strong attacks in order to overcome your enemies. There are a handful of various enemy types that you'll gradually encounter so learning how to effectively take them out is quite enjoyable. All of that being said, battles are disappointingly simple and after you mindlessly slay your dozenth horde of dastardly creatures, it clearly starts to become repetitive and dull. It's too bad because the combat could have been so much more.
There's more to Hellblade's gameplay than just combat, however, as you'll regularly have to solve puzzles. Unfortunately, almost all of these puzzles involve simply looking at things from different angles. You'll look at suspended pieces of a bridge from a certain vantage point in order to watch it magically assemble itself as well as match shapes to parts of your environment such as posts, shadows, and even cracks in walls. Although this sounds cool, the fact that the vast majority of the puzzles involve the same thing makes them feel incredibly repetitive and tedious. Along the same lines, not knowing what to do can result in wandering around aimlessly for an extended period of time. This is especially true within the first few hours of the campaign as you won't yet be familiar with the puzzle patterns.
Finally, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice may tell a memorable and haunting tale but it's over far sooner than I expected. The entire campaign took me about seven hours to beat which isn't bad but I expected so much more seeing as most of the campaign was composed of doing similar things over and over again. Throughout the campaign, you'll discover Lorestones that are either in plain sight or tucked away in optional paths. These help flesh out the world of Hellblade and act as collectibles. I found all of them except for about five in my playthrough and I wasn't even looking for them. Considering this is the only extra that Hellblade has to offer, it definitely lacks replay incentives. I wish there was more to see and do because I would have liked to spend more time in its gruesome world.
As an interactive story, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is in a class of its own. However, as a video game, it merely provides basic puzzles and combat that both end up feeling far too repetitive and tedious.
- + Incredible visuals and audio perfectly paint a dark and macabre world
- + Combat can be quite visceral
- + Hauntingly memorable story
- - Not knowing what to do causes needless frustration, especially early on
- - Puzzles and combat are too basic
- - Fairly short and lacks replay value