Reviewed on Xbox One X, also available on PlayStation 4 and PC
Released – 8th August 2017 (PS4, PC) 11th April 2018 (Xbox One)
Developer – Ninja Theory
Genre – 3rd Person Action-Adventure
Coming 7 months after its initial release on PlayStation 4 and PC; Hellblade: Senua’s sacrifice, finally makes its way to the Xbox One ecosystem as an enhanced title. The big question for Xbox owners….. Was it worth the wait?
In a short answer, YES!
Hellblade is a dark, gritty tale that is heavily and richly inspired by Norse and Celtic Mythology. It follows our heroine Senua, a young Pict warrior who had previously been banished from her village because she has been touched by ‘the darkness’ (which is a crude Celtic take on Psychosis)
On returning to her village, she finds it plundered by Viking ‘Northmen’ and her lover sacrificed to the Norse Gods. Now, to save his soul, Senua must embark on an epic quest to the depths of ‘Helheim’ and bargain with the Goddess of the dead ‘Hela’ in order to save him from eternal damnation.
I have always had a special interest in Hellblade, not because it looked amazing -and I really dig Norse Mythology!- but because of how Senua is accurately portrayed as someone suffering from psychosis.
As someone who has had a very close family member who suffered it, I was intrigued to see how this would be achieved. It is certainly a big subject matter to take on what many have tried before and ultimately fell flat.
I’m pleased to say that Ninja Theory have done an exceptional job by not over stigmatising and treating the subject matter with the care and attention it deserves. There are no grandiose pronouncements about the nature of mental health or bright red flags trying to put the subject matter front and centre. Instead there are just simple little cues and gameplay mechanics that I will talk about shortly that make Sensua’s struggle more real, giving our Heroine a profound sense of humanity as she battles with self doubt and the seemingly overwhelming odds that face her.
Hellblade is a mature, single player affair that will take the average gamer roughly 8-10 hours to complete. It is a 3rd person action adventure that sees the game employ an ‘over the shoulder’ viewpoint to create a very visceral experience. Gameplay is a mix of traditional hack and slash combat with rudimentary puzzle solving thrown in for good measure. There isn’t anything new that fans of the genre haven’t seen before, however what it does in terms of gameplay, it does well.
Combat is weighty and fierce with Ninja Theory going for an almost claustrophobic feel to the encounters, especially against multiple enemies. It creates an immense feeling of pressure in an attempt to overwhelm the player, making each encounter feel deadly.
In this instance feeling overwhelmed is a very deliberate gameplay mechanic that tries to get the player to feel how a person suffering from psychosis would feel and it is delivered exceptionally well.
However, I will say that it would have been helpful to have an ‘auto-lock’ button in combat, especially when you are facing multiple enemies in a crowd control situation. I sometimes found myself targeting the wrong enemy, resulting in cheap hits from behind. It is only a minor gripe however, as the whole the combat is very enjoyable, especially when you get to grips with the enemy timing’, Senua’s use of ‘focus’ and the different combo’s achieved by alternating the light and heavy attacks.
There are also various puzzles for the player to solve while travelling through Helheim. These puzzles usually require the player to ‘focus’ or to see the world from Senua’s point of view (Activated by pulling RT).
At its most basic level, these puzzles require the player to search for shapes in the world that match the shape of the runes that appear on locked doors. Once these shapes and runes are matched up, the door opens.
I was worried at first that these puzzle types would be it for the whole campaign, however I can report that Hellblade will ultimately work you harder the deeper you delve into the campaign. I wont give away any spoilers, only that each new challenge is designed to get the player to empathise with who Senua is and to sympathise with the effects of psychosis.
Hellblade is a hauntingly beautiful game with some of the best visuals I have ever seen on a home console. I played on an Xbox One X and I literally found myself hitting the capture button every 5/10 minutes, it really is that good.
For the Xbox One X Ninja Theory employs 3 options in relation to graphics. ‘High Resolution’ which targets a native 4K resolution, ‘Enhanced Visuals’ which employs a dynamic resolution but dials up the graphical effects to 11 and finally ‘High Framerate’ which lowers the resolution but targets 60fps.
It’s a great selection of choice for the player and it will come down to personal preference. I actually liked the Enhanced Visuals mode best but I can certainly see some players preferring the High Framerate mode, especially for the combat.
Exceptional characters have become a hallmark of Ninja Theories work. Like Enslaved before it, Hellblade employs motion capture for the portrayal of Senua. Melina Juergens does a fabulous job in this regard with the player really empathising with every grimace, emotion and look of anguish that comes across Senua’s face. It also helps that the character models are incredibly well detailed and articulated.
My only negative, and it is a small negative, is with the game world. It does suffer from ‘invisible wall’ syndrome. It can break the immersion somewhat when Senua can’t jump over a fence that is about 3ft tall.
Probably the standout star of Hellblade is the superb audio work. If you are able to play this game in surround sound, especially with headphones, then I implore you to do so. It really does heighten a very important gameplay mechanic.
As you journey through the world of Hellblade the player will be joined by voices from Senua’s psychosis or ‘Furies’ as the game calls them. These voices will be constantly whispering in your ear and commenting on Senua’s physical and mental state, providing audible cues that are absolutely integral to the core gameplay mechanics. Especially as the game has no HUD display.
It is both outstanding and completely unsettling at the same time!
Ninja Theory really needs to be applauded for the amazing audio work on offer here. It is sure to provide a delight, especially for gamers that have access to surround sound systems. It’s no wonder that Hellblade took the ‘Audio Achievement’ at the recent 2018 BAFTAS.
It is easy to see why Hellblade received universal acclaim when it released on PlayStation and PC back in August 2017 and also why it swept 5 Baftas at the recent 2018 awards.
It is a triumph of mature story telling, incredible audio design and meaty, visceral combat. What is even more impressive is that this game was created by a mere team of 20, released at a low price point and has production values that easily rival most AAA games on the market.
A definitive must have for Action-Adventure Fans.
- Beautiful Graphics
- Amazing Audio Design
- Exceptional character models
- Fantastic portrayal of mental health
- Easy Completion for Achievement/Trophy Hunters
- An 'auto-lock' in combat would help
- Invisible walls can be a little immersion breaking
- Lack of physical release may deter some