Reviews Krzysiek Kalwasiński
Review: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PS4)
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice in the game database
Review: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PS4)

Hellblade is an unusual game, but not because of its mechanics. What makes it unique is the mentally ill main character and a powerful atmosphere that’s strongly inspired by Nordic and Celtic mythology. But does it work in practice?

Hellblade takes us into a dark world seen through the eyes of the eponymous Senua, a Celtic warrior suffering from severe psychosis, which has been intensified by trauma. The protagonist's goal is to save the soul of her deceased beloved. So she sets out to Hel itself, so that she can provide him eternal peace. I don’t want to reveal much more, because the storyline is one of the best features of the game. It’s worth noting that it neatly combines many elements of both Celtic and Nordic mythology – it’s so much more than a Celtic warrior in a Nordic universe, but writing about it involves revealing the content of the story. However, it translates into unique atmosphere and style, especially if we add psycho-heroine – hallucinations and different perception of the world. We learn the story by listening to the voices living in Senua’s mind and by exploring the game’s universe. There are cutscenes too, but they are in minority here – however, they are at a very high level in terms of performance and content. As you might expect, the whole thing is fairly confusing and the very ending leaves a lot of questions. In this case, however, these are advantages.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s most powerful features is the main character. Her characteristic look itself, especially when it comes to her face, makes the story more interesting and gives us that unrealistic feeling. The character almost constantly has a lost and frightened facial expression, wide open, empty eyes – it’s most striking when her face is shown in the company of disturbing music and ever-present whispers. There are also powerful scenes with hysterical, painful screams or darkness and rot in the background. The actress playing Senua has done a great job and created a very authentic character. All the more so if we take into account how seriously the topic of mental problems has been dealt with. The creators consulted not only the experts who examined the phenomenon, but also those affected by similar illnesses. Their ambition was to open the eyes of "normal" people to how a person suffering from psychosis could perceive the world. True, I can’t confirm the authenticity, but the effect of their work has made a very positive impression on me, and I’m a person who likes such subjects. At this point, I will mention that in the main menu there’s a documentary showing the production process, but because of the issues raised, it’s better to watch it after learning the whole story. However, the people who speak there confirm that Ninja Theory has touched the subject very skillfully, and as you know – superficiality or crossing the line is a danger here.

As for Hellblade gameplay, it's very easy to come across terms like walk simulator or opinions that the game completes itself. I won’t agree with these allegations, especially in the era of today's games where there’s little required from the player (with a few exceptions). It’s true that we walk a lot – at which time we learn more details about the world or the past of the heroine – but there’s no lack of interaction. They’re not demanding nor varied, but so well constructed that I didn’t feel bored for a moment. There’s a division into exploration and combat. The game world in its design is not open, but it’s no surprise. The game is linear and there are few extensive locations. Is it a drawback? Not for me. Personally, I feel fed up with open world games, especially since they’re often inadequately filled. Besides, sometimes you just want something more linear and enjoyable. However, returning to the game itself – we go through the corridor-like (but beautiful) locations, listen to the spoken lines and occasionally find glyphs that act as collectibles, who tell us stories taken from Nordic mythology. I didn’t learn anything new myself, but it’s better than picking up worthless feathers.

Hellblade can also boast of interesting but simple puzzles. Every now and then we will get to a closed gate with engraved symbols. Our task is to focus on them, remember them and then find the same shape in the surroundings. They may be branches, falling shadow, or two completely separate elements forming a given shape. So we have to find the right place and look in the right way. There’s no great philosophy here, especially when as we approach the target, the screen is flooded with clues in the shape of the sought runes. Sometimes we’ll be forced to repair a given element of the environment – a collapsed bridge or stairs. This works in the same way as for runes, except that the hint here is our pad which vibrates when we’re in the right place. Some puzzles are simple, others slightly less so, and in some cases we get to run around a bit. Despite their easy character, they adequately complement the gameplay, which could suffer from serious shortcomings without them.

The fighting system is an element that before the premiere of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice worried me the most. It still remains little impressive, but thanks to its simplicity it’s quite relaxing and appropriately spectacular. Although not right from the start, because the game doesn’t explain all the issues. For the first few fights, when Senua fell to the ground, I thought it was the end of it. It turns out that if the heroine lies down and breathes heavily, she can still get up. Similar is the use of focus during combat. If we perform swiftly and effectively, our magical mirror fills up – after it’s full we can use its power and for a short time significantly slow down the opponents. Having mastered these two elements, the fight becomes almost childish. Nevertheless, it has its challenges. One is automatic opponent tracking – if we fight one and another will attack us from behind, the camera will automatically track the other. It often annoyed me, but on normal difficulty it didn’t cause any major problems. This can be changed at any one of the four difficulty levels (easy, normal, difficult and automatic, which adjusts to the player’s skills). During the adventure we will also defeat a few bosses, but they also don’t stand a big challenge, although sometimes I had to approach one boss several times.

It’s worth mentioning that there is an interesting solution used by the creators of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Spoiler alert here for the people who have just started playing or intend to, and want to squeeze from the game as much as possible. I'm talking about losing the progress of the game after the first fight. There’s a message that if we die too often, the rot consuming the protagonist will widen until it reaches her head and swallows her mind – for us it means starting the adventure all over again. I checked whether you could actually lose the save. At first I tried to get totally defeated in one fight, but after a few attempts the rot stopped spreading. I gave up after a dozen of attempts and decided to repeat the experiment throughout the adventure. Unfortunately, the effect was the same. Maybe it's not bad news after all, because the solution remains interesting. However, some will certainly be disappointed, especially those seeking a challenge.

There’s still the issue of the Hellblade audiovisuals. Even before the premiere, it was clear that it would be at a high level. Since the release nothing’s changed and the graphics still looks great. Both the world and the character look really beautiful and detailed. All the more joy from the rich option of photo mode, which is based on one we had in Uncharted 4. There are, however, small drawbacks. In some cutscenes the image of real actors and the Senua’s model generated by the computer is combined. The contrast is visible then, but this is no real problem. I doubt it was a deliberate effect, but you can see that their voices are not fully synchronized with the mouth movements. Sometimes it was also the case that the animation of an actor was not smooth. Unfortunately, it spoiled the general impression. At some points there were small drops of animation, but for this 10-hour-ish adventure it’s really not much at all. By the way, I must add that I was playing on a regular PS4. Music and sound are true perfection, especially if we play with good headphones. Voices appearing in the heroine's head are heard from different directions and with varying intensity. The same with the sounds of the environment and others, from a somewhat more puzzling source. It builds a strong, disturbing atmosphere. Music can send shivers down our spines at one point, and at another, touch our heartstrings and affect our emotions.

You must be wondering if Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is worth buying. Definitely yes, because it's a beautiful and successful independent game. Under no circumstances is it self-completing and it offers nearly 10 hours of great fun in terrific atmosphere. The convincing heroine and unique subject of psychosis is a treat, which hasn’t been neglected. The fighting is not going to satisfy everyone, just like the puzzles, but all gameplay elements are well balanced so there is no boredom. If you value the plot and the atmosphere first of all, I probably don’t even have to encourage you and you've already started playing. The game is available in Polish, but unfortunately sometimes subtitles don’t appear under the lines, so you have to listen and try to catch the meaning of the sentence yourself.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Out rating: 8.5/10
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a real gem and an example of how independent games should be created. Beautiful graphics, intriguing atmosphere and convincing main character. Mandatory position.
  • Pros
  • Brilliant atmosphere
  • Beautiful graphics and style
  • Convincing and well-created Senua’s character
  • Soundtrack
  • Cons
  • Small technical issues
  • Doesn’t create a challenge
  • Slightly problematic Polish version
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