STAFF REVIEW of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (Xbox One)

Thursday, April 19, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Box art Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was probably one of my favorite games on Xbox 360, and I’d probably put it in my top 10 or so games ever. I also really enjoyed DmC: Devil May Cry more than I expected. What does this have to do with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? Well, all of them are made by the same developer, Ninja Theory (they also created Heavenly Sword), so they have quite a pedigree when it comes to quality titles. Somehow I missed that Hellblade released last summer for PC and PS4, as I’m usually up to date on my favorite developers, yet somehow this slipped by me. Here we are, almost a year later, and Hellblade finally makes it way to Xbox One for more gamers to enjoy. In a way I’m glad I waited, as it’s been enhanced for Xbox One X in a substantial way, and given that I’m using an X, I got to enjoy it the way it was designed to be.

I didn’t realize how critically acclaimed Hellblade was before it landed in my lap, and after seeing the credits roll, it deserves every single accolade it has received, and more. With a tale that revolves around mental illness, exploring it in a way that truly makes sense and is incredibly eye opening, Hellblade is fascinating from start to finish.

With a backdrop in the Viking era, a Celtic warrior named Senua is on a dangerous mission alone to the gates of Hellheim to save the soul of her dead lover. From the very beginning of her journey, Senua’s tale is dark and disturbing, and not just from her surroundings and situation, but the internal battle that is happening within her mind; it is one that is even darker. There’s a larger, over encompassing story arc in play here as well, about where she needs to go and explore, and more importantly, why, but the most interesting experiences comes from what Senua thinks she is experiencing.

Each step of the way, Senua will battle her psychological condition, which makes it difficult to distinguish what is real and what isn’t. This explains all of the voices she hears in her head, which will act as a guide for you as you progress, warning you of danger, or what subtle clues to find. You’ll constantly guess if Senua is actually experiencing what you’re playing, or if it’s an intricate hallucination her mind is playing on her. Keep in mind, because of the era this takes place in, it wasn’t diagnosed as a disorder, but instead, people thought they were cursed, which adds so much more context into her battle.

Ninja Theory actually worked in collaboration with a team of neuroscientists to recreate what having psychotic breakdown (psychosis) is actually like, and has done so in a respectful, yet frightening manner. You can’t imagine what it would be like to live with a blurred line between fiction and reality, but you can get a sense of it for the eight or so hours you play Hellblade, and it’s terrifying to imagine if that was your day to day reality. Even though the gameplay is very linear in fashion, the story is told in a very unique and compelling way due to Senua’s condition, one that I can empathize with.

Gameplay is very linear, but it works for the setting and narrative path. As you explore the areas, you’ll come across pillars with some runes plastered on them, allowing you to focus your mind’s eye, giving you some lore, told as a story, as a reward. These are not mandatory in any way, but they further flesh out the world and its surroundings with a story to tell.

The first thing you’re going to notice is how absolutely stunning the visuals are, borderline photorealistic at times. This allows you to be immersed into Hellblade’s world. I routinely caught myself stopping to simply look at the scenery and take it all in. To help further the believability of this world, there’s absolutely no user interface or HUD at any point in Senua’s journey to remind you that this is a game, and it’s better for it in every way. Even animations are incredibly fluid, as she will gracefully sidestep and backpedal if moved in that direction. Her dreads flow naturally against her body in relation to her movement, and her face, I swear at times, is that of a real actress. The believability in Senua’s facial movements is so unreal it kept taking me by surprise that it’s not a real person but all in-game visuals.

There will be times where Senua will have to fight to protect herself against opponents, be they human or demon. While the combat is very basic, it works and is simple for the most part. You have light and heavy attacks along with some melee attacks, and you will also find the ability to dodge and block. When you enter a combat section, Senua will automatically pull out her sword initializing the combat sequence, and the sequence will end after you kill a few waves of enemies. They start off easy in the beginning, but they become quite challenging, especially the bosses, near the end of Senua's tale.

What I didn’t expect is the inclusion of permadeath should you 'meet-your-demise' too many times. Senua seems infected by some sort of blackness, and every time you die, it spreads further across her body, eventually killing her if it engulfs her. When you start to fight three enemies or more, simultaneously, you’ll need to listen for audio queues to block and dodge correctly, though you do have a focus you can sporadically use to slow down time in essence, helping you to defeat them easily.

The other major portion of Hellblade is how it handles its included puzzle elements. You’ll constantly come across doors that are locked by some sort of dark magic with runic symbols etched across them. The only way to unlock these doors is to find and match the same symbol somewhere in the environment nearby. For example, if the door has a cross symbol as its barrier, you need to find something in the environment that makes that exact shape. This is very clever, as the solution may be looking for a dead tree standing tall in front of you, with a branch from another in the background, and when you look at it at just the right angle, it forms the symbol you’re looking for.

The first few puzzles will surely stump you, though once you figure out what to generally look for, it becomes easier in time. Sure, this puzzle element is repeated throughout, but it’s still a clever way to do so. Other puzzles will have you walking through portals that seem to distort time, allowing you to explore your area, but in a different time. For example, going through a certain portal may cause you to go back to the past where the rubble that was previously blocking your path has now returned to its former glory of a functioning staircase. Again, it’s a very clever mechanic that also feeds into her psychosis condition.

If you’ve ever needed a game to use as an excuse to get an Xbox One X, as an upgrade from your original or S, Hellblade is one hell of a valid reason to justify doing so. On the X, there’s are three separate game modes for you to choose from, based on your preference, and they are resolution, visuals or framerate. If you choose Enhanced Visuals, the world is much more full and lively with added foliage, fog, improved shadows and other effects. If you have a 4K display, then you’ll want High Resolution mode, as the game is displayed in 4K at 30fps. I chose High Framerate, as I don’t have a 4K display, but playing at a smooth 60fps was an absolute treat, making movement even more fluid, including combat. If I was to actively search for flaws, there are some minor texture pop-in and some clipping in a few spots, but that’s me actively looking for minor faults. Given how amazing the overall package looks, arguably the best on the console to date, it gets a pass.

I’m normally not a huge audio guy, as I’m partially deaf in one ear, but you are prompted at the very beginning that it’s suggested to play with headphones on for immersive 3D audio. Sure, if you have an insane audio setup at home then you may not need to rely on headphones, but trust me, you’ll want to play with a good pair if you don’t have true 7.1 sound setup at home, as the audio is hands down, the best I’ve ever experienced in a game to date.

Normally for audio I tend to focus on the soundtrack and voice acting, but there’s so much more here in Hellblade. When it simply comes to environmental sounds, I’ve never heard anything so realistic before. The thunder in the background actually made me believe it was outside my apartment, as it was raining that night. Footsteps are subtle but noticeable, as are the crackles of passing by a fire.

The voice acting is on a whole other level, and probably one of, if not the, best performances I’ve ever experienced in any media before. Melina Juergens puts on a performance unlike any other, and given the fact she had to do multiple personalities for the voices in her head that you constantly hear as well, it’s an absolutely stunning performance. Not just her, but every voice actor involved is perfectly portrayed and completely believable. Do yourself a favor and use the best headphones you have access to, as Hellblade has easily the best audio design I’ve ever experienced before.

After experiencing Hellblade, it may shock you to learn that not only is Ninja Theory not a huge ‘AAA’ developer, but the price is also half that of a new release, making it an absolute must purchase. While some may not be fond of the simplistic combat, puzzle elements or linearity, I feel they were absolutely suited for this specific narrative. Enslaved is one of my favorite games ever, also created by them, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is easily their crowning achievement in every way.

You may think you know what it’s like to hear voices in your head, but Hellblade will allow you to experience it in a very raw and frightening manner, yet also being respectful to the mental illness, shedding light on the disorder. It just happens to also be an amazing game at the same time, again, with the best audio design I’ve ever experienced before, something Ninja Theory should be commended for in every way. I constantly felt fearful and tense, yet determined to help Senua along her journey, and even though the credits have rolled, Senua’s Sacrifice will stick with me for quite some time. Xbox owners may have had to wait to experience Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but as they say, good things come to those who wait, and this is without a doubt already on my Game of the Year contender list.

Overall: 9.8 / 10
Gameplay: 9.6 / 10
Visuals: 9.9 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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