Two games landed on my plate recently, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. I got both at the same time, and although Hellblade is the newer of the two, I decided to do it first because I suspected it would be the shorter game by far – and I was right.
Hellblade comes to us from Ninja Theory, a small UK-based developer I always have time for. Not everything make is a home run, I’ll be the first to admit, but their games are always worth talking about on an artistic level. This is no exception, but it looks like one of those cases where the artistic aspirations took precedence over the gameplay side of things. Which is a bit strange, since Ninja Theory has proven they’re more than capable of producing a heavyweight action game when they made excellent reboot DmC: Devil May Cry.
The interesting thing about Hellblade is that it’s an experiment, partially. The developers were trying to see if they could make a AAA game on an indie budget. They even developed lower-cost performance capture techniques and I must say, the results are impressive. The facial animation on the main character is very nearly as good as that in Injustice 2 – which is the new yardstick against which I judge videogame facial animation. I don’t know what tools NetherRealm used for their performance capture, but I suspect they access to some pretty beefy tech, and it’s impressive that Ninja Theory is able to hang with them in terms of quality – even if it is on a single character.
Okay, let’s get into it. In Hellblade, players are put in control of the titular Senua, a Celtic warrior from the Orkney islands who has travelled to the home of the Northmen (the Vikings, basically) to retrieve the soul of her lover from the Norse underworld. And dammit, there are things I want to discuss about the story, but since the unfolding narrative is pretty much the only surprise the game has is store, I’ll refrain. I can tell you that the story is equally about mental illness – because that’s already a fairly well-publicised aspect of the game. And if you know how people in the early Medieval period responded to mental illness, you can probably imagine what kind of life Senua has had. If you’re looking for a happy story, look elsewhere.
But while Senua might be a few bricks short of Hadrian’s Wall, she’s pretty handy with a sword. Combat makes up a fair chunk of the gameplay, although it would be a lie to call Hellblade an action game per se. Senua has a sword and a handful of basic commands: weak slash, hard slash, kick, dodge and block. She’s periodically assaulted by waves of enemies and the combat is fast and satisfying and well-animated. There are several different enemy types and they all require different strategies to beat, but it’s never really challenging, even on the hardest setting. Things perk up a bit in the boss fights, where their attack patterns are unique and aggressive – but there are only four of them in the whole game. At the end of the game, I noticed a big ol’ pair of blue balls dangling from the pommel of my sword. It was not satisfied. The makings of a good action game are in here, but they didn’t go far enough.
The other, greater portion of the game is taken up by puzzle sections entwined with walky story bits. Some of the puzzles are quite good, I’ll admit, but once you figure out that almost all of them are simply a matter of looking at things from the right angle – seriously, you find the right vantage point and stare at the solution by pressing a button – you won’t be foxed for long by the remainder of them and… wait, wait, wait! This just occurred to me. You have to look at things from the right perspective for them to make sense in a game with an underlying theme of mental illness. Ah! I do indeed see what you did there, Ninja Theory. Very well done! Seriously though, the puzzles could have done with more variety.
There is one bit in the late game where there are some torch puzzles, and I mention it because it brings something else to light too. Early in the game, it warned me that every time I died, the corruption taking over Senua’s hand would grow until it would eventually kill her and “all progress will be lost”. I assume this means the game will erase my save and I’d have to start over (or do you? – Ed). I never died in combat, even on the hardest setting, but I came damn near close enough to dying enough times because of those frickin’ blind-running torch puzzles. Seriously, developers, that’s just cheap. Okay, my claim about the puzzles needing variety – I take it back.
The game is great to look at. The Nordic afterlife hellscape, whether real or a figment of Senua’s damaged mind, is a visual feast at all times. The primary method for conveying Senua’s psychosis is chattering voices she hears constantly. Um, is that not normal? Anyway, these voices gibber away making comments about the situations she’s finds herself in, often helping or hindering her. If you have a good sound setup, it’ll probably be something to hear. On the down side, the game is quite short and will probably take about five hours for most players to get through, and unless you really, really liked the story, there’s no reason at all to go back for another play through.
To summarise, if you’re looking for an artsy diversion and like the idea of a story about mental illness set in Norse mythology, it might be worth a shot. However, if you were looking for a substantial action game in which you play a foreigner travelling to Norse lands to murder their deities, you might want to wait until Kratos has a go at it early next year.