Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review

By Mark Delaney, 8 months ago
The best games in the history of the medium aren't just games that have achieved their vision so successfully. It's not enough to hit your goal as a studio and expect acclaim, because your goal may be underwhelming. The best games are found when a studio sets the bar high for itself and clears that bar with a game made with intense focus, polish, and remarkability. Ninja Theory is one such studio and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is one such game. As uncomfortable as it is unforgettable, Hellblade is amazing.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Hellblade is a third-person action-puzzle game set against the backdrop of polytheistic mythology. Players take on the role of Senua, a pariah shunned for what her community calls her "darkness," better known today as psychosis. Senua suffers from voices in her head, often taunting her and confusing her, although occasionally even aiding her. Not just one, or even a few, but several voices haunt Senua every waking moment of her life, which the game presents with fantastic and often unsettling binaural 3D audio that really demands headphones to be fully experienced. Throughout the eight-hour story, these voices will serve as your only companion to Helheim as Senua treks across the Norse underworld to save the soul of her lover, Dillion.

Hellblade earns praise in every way with very few caveats, but its strongest suit is its remarkable, truly all-time great protagonist in Senua. Ninja Theory consulted with neuroscientists and real-life sufferers of psychosis to respectfully and intelligently capture the affliction in the game. It serves as the tragic catalyst for why Senua has been abandoned, but it is also what makes her so remarkably strong. Senua is much more than her diagnosis, and although the game takes place in a fantastical setting, the parallels that can be drawn are clear.

Hellblade champions her strength and it's impossible to not root for her, not because she deserves pity but rather because she is the embodiment of perseverance, selflessness, and will. Inundated with self-doubt and grief, Senua withstands horrors that would make seemingly anyone else collapse under defeat, but she is so powerfully presented that it's difficult to even write about it without feeling the game's intensity yet again. She never feels superheroic, though. All of her feats are earned; she's genuine and simply awesome. Flashbacks and her unreliable perspective help deliver insight into Senua's history as a victim, which makes her refusal to appear victimized in the present that much stronger. She shrugs off the idea of feeling sorry for herself the same way she rejects the supposed power of her gods.

Yes, an indie game really looks this good.Yes, an indie game really looks this good.

Adding to the greatness of Senua as a protagonist is her voice and motion capture actor, Melina Juergens. Early in the project, she served as the studio's video editor and became the stand-in for Senua while Ninja Theory crafted their motion capture tech, but she retained the role after they realized she embodied their vision for the character. She wasn't a professional actor before Hellblade, but you would never know. Juergens delivers a stunning performance as Senua, imbuing the character with raw, uncomfortable pain at certain points and a gritty defiance of the gods at others.

Aiding her effectiveness is the game's single-take presentation, which is delivered up close and personal to Senua at all times. This method, along with the game's phenomenal audio design, complete lack of any loading screens, and clever hardly-there UI combine to make Hellblade feel less like a game and more like you're there with Senua in every moment. The world is gorgeous, too. Senua's facial and motion capture are among the very best games have ever seen, and the environments are oppressive and even scary at times, but through it all they look great. This review was played on a standard Xbox One but as it's an Xbox One X enhanced game, Hellblade surely makes for what may be a top two or three game on the console in terms of visual fidelity.

For anyone other than the most ardent purists of action combat or puzzles, there remains a lot to love in those elements too. Neither is as deep or challenging as those in their respective genre counterparts, so the most diehard fans may feel unimpressed to some degree, but in both instances, they're also strong in their own right and deserving of praise. The combat is visceral and allows for the player to truly master Senua's sword fighting abilities. Simplistic button commands give way to a host of exciting combinations, and you'll need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of all enemy types on the fly — the game never reminds you it's a game by offering things such as tutorials or upgrades. It's you against a host of hulking monstrosities and the best players are rewarded with stylish combat and a real feeling of reward. It'll always be your fault when you fail, never the game's.

Combat sequences feel heavy and well choreographed.Combat sequences feel heavy and well choreographed.

The puzzles won't leave extreme puzzle enthusiasts in awe, but they're still well designed. As Senua's perception is often in question, it suits her and the game's thematic meat that the puzzles often involve altering her perspective or unmasking illusions to navigate the world. The best attribute to the game's puzzling is its diversity. A few types are used throughout the game while several others make for interesting one-off moments that require you to quickly learn the rules of the conundrum. Often your life will depend on it.

Hellblade does so many things well that it becomes a bit foolish to point out flaws. One could argue enemy variety is lacking or that the pacing is shot a bit by an extended puzzle sequence about two-thirds through, but ultimately these items fail to really counter all the good this game does, to the point where they feel inconsequential. Officially, this is an indie game, but the production value is on par with the best AAA experiences ever made in nearly every way.

The achievement list is almost entirely unmissable. You'll get 13 of the game's 14 achievements just for playing through the story, while the last unlock pops when you've found Hellblade's 44 lorestones, the game's audio collectible where Senua hears stories from her people's mythology. Use one of the fantastic guides we already have on site for that one, and on top of all else Hellblade does so attractively, it'll be an easy completion too.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox Action-Adventure Games Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

Some games do a few memorable things in an otherwise disappointing package, and some games are greater than the sum of their parts. Then some games are like Hellblade, where everything is done so well that it stands up to nearly all criticism. The puzzling and combat are both well designed even if neither is genre-redefining, and the audiovisual experience is a consistent spectacle. The ways it never cuts to loading screens and hides its UI makes it feel unique too, like we are right there with Senua every step of the way, but it's because of the story that Hellblade is forever cemented as something special. Senua is fierce and imperfect in a way that will have you rooting for her like few characters ever garner. Her journey is pretty much unceasingly filthy, violent, tragic and horrific, yet it's not a story of suffering, but rather one of perseverance. Senua is a remarkable character who instills all of her energies into the player in such a way that will never be forgotten.
5 / 5
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Positives
  • Visceral combat system that can really be mastered and never feels unfair
  • Phenomenal audiovisual experience
  • Melina Juergens is stunning in her role as the all-time great protagonist Senua
  • Creative puzzles that play into the game's thematic elements
  • Deeply personal, unforgettable story
  • Intelligently grapples with mental illness
Negatives
  • Neither combat nor puzzles are elaborate enough to impress either element's most ardent fans
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 8 hours in Helheim as the remarkable Senua, overcoming inner and outer demons. He collected all 14 of the game's achievements along the way. An Xbox One review copy was provided by the developer/publisher for the purposes of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.