2018 Summer Backlog: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

I am, frankly, surprised with myself at just how long it has taken me to pick up Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I like developer Ninja Theory - I even consider Enslaved: Odyssey to the West to be a criminally underlooked gem from the last generation. That is not to say that the short library of games that they have thus far produced aren’t problematic, because they are: typically featuring rushed third-acts and some fairly flaccid combat mechanics. Despite these shortcomings, however, I still can’t help but link Ninja Theory in my mind to recollections of beautiful graphics, outstanding animation and compelling stories. Hellblade is no different in this regard and my time with the game would easily leave me to believe that it is the studio’s best work yet.

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Loathe as I am to admit it, I do think that the way in which Hellblade was presented to consumers had some effect on my will to play it. I appreciate what Ninja Theory did here: a true, Triple-A game without the bloated development teams and gargantuan marketing budgets; a digital-only release to cut costs; a budget price to reflect its development. These things are all undoubtedly good decisions for the consumer, but also contributed to my lack of urgency to play it. I believe that everyone likes to picture themselves as immune to corporate marketing-schtick and the obsessive, hype-informed culture that surrounds us. And yet, even as a fan of Ninja Theory’s previous work, without a big push to get the game “out there” and on the mind, Senua’s Sacrifice landed firmly in the, “I’ll get to it when I get to it” camp.  

Luckily, when I finally got around to it, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice speaks for itself. Purely as a technical showcase, the game  is breathtaking - especially when taking into consideration just how small the team that worked on this was. There’s no need to repeat what has already been covered in reviews scattered across the internet, but suffice to say that the game’s presentation is nearly photorealistic in many areas and the sound design is unlike anything I have ever heard before. The presentation certainly has its limitations: an achingly slow speed of movement and claustrophobic field-of-view are no doubt concessions for the sheer graphical-fidelity on display here, even if it does all come together in the end product. The gameplay itself, on the other hand, left more of a rough-first impression. The combat relies a bit heavily upon player-discovery, and takes a long time to present scenarios where it can truly shine. The puzzles in the opening hours, likewise, veered more towards the realms of “frustrating” and “arbitrary” than “fun.”

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And yet, over the course of two play sessions, I still found myself binging this entire game.  While neither the combat scenarios nor the puzzles of Hellblade never truly reach the “outstanding” territory for me, I was very pleased to see that they do vastly improve over the course of the game. The narrative, also, was not only just as affecting and emotional as one might expect, but shockingly complete and well-told. The game was, in its totality, an immensely satisfying venture that lingered in my mind for far longer than its runtime. I am more than glad to have played Hellblade and knocked it off of my backlog, and it only leaves me excited for Ninja Theory’s future prospects with the economic-clout of Microsoft backing them.