Ninja Theory is a company I have a great amount of respect for. And that isn't just because I tried interviewing with them four years ago and got down to like the last two. I have followed their work for a numbers of years, and whilst they haven't always sticked the landing with the execution of their games, it is clear that they are at least a creative and ambitious bunch. They always seem to be trying to do something different or that is at least noteworthy.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is somewhat of a testament to that. It's different, creative and ambitious in what it sets out to do, but it doesn't hit all the notes it needs to.
The game has been on a lot of peoples radars for a number of years due to Ninja Theory being very public about their goal to create a title that lived up to AAA standards, but one that was made on a fraction of the budget and resources normally required. They also spoke a lot about one of the core themes of the game being centered on mental health and dealing with psychosis in a way that video games hadn't managed before. That's a lot to take on, so at least they got the ambition part right.
Thinking back at my time with the game, I didn't have an issue with the length of the playthrough, or the presentation of the environments, or the competency of the gameplay. All of those things were realised quite well and didn't provide any problems. My biggest issue with Hellbade was the fact that at times, quite tragically, it still felt cheap. The emptiness of the levels, the usage of post-processed video footage to show characters, the constant droning narration from just one voice actor and the repetition of the enemies, emphasised just how many corners had been cut to make the game on a (relatively) low budget.
It's a shame because at other times, the game can be quite mesmerising. It's use of binaural sound design, the voices making you question your decisions, the impressively detailed and animated title character Senua and use of subtle transitions to cut scenes make the game feel more cinematic than many others. These high points in the games presentation, and the presentation of its story, make the low points all the more sore to see. And although the story is at times well presented, the story itself doesn't feel fully realised.
The long and short of the story is that you are Senua; a Nordic warrior on a quest to save the soul of your dead lover. Senua has to deal with voices in her head, visions of the past, and terrifying monsters that may or may not be real. As the game takes place from Senua's point of view, we have no idea if anything that happens in the game is actually real, or entirely a figment of her psychosis. There is also a sort of sub-plot told entirely through the Norse mythology equivalent of audio logs detailing cataclysmic past events. The problem with the sub plot is that it is easily one of the most boring things I've had to listen to since I stopped going to Sunday school. I couldn't decide if it was the voice actor's delivery or the content of the script, but something about these stories was so apocalyptically dry that I stopped seeking them out after the first hour or so.
The main story itself, whilst at times engaging, didn't draw me in because it was simply too muddled for me to follow. Maybe that makes me an idiot and I should get a dunce cap stiched into my hairline, but I don't care; I didnt find the story to be captivating. When you pass out in one environment, then wake up in another with no notion of relative time and space, you have no context. Did we die? Are we already dead and just going through the different stages of the afterlife? How did we get here or are we just imagining ourselves here because we need to? If we are alive then does magic and mysticism exist in this world or is this all meant to be metaphorical? It is fine for a fictional world to not follow the rules and conventions of the real world, but it must have at least some of its own internal rules and conventions to provide the player with an idea of what can happen. There is so little context given to the player that it can be difficult to find something relatable to grasp onto in the story.
Getting to the gameplay side of things, Hellbade is a mish mash of walking simulator, mandatory combat and puzzle solving. Each is executed competently; the quiet walking parts at least take place in nice looking/interesting locales, the combat has a nice visceral feeling and the puzzles are unique and creative in their execution. However none of these elements ever really evolves or gets used in any new or interesting ways as the game progresses. The puzzles themselves are an interesting idea; lining up elements of the environment to match a required symbol. But looking for the last symbol of the game basically requires the same amount of skill as looking for the first symbol in the game. And towards the end of the story I was getting less and less patient with each puzzle section, which is never a good sign.
I don't know how to review games properly or analytically, all I can do is talk about what I feel after having finished a game. And thinking about it now, I had more interest and praise for the development of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice than I did for the game itself. I want Ninja Theory to try out this development strategy again, and I want other studios to try it out too and see what they can create knowing they have a bit more creative flex with a smaller budget.
So if nothing else, I think Hellbalde is a step in the right direction for game development. Even if the game itself is nothing more than a series of multiple mis-steps. (Ouch).
Thoughts on INSIDE
Playdead's 2010 indie hit LIMBO is one of my favourite games ever. It was one of the only games I ever bought off the XBLA and I bought it based solely on its imagery, as it looked like it would be super atmospheric and mysterious and all that jazz. And naturally, I was very correct. But on top of the impeccable atmosphere and visuals, the game design is what truly stole the show. LIMBO was a masterclass of game design; game design in its purest form. No additional modes, or options or fluff - just a handful of simple mechanics and a linear world to use them in. I adored the game and couldn't wait to see what Playdead did next.
Fast forward seven years, and I have finally played what Playdead did next - INSIDE. On paper it simply looked like LIMBO 1.5 - a side scrolling puzzle platformer where you play as a small child in a mysterious and uncaring world. And whilst that is pretty much what INSIDE is (and that isn't a bad thing), it is also enough of a step up and away from LIMBO for it to be considered as doing more than just retreading old ground.
The set up is about as simple as it can get. You control a young boy who starts out in a forest, and he is either running away from or towards something. You can run, jump, push and pull objects, flip switches and eventually use a device that allows limited control over human-like drones. That last bit sounds like it doesn't really mix well the other abilities you have, but within the context of the game, it makes sense. Just like in LIMBO, the story of INSIDE isn't really about characters or events. In fact there is even less story in INSIDE. At least in LIMBO you were told that you were looking for your sister who was lost (or dead, or you were both dead the whole time and you were finding you way to heaven, or whatever). INSIDE just gives you a direction and tells the rest of its story with its locations, and with its atmosphere.
It's difficult to put into words the feelings that INSIDE's atmosphere and world building evoked in me. The feeling of desolation, alienation, isolation and urgency all hit me more than any other game I've played this year (except for maybe The Last Of Us). It's not like there are jump scares or horrific amounts of blood and gore (although there is the occasional gruesome death); there is just this sense of absolute dread from all of the little details you witness in your three hour play through. From your first steps into the forest being chased by men wearing blank masks, to goose stepping with mindless drones, to fending off hideous under water trolls, everything has a creepy edge to it.
Besides the solid atmosphere, INSIDE also excels at game design. Just like its predecessor, it has zero fat on it. Every single element of the game is used to full effect, and is used in multiple, varying scenarios, testing you in new and creative ways. Visual cues as to how to proceed are executed perfectly, but still allow for you to mess up the first one or two times. So it remains challenging without getting frustrating. Playdead takes each mechanic that LIMBO introduced and cranks it up to to a new level in INSIDE to the point where you think "There is no way they have another way of using this mechanic!". And yet they do, and they use it in a way that isn't repetitive or derivative.
As much as I love Playdead's two games so far, I do hope that they don't do side scrolling puzzle platformer for their third game. There is perfecting a concept, and then there is milking one beyond belief. LIMBO and INSIDE are perfect, and, unless Playdead can make lightning strike a third time, a third puzzle platformer would just start being a detriment to their past titles.
Although to be fair, if any studio could make lightning strike a third time, it's Playdead.