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).