Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review

Within the confines of seemingly infinite darkness.  Shackled by the incessant torment of demons who taunt the fragility of sanity.  Forged by a distorted perception of reality.  The fleeting illusion of remission emerges, shattered by waves of fear, disguised as a welcoming shore.  The tide pulls you under, filling your lungs with despair, as you retreat further into the bowels of the abyss.  Beyond the looking glass, you see the revenant of an unfamiliar self, seemingly unhindered by this dark passenger.  Free to live a life beyond existence, unfettered by this infected mind…

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Hellblade: Senua’s sacrifice implants the player into the mind of Senua, a solitary Celtic Warrior traversing profound layers of  psychosis, on a quest to free her beloved’s soul from the clutches of Hell’s persecution.  Elements of dark fantasy, Norse mythology and historical fiction, establish the setting for the story, complementing pervasive dark themes and rich context.

Overwhelmed by confusion, ravaged by fear and haunted by the trauma of her past, Senua must embrace the madness cloaked within the recesses of her own enduring nightmare.  As each subsequent layer of the narrative is revealed, the player descends further into delirium to confront the gnawing darkness.  Driven by a captivating performance from Melina Juergens, Hellblade’s unique story examines mental illness through the lens of distorted perception.

Auditory verbal hallucinations plague Senua’s every thought with incessant persecution.  Dizzying shrieks and precarious whispers mock weakness, breed paranoia, evaluate circumstances, impart wisdom and deceive, while the player experiences an unprecendented level of sensory immersion.  Distinct personalities are accompanied by obscured visages and real footage, seamlessly woven into many of the game’s dynamic cutscenes.  The innovative, binaurally recorded aural mechanics of the game, utilize three-dimensional sound with remarkable conviction, to embed the player within the mind of a psychotic victim, tortured by disembodied voices.  Multi-directional audio cues during combat ratchet up the tension, while Senua’s passengers cloud her focus mere moments before issuing lifesaving commands.  Primal adversaries bark with bestial ferocity, hurling themselves at the player with annihilating density.  Steel flays skin and decimates bone with each violent exchange.  Cumbersome iron surges towards nimble evasions executed with delicate precision.  Each stratified sound encompasses hypnotizing voice work, coercing the player to assimilate themselves with the sheer terror of deep psychosis.

The soundtrack is layered by haunting vocal melodies, embodying heartbreak and nostalgia, contrasted by ominous tribal tones of heart pounding percussion and contemporary chanting.  The overall soundscape ebbs and flows with each fleeting emotion, as the tranquil sounds of nature ooze into brutish howls and demonic vibrations.

Visually, Hellblade is an awe-inspiring experience; merging graphical fidelity and scale with alluring atmosphere, comparable to any AAA title on the market.  Vast and silent peaks loom over inconceivable structures on the precipice of conceivable reality.  Enigmatic mists harbor cautionary spectacles for naive souls.  Ashen forests laid waste by seething flames hiss at dormant clouds overhead.  Menacing winds cleave bark from gnarled trees within haunted forests.  Radiant beaches marry cryptic beauty with macabre exhibition.  Illusory environments deceive the senses by challenging the player’s perception of reality.  Inventive puzzles exemplify the proficiency of a mentally ill person’s ability to recognize patterns within their environment.  Unique puzzle segments reward advancement thru methodical exploration within the confines of aberration.  A vast array of assets within the world convey the uniqueness of each surreal landscape, inspiring comprehensive exploration of each environment.  

Senua breathes life into her surroundings, as the atmosphere transforms in concession with her current emotional state.  Delving further into the waking nightmare thrusts the player deeper into Senua’s psyche, as her emotions are materialized within the physical landscape with harrowing authenticity.  Layered visuals incorporate volumetric fog, three-dimensional lighting, suffocating shadows, dynamic weather effects and crisp textures to generate an unparalleled level of immersion.  

Ninja Theory, in conjunction with its partners have conceivably bridged the uncanny valley with innovative full-motion video, capturing raw performances in real-time.  Senua convincingly reacts to the world around her, as impending doom is articulated by erratic breathing and paranoid scanning of her surroundings.  Believable facial animations, coupled with fluid motion capturing, generate an intensely cinematic feel as the game transitions between exploration, combat and cinematic elements.    

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Interlaced within linear exploration elements of gameplay, are visceral combat segments, pitting the player against perilous, corpse-like opponents, adorned in historically inspired trappings.  Simple on the surface, yet tactical and swift combat mechanics, are captured in an over-the-shoulder perspective, generating an intimate and realistic feel to each encounter.  The player must rely on acute timing, proper positioning and precise evasive maneuvering to open up holes in each enemy’s defenses to press the attack.  Enemy attack animations are rendered with violent physicality and density, as they exploit leverage, momentum and timing to inflict devastating blows.  Senua’s aesthetic animations are deft and precise, while conveying her technical prowess.  There is a profound feeling of vulnerability as each confrontation unfolds.  Despite the fluidity of the combat, a limited amount of attack animations can feel redundant during more extensive encounters.  Combat is vigorous fun, yet sparsely implemented throughout the duration of the story.  I would liked to have seen a separate combat arena mode, in which one could select from a variety of parameters to satisfy their lust for battle!

Verdict

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a powerfully evocative journey that exemplifies the width and depth of its subject matter.  The enthralling marriage of visionary atmosphere, thought provoking narrative, vibrant sound and gripping gameplay, are proof that smaller developers can deliver a AAA quality experience, for the cost of an independent one.  My eleven hour experience with the game has dominated my every thought, and I look forward to embracing the shadows once again.

So take up your sword, claw thru your nightmare, embrace your fears, accept your past, and transcend your darkness!

9.5

Pros Cons
 +Approaches the subject of mental illness with reverence -Not enough combat segments
 +Gripping character driven story  
+Evocative atmosphere with stunning visual elements and astounding textures  
 +Inventive puzzles and exciting gameplay  

Developer/Publisher: Ninja Theory

Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PS4

Genre: Action-adventure

 

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