Voices in our heads
It’s always tough to review a Ninja Theory game.
They breathe a certain spark of life into their projects that practically no one studio can replicate. Yet, they insist on crafting relatively simplistic action sequences that detract from much of what they set out to accomplish.
It’s a lesson they could still learn from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, 10 years after Heavenly Sword.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Released: August 8, 2017
Hellbade really grabs you immediately with some fantastically nuanced voice acting. Not only does the direct influence of mental health advisers help the project (and if you watch the short in-game documentary you’ll see just how serious they were about this), but the actual performances have been wonderfully directed, with a good script to boot. There’s a lot going on, as multiple “voices” inside of the protagonist Senua’s head can be speaking at once — parsing several perspectives simultaneously is something games rarely attempt to accomplish.
In typical Ninja Theory fashion it looks gorgeous. Peppering in bits of Norse Mythology like the underworld Hel on a quest to save a loved one, the setpieces are a treat to explore, and the character designs are well-detailed without going into uncanny valley territory. This is world I want to see more of, and for all you Pro owners out there, there’s an option for a stable 60FPS.
It’s important to understand that unlike much of Ninja Theory’s previous work, Hellbade is not inherently an action game — at least in theory. They’ve finally embraced their strengths here, doubling down on a narrative focus. Exploration is usually as involved as moving from point A to B while you take in the scenery and listen to the accompanying dialogue or engage in light perspective puzzles. It’s a nice loop as the writing and puzzles are sharp enough to keep your interest, and the locales are striking enough to string you along.
Combat is distilled down to fast/heavy sword use, and quick hand-to-hand strikes, with both evasion and blocking in the mix. Most of the samey nightmarish fodder can be dispatched with fast attack spam with minimal dodging, and while the entire affair is a serviceable one, I can’t help but wonder if the entire idea of combat should have been removed altogether.
It’s frustrating to play such an engrossing narrative and see grating issues pop up like camera problems (where it zooms in far too much or focuses on a wall) and enemy repetition — both aesthetically and mechanically. Spamming light attacks and occasionally tapping dodge for heavily telegraphed blows is all you need, with the slight adjustment for throwing in a strong hit to stun enemies when you’re overwhelmed. I also noticed a few small technical issues like at least one typo in the subtitles and other polish related things like the basic UI.
Slowly but surely Ninja Theory has moved into film territory, but they can’t let go of their need to shove action mechanics into everything they do. With the increased focus and acceptance of so-called “walking simulators” there’s a huge market they can tap into, and I hope they end up doing that in the future. I enjoyed pretty much every facet of Hellblade that didn’t involve combat, which unfortunately pops up a little too often on top of the aforementioned technical problems — just enough to grate.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]