Most people remember Ninja Theory due to their mishandled Devil May Cry remake/reboot/prequel thing. While I didn’t play it, the general consensus seemed to be that the game featured satisfactory gameplay layered over an awful story. Coincidentally, the game I associate with Ninja Theory the most is Enslaved: Journey to the West, a game that had excellent gameplay paired with, what were in my opinion, strange characterization issues. An anectdote by Alex Garland springs to mind:
For example, I think the first serious discussion we had about the narrative was on the very first day that I, Tameem and the level designers all sat down together. We got to a section where Monkey was walking down a walkway, and he sees an escaping slave trying to pull himself up to the walkway. And instead of helping the guy up, Monkey kicked him in the face and sent him to his death. They thought that projected the idea that Monkey was a badass. Whereas, to me, it projected the idea that Monkey was a bit of a cunt.
I think that highlighted a difference in our approach to character.
The game also culminates in a baffling reveal (spoiler alert if you’re still looking to go back to this one) that the antagonist is trying to save people from conditions he created. This was an ending so stupid and ridiculous I still mock it with friends who haven’t even played the game.
We’ve established that Ninja Theory is a developer whose strong suit is the gameplay and action side of the game, and that story and characterization are weak points. It was then with some trepidation that I saw they were developing HellBlade: Senua’s Sacrifice.; an experiment of a game made with fewer resources than your typical AAA fare. The concept is to bring to market a game with the same production values as a traditional AAA game, but without the use of a publisher. A concept Ninja Theory christened “AAA Indie”. In practice this means a shorter game, sold at a discounted price, that doesn’t have as much as all that expensive spectacle. In other words, a game that must be carried by its story.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice puts you in control of Senua, a Celtic woman that has journeyed to the the Viking underworld of Helheim to ask its Goddess, Hel to return the soul of her husband. Senua, the game tells us, has a sight that allows her to see truth behind the veil of what we would call reality. But that power to see what others can’t comes at a price. A darkness that follows Senua, trying to devour her soul, and generally making her life unpleasant. She is also haunted by voices, known as the furies, that generally tell you how worthless you are how you are going to die. As the game progresses and you learn more about Senua, more voices are added. None of them are very pleasant, but at least they tell you when there is someone behind you during combat so they have at least one use.
Most of the time you will be walking around, looking at the lovingly crafted vistas as you move from one area to the other. Gameplay alternates between puzzles and combat. The puzzles while generally resting on the easy side, are well done. It introduces concepts with simple puzzles, and then gives you more complicated versions of them, finally combining them with other puzzles and combat for good measure. It does some clever things with perspective and perception.
The combat system is surprisingly deep for game of this type, though perhaps not as surprising when you remember the developer. Combat is slow, and feels heavy in general, but moves can come at you deceptively fast. Besides the normal attacks, Senua can block, kick (for enemies with shields), dodge, and slow time down with a focus ability. The focus ability is on a gauge that fills up as you keep on fighting. Enemies are varied, starting with some very basic swordsmen, but quickly branching out with more enemy variety, and by providing a more dangerous mix of enemies. Despite the slow combat, when you are pitted against several enemies things can become frantic very fast. Bosses in particular can be treats to wage battle against, as the game makes use of its perspective switches and excellent combat systems to great effect when fighting them.
When you aren’t solving puzzles, fighting, or traversing the world as the furies tell you how inadequate you are and how painfully you will die, the game play is broken by the occasional scripted section. These are usually very effective at being horrifying, and are quite good at illustrating the torment the darkness subjects Senua to. The excellent aesthetics of the game, combined with the really amazing voice acting, and the realistic facial capture technology can really help you to connect with Senua. Ninja Theory should be commended for nailing the atmosphere and for putting enough love into the character to get those details right.
Unfortunately, in true Ninja Theory fashion, they just cannot help themselves when it comes to overextending on their narrative. While Hellblade is probably their finest writing, it is also their most delicate and most vulnerable to mishandling. And the ending of this game ruined most of the story for me. I will avoid spoilers, but the last section not only ruins the entire plot, it drastically changes the whole tone of the game up to that point. It goes from Senua’s journey through her tortured psyche, to the ending of a teen movie, complete with a pop-rock song over the closing credits.
If you have read any reviews or seen any coverage of this game, then you know that this is all a big metaphor for mental illness. That is something that I wish I didn’t know when I was playing the game, because going in with that knowledge makes it seem transparent and trite. But this is not a situation where you can blame the coverage of the game for spoiling it. Much like a child who has finally had a good idea, Ninja Theory just cannot help itself. Upon booting Hellblade up, a message comes up telling you this game is about mental illness and some might get #triggered. I wish I could have played the game without knowing that. It might have made its metaphor better and its impact as you draw your own inferences hit harder. As it is it just comes off as awkward and pandering, though I don’t think Ninja Theory’s intentions were cynical while making them game. It is just a shame that all of this clear effort, art direction, acting, and facial capture were ruined by the awful ending and the developer’s unwillingness to keep the themes of the game to themselves so the player could draw their own conclusions.
It is unfortunate that Hellblade is such a narrative heavy game, because this means that this misstep in the story ruins the a large part of the game’s appeal. This is a short game as well, It took me 7 hours to complete, and this is not the kind of title that offers any real replayability. Sadly the way that Ninja Theory handles its themes, their promotional campaign and the coverage ruins any chance of their metaphor to be effective. In addition to that, the revelations and events of the last section and the ending ruin the narrative so badly, on a game where that is so important, that it lowered from a fantastic game to just an average one. That said it is still a game worth playing if you are looking for a good, if short narrative experience. It has some decent puzzles, great combat, and fantastic artistic direction, facial capture, and voice acting. Perhaps my warning in this review will be enough to soften the blow from the ending. It is just a shame that Ninja Theory got so close with this one, and then just dropped the ball. If this looks like something you might be interested in, go ahead and give it a chance.