There remains a game that we never reviewed here at GReviews this year. A game that won multiple awards, including at the prestigious Game Awards 2017, and rightfully so. I’m talking, of course, about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Hellblade was a tremendous descent into Celtic and Norse mythology alongside a compelling and very well acted cast of characters and horrific demons. The game was brought to us by Ninja Theory who you might remember from such games as Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey To The West. Hellblade is a considerably darker game than Ninja Theory are used to producing but the studio rose to the challenge with a carefully considered and thoughtful approach.
Our title character and protagonist, Senua believe she is cursed by furies and haunted by a darkness; Voices in her head and a despairingly relentless series of hallucinations respectively. Hellblade is essentially a game about an 8th century Pict woman who travels to Norse ‘Hel’ in order to save the soul of her dead lover who was murdered by Viking raiders. But at its core Hellblade is also a game about psychosis and the dangers of what fear and ignorance can lead to in the fight against mental illness. The developers did their research into what the symptoms of mental illness can be by including professors and psychologists from Durham and Cambridge Universities on the team. They worked hard at trying to replicate these symptoms for a game’s protagonist and to me, I feel that the respect paid by the developers to the material they chose to work with made for a very poignant experience.
I feel a quote from Professor Paul Fletcher, who worked on the game, says it best:
“It’s been refreshing to see a representation of psychosis in which the person isn’t just a sort of passive receptacle for madness. Senua is the hero of her own story, trying to make sense of her experiences and work her way through them – that’s incredibly de-stigmatising. In representations of mental illness onscreen, you usually have the illness first, and then a two-dimensional character attached to that. In this case, the character is fully-formed, and they are not defined by their condition.”
Graphically Hellblade was stunning. Far more stunning than a game from such a relatively small studio should have been able to produce. When you couple the amazing texture and model detail with the absolutely first rate art design and concept work on the environments and enemies then it’s easy for me to say that this was the best looking game of 2017. From Senua herself, a Pict warrior woman daubed in ash and tattooed with Woad, to the amazing Norse demons who stride forwards, a mix of humanoid, barbed roots and beastly fur, every encounter feels intense and well realised.
A massive shout out has to go to the incredible imagination that went into visualising and designing the hell-scape that Senua has to traverse in order to save her lover, Ethan. The initial scenes show Senua paddling a small vessel into a foreboding, mist shaded forest punctuated by corpses dangling from posts. The environments go through all kinds of changes throughout the game. Senua crosses deserted coastlines, writhing nightmare worlds of animated, damned souls and a blazing inferno where the God ‘Surt’ makes his kingdom.
Games with this level of depth and attention to artistic expression tend to end up with pretty lacklustre gameplay. In fact most of them fall into the ‘walk around and look at stuff’ genre that’s become so popular this year. But Hellblade is so much more than the average game. Hellblade offers two distinct gameplay modes. The first is the exploration mode where Senua can travel throughout the land, solving puzzles and collecting story fragments which are narrated by the voice of her friend Druth. The second is the combat mode where Senua draws her sword to take on the devils that walk menacingly out of the shadows. This dual style allows for the player to drink in the rich atmosphere of the game’s environments as they travel and progress through the puzzles whilst also letting the player focus on the intense combat in predetermined and carefully paced moments.
Lets talk about the combat and a few of the gameplay features. I initially compared the fighting to the Dark Souls formula which has been taking the industry by storm this year. Light attack, heavy attack, dodge roll block and parry. Now this is all true but Senua is considerably more energetic and fluid in her movements than any souls game I’ve played (bar maybe some weapons from Bloodborne) but the biggest difference is that there is no equipment grinding or inventory managment to worry about in this game. If an ugly demon rears its head then Senua draws her sword and deals with the situation. She doesn’t gather several hundreds of different weapons from enemy drops and chests then use her 8th century calculator to work our which one has the best DPS. Its incredibly refreshing to just have a character who has a weapon she uses when she needs to and not a full blown arsenal in her back pocket.
Hellblade does not hold your hand. There is no tutorial, there are no button prompts; your only help are the voices that have been tormenting Senua all her life. This is one of the defining achievements of Hellblade. The furies which speak to Senua are constantly talking each other with conflicting advice, often telling Senua to give up as its all hopeless. But the system is cleverly designed to place slightly more focus on the voice which you need to hear at the right times in order to figure out what you need to do next or to tell you you’re in danger.