Let’s get it out on the table: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the type of game I would’ve wanted Silent Hills to be. Not the exact game, mind you–I’d expect an SH installment to have more endings–but the degree to which Ninja Theory lovingly, carefully dropkicks the player into Senua’s broken mind is nothing short of majestic.
A significant degree of Hellblade’s marketing focused on capturing psychosis correctly (and, of course, the beautiful graphics). It’s great to see a game developer put so much care into the construction of a game’s plot, setting, and characterization that they consulted with psychologists and the mentally ill alike.
This care pays off quite well. Hellblade is full of both subtle moments of psychological tension, and direct freight-train-to-the-face moments of genuine horror, where the player doubts not only reality, but Senua herself.
Most are already aware of this, so I’ll address the most obvious element: the warning in the beginning of the game that repeated failure will result in permadeath, erasing the save file. Some were angered by this announcement, while others were angered by the fact that, apparently, no such system exists. You can die many times, but as far as anyone’s been able to figure out, nothing will permakill you.
That’s actually one of the most genius parts of this game. By terrorizing the player with such a deception, Ninja Theory instills the same existential dread Senua herself feels at all waking moments: that her failure will result in the destruction of Dillion’s soul, and her own being dragged down to Hel, her existence erased by the fact that there’s no one left to mourn or miss her.
Granted the savvy player might realize this very early on, because the warning says ‘failure,’ not death, will result in her destruction, and the black rot that symbolizes this failure grows during plot events, not so much after deaths. It took me roughly four deaths–all at the hands of the God of Illusion–to deconstruct this otherwise brilliant device and remove a significant amount of my own tension from the experience.
Hellblade, as a game, is broken into two parts: combat and puzzle solving. Ninja Theory is known for precise combat, but those who were a fan of their take on the Devil May Cry series will be a little disappointed. While the combat here is rendered well and feels very realistic to Senua’s characterization, those who fell in love with the fluidity of DMC’s action-packed, bass-thumping, mayhem-driven combat system will find Hellblade a bit formulaic and repetitive.
The puzzles are very interesting perspective-based events that fit well into the story, but unfortunately, the long puzzle-solving stretches, limited combat variance, and intensely narrative nature of this game limit the replay value. That first run through, though, is god damn amazing.
Ultimately, how much value you get out of subsequent playthroughs will depend on whether you want to turn the ‘auto’ combat difficulty to hard, if you have any collectibles to round up, and if you played with headphones on the first time (In the words of Shia LaBeouf: DO IT!).
However, this game’s first run through alone is worth the thirty dollars it currently costs. Between the graphics so beautiful you’ll literally stop playing just to look around, and the heart-stopping moments of Senua’s descent into madness, Hellblade is easily one of the most ambitious and well-executed games I’ve played in my entire life. While I’ll be waiting for a DMC 2 (unpopular opinion, I know), I sincerely hope they get license to make the next Silent Hill. They’d nail it. No doubt at all.