Psycho Simulator 2017
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t like your average AAA game. Developed by a small 20-member team, it takes the production quality and experience of a AAA video game-churning studio and combines it with the sort of passion and risk-appetite only found in an intrepid independent video game developer. The developer Ninja Theory essentially promises a AAA quality game that does away with worthless playtime-inflating padding and instead focuses on a crisp story-driven single-player experience for a fraction of what you’d otherwise have to pay for an average big-ticket release.
To put this brand of spartan video game development philosophy into perspective, Ninja Theory’s resident Video Editor Melina Juergens also doubles up as the lead character Senua in Hellblade. It might be tempting to dismiss this as cutting corners, but this is where we inform you that her performance managed to win Ninja Theory the Siggraph 2016 award for Best Real-Time Graphics and Interactivity. You see, these guys sure aren’t kidding around.
AAA Production Values on Indie Budget
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice then aims to achieve a lot more than just delivering a compelling AAA experience for a princely sum of 700-odd bucks. The game’s commercial success could potentially raise the benchmark for quality and pricing of games, turning it into a sort of Reliance Jio of the video game world that eventually compels other publishers/developers to up their game and lower their prices. We at SKOAR! love an underdog story, and therefore we really want this game to succeed, but being the rational video game reviewers that we are, we still intend to answer relevant questions such as: “Is this supposed to be a glorified walking simulator?” The short answer, thankfully, is no. Not entirely. The narrative-driven game tells the story of Senua, a Pict (an ancient Scottish tribe) warrior who has lost her mentor and soulmate Dillion to a particularly bloody Viking raid on her village. The game then overtly depicts Senua’s journey into the Norse underworld of Helheim to claim her lover’s soul. And we use the word overtly for good reason.
While on the surface it may appear that you are taking Senua to the very maw of Helheim, the game employs a number of neat tricks to make it amply clear that our heroine might be suffering from post-traumatic psychosis. This manifests in the form of her deceased mentor/lover guiding her by the means of a live action performance that’s been incorporated into the game tastefully with a heavy treatment of video filters and other post-process effects. This is in addition to other disembodied entities existing only as apparitions and voices, such as her Viking tour guide Druth, who delivers a competent crash course on all the Norse Mythology you need to know. Then there’s her father Zynbel bringing all the daddy issues home with great aplomb. The final ingredient in Senua’s psychosis Happy Meal are multiple furies who sometimes whisper words of encouragement and useful hints into her ears, and yet at other times tend to act like /b/tards who’ve made a sport out of collectively cajoling depressed anons to kill themselves on 4chan.
Of Psychosis and Daddy Issues
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the whole shebang is one big metaphor for her extant psychosis aggravated by a number of factors, such as a lifetime of daddy issues and surviving a brutal Viking raid that took away her lover. However, what separates Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from walking simulators is how all this has been conveyed not only using cutscenes, but through the very fabric of graphics and sound design, and furthermore strongly via gameplay itself. Senua’s story is brought to life with the power of Unreal Engine 4, using what Ninja Theory describes as real-time cinematography. The studio had already proven its motion-capture chops with its prior endeavour Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, but the bespoke mo-cap engine in Hellblade takes the in-game performances from the uncanny valley to the point where you can relate to the heroine and feel the full impact of Melina Juergens’ commendable performance.
The game’s mind-altering visuals depicting psychosis are brought to life with some clever use of post-process effects. We could nitpick about random low-quality textures and pop-in artefacts, but it would be unfair to mark down what’s otherwise a competent PC release replete with day-one support for 4K and 21:9 ultrawide monitors. The game looks downright gorgeous. And although it might not rival Rise of the Tomb Raider in raw visuals, it still gets pretty close. The sound design is equally competent with full binaural audio support making it worthwhile to stick to headphones. Do that and the whispers of the furies sounds eerily real, as they bark out warnings to dodge and avoid backstabbing enemies. This is cleverly tied in with the claustrophobic third-person perspective exacerbated by a narrow field of vision. Paying heed to these audio cues and warnings, therefore, is crucial to avoid being swarmed and backstabbed by enemies.
Simple Puzzles, Simpler Combat
Ninja Theory has done away with the sort of flamboyance and complexity witnessed in the combat for its previous titles such as DmC: Devil May Cry and Heavenly Sword. This time around, combat feels more like short interludes punctuating the rest of the game thanks to a small move set restricted to basic light and heavy strikes making up scarce combos. Fights are largely dictated by your ability to time your attacks and blocks right to fill up the bullet time meter and then unleash all hell on the enemies. There are some enemies with shields and a few bosses that demand a bit more ingenuity, but overall the combat plays second fiddle to the puzzle mechanics. Having said that, the combat still is highly satisfying and rewards skill.
A major chunk of the game involves solving puzzles, which judiciously employ Senua’s psychosis as a means to distort the very world that requires you indulge in some mental gymnastics to solve puzzles. These range from those involving spatial complexity to more elaborate versions of Where’s Waldo. You have stuff like building broken bridges and structures by visually aligning debris strewn around the vicinity like geometric jigsaw puzzles, and at other times just trying to recreate runes using anything from shadows, light rays, and reflections. Then there are the more visually arresting ones involving archways that serve as dimensional gates fundamentally altering the game world. It’s all fun and games, as long as you don’t expect the sort of complexity and genius exhibited by the puzzles in Portal and the original Prey.
|Played On: PC/Windows
Rig: Core i5 3550, GTX 1060 (6GB), 8GB DDR3 RAM
Developer: Ninja Theory
Price: Windows: ₹729 | PS4 ₹2,497
Verdict – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
It’s not like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice doesn’t have its share of flaws. The puzzles are mostly mediocre and get repetitive, whereas the combat, as intuitive and satisfying it is, still gets long in the tooth due to its lack of complexity. Despite what the marketing spiel tells you, this is not the first time that video games have dealt with psychosis. Masterpieces such as Silent Hill 2, Spec Ops: The Line, and Sanitarium have done far better jobs, with more fleshed out gameplay to boot.
However, Hellblade is a visually arresting depiction of psychosis that has been brought to life with a stellar performance by Juergens and some solid VFX and art design by Ninja Theory. The game’s short playtime of six hours effectively prevents these minor flaws from ruining the experience. What you have here is a memorable experience for what’s essentially much less than the price of a half-decent meal. We’d recommend going for the PC version to ensure we see more such sensibly priced offerings. The absurdly priced PS4 version is somehow costlier than the $30 international one.
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Nachiket "therapist" Mhatre
Nachiket has been obsessed with computers and videogames since the 8086 days. But don’t you go asking him about his earliest gaming memory. Not unless you are fine with being subjected to an interminable monologue romanticising the warm monochrome glow of early DOS games and how the medium has since lost its soul at the turn of the millennium. When he isn’t being a corporate slave at MySmartPrice.com, Nachiket spends his free time tinkering with hobby grade R/C, practicing archery, or just sharpening his knives for relaxation.