Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the latest title out from developer Ninja Theory was released this week. I have been looking forward to this for some time. What initially caught my attention of Hellbade was the documentary that went into depth about the techniques and technology they used to capture Senua’s actress, Melina Juergens in real time. It’s quite a fascinating video, as right from the start, it’s as if Melina herself is present in living flesh. What’s most impressive is how they managed to capture every little detail in her facial animations and truly bring Senua to life. As expected, the visuals and animations do not disappoint, but I’ve learned about the games interesting mechanics and it’s design which have me even more excited now that I’ve finally gotten pretty deep into this unique experience.
For those who have followed me for some time, you’ll know there are three things in games that really speak to me, two that I’ve written about extensively. First, is a game that teaches you through your own curiosity or experimentation and intuitively teaches you how to play the game. It never pauses to throw text boxes in your face telling you obvious things like “hey, jump over this gap or you’ll die!”. Second, is a game that has limited HUD elements, without the useless things that get in the way and instead, keep your eyes on what truly matters. You can read about that here. Third, is a game that has the player interact as the character during key story moments. This blurs the line between game play, narratives and story telling scenes, essentially making you feel helpless and truly experience the agony or suffering of the character in game. You can also read all about that here. These items are all checked off quickly on my list in just the first 20 or 30 minutes of the game.
Mild spoilers ahead… you have been warned
In the opening moments, you are paddling through murky waters, and encounter corpses upon corpses. If that wasn’t bad enough, Sensua has mental issues, and there are a barrage of voices inside her head telling her all sorts of things. Those voices head say things that make you second guess what’s ahead. By asking in whispers “Do you see that ahead!?”, it really makes me fumble around my camera and expect to see some monstrosity emerge from the fog. In the end, it’s all mind games, which is one of the struggles Senua is clearly going through.
These voices are done extremely well, from the phrasing, to the frantic whispering being overlaid one another, it gets it’s job done very well. I especially love how it sounds like the person saying the phrase is pressed right up on your speaker, almost as if they are going to enter your room, like something out of The Ring. It’s quite frightening, and I can only imagine how much scarier this game can be with head phones.
The game absolutely does not tell you how to do anything. It does not tell you how to zoom, run or fight. Instead, it throws a few of these things in your path and in its own form, actually uses the voices in her head to guide you in a way. For example, you encounter these stone rune like structures. These hold some back story of the game, but they need to be activated. To trigger them, you need to press a button to have Senua zoom in and activate the rune, providing you with the audio. The game never pops up anything to tell you what button to press, or how and why to do this. You simply hear one of your inner voices say “FOOOOCUSSSSSSS”, in an equally haunting way, which triggers you to do just that, zoom in and focus on the rune.
When combat starts, even then you are left helpless. The game never gives you any hints on how to fight, let alone that you wield a sword until Senua unsheathes it. But even then, the game strikes fear into you. The enemies you face are monsters made from what appears dirt and twigs. They are quite terrifying. That combined with not knowing what to do really puts you in a tough situation. Of course, through experimentation, you quickly learn your normal and strong attacks, and also pick up your defensive moves such as dodging and parrying. However that initial “OH SHIT!” moment really catches you surprise and keeps you on your toes.
Another great thing that kind of elludes you until you actually start fighting, is that there has not been a single HUD element present. There are no arrows showing you where to go and no map giving you an idea of your surroundings. While exploring, this all forces you to keep your eyes on everything around Senua. On it’s own, this is much appreciated for me being able to see unobstructed views of the pretty surroundings. But throw in the voices inside your head that make you second guess each and every move you make, your eyes sift around frantically for anything that could possibly be lurking nearby.
There aren’t even any health bars, so as you are taking hits from the terrifying foes, you have no idea how much more you can take. This makes fighting in Hellblade feel so much more intense, as you literally know nothing about your enemies strengths and weaknesses. What is especially cool is that even though you have no visual queues in the way of HUDs, the audio plays a role in helping you out. If facing off against multiple enemies, your inner voices will scream “Watch out behind you!” right before an enemy attacks you from out of sight. The audio queue didn’t help me avoid those particular incoming attacks, but it did quickly taught me to keep all my enemies in front of me, since without any health bar, who knows when an attack from the back can take you out.
My favourite and probably most horrific moment of the opening sequence is also during your first enemy encounter. After you get the hang of things, you take out a few enemies, but then your surroundings start to blacken, and enemies made of shadows appear. These enemies are the worst, as their attacks can’t be blocked and they can’t be hurt, since they are simply shadows. They are essentially invincible it seems.
Your try your best to dodge their attacks, but nothing seems to work. You eventually take enough hits and you stagger to the ground. Broken and fallen, you can see and feel the fear of Senua as she struggles to keep up with this unknown threat.
Senua is defeated at this point, starts screaming while holding her darkening arm on the ground…
Until eventually her face becomes this…
It’s quite horrific, and the game keeps the view on her face for long enough to make you feel uneasy. Little do you know, this is actually a cut scene playing out giving Senua a vision of events to come. That is if the darkness consumes her. It is at this point the games main mechanics are made clear. Everytime you die, the darkness seen on Senua’s arm consumes her more and more. If it reaches her head, you lose all progress and have to start the game again.
Right after, Senua is seen staring at her lifeless corpse, still grasping her arm. She, along with the player come to the realization that this was just a vision, and this will eventually be the consequence of failing too many times. This whole sequence is amazing. It has you play through the agony that Senua experiences when facing off against the shadow fiends. She is utterly helpless against them, and this feeling is conveyed onto the player as well. As soon as she falls, you are left speechless as to what just happened. It seems as if it was just a gruesome game over sequence, but instead, it is an interactive way the game unfolds part of it’s story, and key mechanics. It left me feeling deflated and utterly defeated.
At this point, I’m loving Hellblade. It’s ticked off key areas that make games more than just games for me, and instead, art. I’ve played a bit further after this event, and the game keeps throwing some other crazy things at you, and I’m sure there is more to come. I’ll be saving more about other parts of the game for a review in the future, but for now, all I can say is I already highly recommend Hellblade.
Have you played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? What are your thoughts? How did you like the opening moments of the game? Let’s get chattin’ in the comment!