Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Review)

Xbox gamers were pleasantly surprised recently when developer Ninja Theory announced that their critically acclaimed game from last year, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, would be soon arriving on their platform of choice it was a greeted enthusiastically by all.

With the balance of exclusive titles often falling in favour of PlayStation many would have just assumed this one was another title lost. But now it’s here and even comes with enhancements for the Xbox One X. So if you’ve been sitting on the fence for a while about the game (I was looking at the PC version) this is as good a time as any to dive in and experience it for yourself.

Player control is limited in the opening sequence but sets the tone nicely.

The game casts the player as Senua whose story plays out initially through the often disturbing voices you hear from the moment you see her paddling along in her boat. Her quest to save the soul of her dead lover from the goddess Hela will force her to face both the world’s and her own demons if she is to prevail. And you quickly find that it’s not just voices that Senua is dealing with amidst her struggles.

Gameplay is mainly linear with the player moving from location to location facing off against enemies and solving environment based puzzles to progress further. The puzzles themselves are clever not in being overly complicated but by making great use of the areas the player is exploring at the time. Combat is straightforward with light and strong attacks coupled with a dodge and block. It’s all about timing and feels like a simplified take on the Batman: Arkham Asylum series but replacing the visual cues for actions with audio ones.

Graphically the game is pretty amazing with the performance capture being startling at times when the camera gets right up into the face of Senua. Every moment experienced can be seen registering on her face and some scenes can hit you hard – the world itself may be fantastical but Senua herself is very believable. Ninja Theory have always been regarded as one of the most capable teams in the business when it comes to using technology to distill an actor’s performance into games but this is just another level stuff… the character detail is completely stunning.

The character detail is stunning to see in close up.

The world design reminded me initially of the creepy Wicker Man level from the launch Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome which I had thought was a standout moment in that game so it was great to see another title build on that in their own way. The opening boat ride helps set the tone too and gives you glimpses of what’s to come as it smoothly transitions into full player control and the real beginning of Senua’s quest.

The audio is frightening in both its execution and atmosphere. Voices are everywhere and contextual, often disturbingly so. Games often use surround sound for positioning a player in a world but it’s rare to have one use it to unsettle you with the sound of talking. As mentioned earlier it’s even useful in combat as the voices often warn you of impending peril and give you enough time to respond. I highly recommend to use headphones and either switch on Windows Sonic or Dolby Atmos to make the most of the effect.

I’m finding that I’ve needed to play the game in short bursts as the experience overall can be unsettling in extended sessions but it’s not stopping me from going back time and time again to learn of the ultimate fate of Senua. That the subject matter and it’s execution can achieve that so well is a testament to the skill of the Ninja Theory team in crafting both a compelling story and world worthy of people’s time and effort.

Senua faces much in her journey, including her troubled past.

For players who enjoy story driven games that are tightly focused on the presentation, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a great example of the genre that doesn’t wear out its welcome but will certainly make an impact on you long after you’ve completed it.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is out now for Xbox One and was reviewed on that platform. The game is also available on PC and PlayStation 4.

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