You know what really bothers me about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? Something which made me feel really extremely silly and therefore irritated with developers Ninja Theory for making me look and feel silly. Have you heard about the whole controversy that surrounded the game’s save files? The game itself even outright tells you that if you die too often that it would delete your save in a manner of permadeath? I had a big long discussion about this and whether or not I thought it was good game design, whether it was a gimmick or actually could even be construed as a legitimate mechanic. Well it turns out that actually it’s simply not true and doesn’t happen.
Yeah, mind blown.
Apparently there is no permadeath mechanic. The game doesn’t delete your save file. The rot which creeps up the protagonist’s body to show how often you’ve died actually just always stops at a certain level and never progresses higher. It was all a swindle, a sham, a bald-faced lie.
It feels like I got caught out with an April Fools prank for believing it and not even bothering to research it at all, so now I feel like a right dummy. The guys at Ninja Theory must’ve been fucking pissing themselves at all the controversy the whole thing created. “Look at them debate this!” they cackle to each other, “Idiots! Who would actually include that in a game?!”
Maybe in fact it was all a test to see who would believe the fake news. It was a test, to see if people would find out the truth or believe the media. Guess I failed…
What most definitely is not fake news though is the quality of Satsuma’s Sandwich, which entirely deserves the majority of the praise it received as one of the stand out games of last year.
The game was described by developers as an indie game with the trappings of a triple-A game, and in a sense this is certainly true. The game definitely has the graphical fidelity to put it well in amongst the big boys of Triple-A and meanwhile has all of the characteristics of an indie game. It’s got a focus on story, which is well written. It makes a few interesting attempts at innovating, which can lead it to feel occasionally pretentious and stuck up its own butt. It has a larger emphasis on subtlety instead of being just showy and exciting, which practically defines indie games. It also has combat which is… There…
To provide the context: the game follows protagonist Satsuma- Sorry, I mean Senua, a Pictish warrior who is travelling to the Norse underworld Helheim to reclaim the soul of her lover Dillion after he was killed by the Vikings. Throughout the game as she tries to reach Hela, Goddess of the Underworld, she is chased by an enigmatic evil force called The Darkness and is constantly accosted by voices which seem to narrate her every action.
While initially it might be a case of so-far so-Dante’s Inferno, it slowly becomes clear that there is more at work than just this mythology-based story. Gradually it becomes more and more overt that much of what you are dealing with in the game is actually a metaphor for Senua having a particularly damaging mental illness and psychosis
Admittedly while the game itself is initially rather subtle about this, the developers themselves do rather beat you around the head with this tidbit. One can barely hear anything about the game without hearing how experts in mental health were consulted so as to properly and accurately reflect Senua’s degenerating mental condition.
It’s here, of course, that the game can be at its most pretentious. As is always the case, the presence of this rather heavy subject matter leads the game to acting like its being oh-so-very clever and special for doing what it’s doing. Naturally I’m absolutely the worst person for this sort of thing because I like my games and stories to be straightforward and so when things start getting METAPHORICAL™ then I start getting frustrated. Having said this, it’s mostly done to a rather skilful degree in Satsuma’s Sandwich, such that it really actually adds to the game in the end. It was a difficult subject and dealt with well and respectfully, so for that if nothing else it deserves some respect.
The other major downside of the game is, as I mentioned, the combat. It feels like it was added out of necessity, to turn the game from a 5 hour-long walking simulator into an 8 hour-long game. It’s a third-person perspective melee game, so that means a heavy attack, light attack, block and rolly-polly button. There is also a power meter which fills up so that you can briefly slow down time.
Mostly, the combat can be very simply reduced to stun-locking enemies until the arbitrary moment they decide not to be and also inconsistent frustration with Senua perhaps rolling in the wrong directions, with a difficulty in choosing who to target and sometimes just getting hit and knocked down when you DAMN WELL shouldn’t have been.
Despite being a bit shitty, the combat is also not very difficult and at worst becomes just mind-numbingly repetitive. One sequence which was particularly reminiscent of hack and slasher Dante’s Inferno, in which you wade through a series of blood-filled canyons, was a combat-based sequence and one of the most boring and dismal parts of the game because of just how much fighting was involved. The whole threat of the possibility of a deleted save file never concerned me though because I couldn’t have died more than once or twice in the entire game.
Where the game perks up a little bit was in its puzzle-solving aspect. In order to progress you would often come across locked doors with big glowing symbols required to open them. To find the symbols you would have to wander around the nearby area and find some poles or shadows or beams of light which, from a certain perspective, formed the shape. Not particularly strenuous stuff, but nifty and well-designed with the added benefit that it encourages exploration of the small but intricate areas you travel through.
It does need to be said in fact that it is an extremely beautiful game. While it’s not perfect and some aspects aren’t done as well as others, a lot of the time it’s properly jaw-dropping how good looking it is. The environments and enemy design are one thing but I think particularly impressive is the design of Senua herself.
Played by Melina Juergens, Senua has been created through extremely extensive mocap which legitimately blazes a trail right through the uncanny valley and towards the other end. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more convincing animation of a human being’s movements, expressions and speech. Shifting flawlessly from in-game cinematics to actual gameplay, Senua just looks brilliant and is completely compelling as a protagonist.
It’s worth mentioning that the animation quality of Senua was such that the moments when the game is interspersed with real video footage of a couple of actors (for flashbacks and narration) I initially almost mistook them for animated. Similarly, it’s the first time I’ve not found it jarring having real video footage side-by-side with animation.
I give a fair amount of the credit for this high quality to Ms. Jeurgens herself, and I found her performance as Senua to be extremely convincing. I will admit I have heard from other sources that they found her to be the epitome of ham-acting, with expressions ranging from wide-eyed bewilderment and terror to utterly over-the-top spitting fury, with absolutely nothing else. I’ll admit in hindsight that these are the two emotions I remember from Senua, but at the same time it feels like a rather jaded view and one which arose from not immersing yourself in the story.
Some credit is also due of course to the environments and setting of the game. I can’t comment for how accurate the portrayal of the Norse underworld and mythology is, but I personally was completely convinced. It managed to hit a good line where I find myself intrigued and interested by tidbits of Norse history scattered throughout (like the use of the Blood Eagle) and also managed to create a setting which was just simultaneously spooky but very cool.
Immersion is something which is of utmost importance for story games like this, and for me I was pulled in without a glance back. The atmosphere of the game is brilliant, enhanced by Senua herself. It’s constantly eerie and threatening and somewhat alien whilst also still with that touch of humanity. It looks exactly like a world that was not designed for humans and it feels as such when you travel through it; almost completely unwelcoming and hostile.
The manifestations of Senua’s psychosis also play an important role in this. Their constant whispering in the back of Senua’s mind, berating her repeatedly for her failures (real and perceived) is ghostlike and sinister, backed up by the far more deliberately threatening and frankly almost terrifying voice of the Darkness. Even better, the voices actually play a role in the gameplay occasionally directing you and warning you, so you have to keep an ear out for them telling you to “Watch out!” as an enemy swings at you from behind.
There is no real better demonstration of just how absorbing the game can be than the first 10 minutes. The introduction of Senua slowly paddling along a river and through a swamp towards the entrance of the underworld is completely gripping and possibly one of the most enthralling set-pieces I’ve played lately. It took just a few minutes and I found myself becoming unnerved and hushed, eyeing the completely still forms of crucified bodies lining the river as my mind convinced me that it had seen them move.
While, admittedly, the opening segment of a game might well contain some of the strongest material of a game, I don’t feel like there was a really significant drop in quality from that point on. True some parts were boring and dragged on a bit and some parts weren’t quite as effective, to the extent that once or twice I was in danger of being removed from the experience, but equally I did find myself regularly on the edge of my seat.
It is also a very emotional game, capable of more than just unnerving moments. Some parts were actually almost outright scary, but there was also heartbreak and other effective and poignant moments. Overall it simply does its job in crafting and displaying the story of Senua wonderfully.
What perhaps elevates the game is because it is capable of telling the story of a mental breakdown in a grounded manner. Or at least, as grounded as a story about travelling to the underworld to rescue your deceased lover’s soul can be. Admittedly, at the end of the game it makes it abundantly clear which narrative is the true one (if it were not obvious by that point already), but prior to this it could potentially have been interpreted either at face-value or by what it represents, and that’s something I approve of. It’s quite simply clever writing.
In fact, part of what makes the game such an achievement is that it tells this story set in a time where the phrase “mental health” was probably synonymous with “I wasn’t hit in the skull with a rock today”. It never feels forced, and above all else it never feels like it’s either aggrandizing Senua’s condition or preaching to the player.
This is the final point I feel I want to make about the game in its favour. It’s not a game about mental health issues; it’s a game in which the main character happens to have mental health issues. A fine distinction to be sure, but a welcome one.
|· Absolutely stunning character design with jaw-dropping motion capture
· Some of the most immersive set pieces of last year
· Story has both a realistic and grounded way of portraying mental health issues
· Overall clever and excellent writing
· While possibly pretentious, the game avoids being overly self-important
|· Combat ranges from completely average to blitheringly dull
· With a weak combat system, the game can often devolve otherwise into little more than a well-animated walking simulator
· Bloody Ninja Theory and their lies! How dare they?!