Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice tells a memorable tale of a Celtic warrior who happens to be suffering from a rare mental condition, psychosis. The game keeps us clueless whether the journey that we embark on, the people we meet, the enemies we fight or the fears that we face, are part of reality or just a manifestation of Senua's psychotic mind.
The illness has been dealt with very sensitively. The developers, Ninja Theory, give gamers a brutal, uncompromising and unrelenting experience of what it is like to be faced with this mental condition. They are able to achieve this level of detail after having spoken to various renowned doctors in the field, and many who suffer from psychosis.
Senua's journey, has the perfect ingredients of a super-hit indie game. And, with game devs like Ninja Theory — the guys behind the infamous reboot of Devil May Cry and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West — who are well versed in the world of AAA games, we can surely expect an extra coat of polish.
Ninja Theory themselves dubbed this game as an "independent AAA" title. But sadly, this is where things go terribly wrong, for neither is this title truly an indie experiment nor a full blown AAA experience. It gets lost somewhere in between, into mediocrity.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a perfect case of a brilliant concept but poorly executed.
Apart from the great voice acting and an apt portrayal of this extreme mental condition, nothing does justice to Senua's sacrifice! A video game is something that is able to suck you into its world of an unforgettable cast of characters and vast dreamy landscapes, meshed with addictive gameplay and combat. But this one, while giving you a great world, does not let you sink your teeth deep into it, mainly because of flawed gameplay mechanics that are more busy stretching its play time.
The combat is tons of hack-n-slash mayhem, but only for the first few hours. The enemies, after the first few round of battles, stop testing your abilities (and start testing your patience) as there are hardly four to five varieties of enemy types in the entire game. I was so fed up fighting them time and time again, that I ended up changing the difficulty setting to easy, not because the game has difficulty spikes, but because I wanted to get rid of them swiftly so I could continue.
The battles in the game are like the randomly occurring battles in Japanese role playing games. The enemies suddenly appear out of thin air, mostly in predictable large-open arena like empty spaces, only to slow your progress. And while it feels acceptable and quite a bit of fun in the beginning, it wears down really fast, especially due to the fact that some battles last for as much as 15-20 minutes, filled with the same enemies respawning again and again. This slowly goes from tedium to utter controller flinging frustration.
Games like the Stanley Parable and Amnesia, have the experience to provide to gamers that are nothing short of what the big ticket games have to offer. However, they are able to achieve such a presentation only because they understand their budget constraints and tailor make the gameplay, successfully hiding its deficiencies. This sometimes means doing away with combat altogether.
Hellblade, on the contrary, tries to achieve everything under its small budget with a modest staff, and in the process loses its sheen, in utter disregard for its spectacular subject matter and premise. I confess, that this is an indie attempt at making a very polished title, but I feel it is best to try to understand one's limitations, and make the best of it, rather than do an average job.
Take for example the indie sensation, That Dragon, Cancer. The developers knew what they wanted to achieve from the game, to make the player step into the shoes of an inconsolable couple whose child is suffering from terminal cancer; to get a sense of the couple's daily trials and tribulations. Agreed the game was hardly two hours long, but it did not bog down the experience with back to back puzzle solving which don't add anything to the experience other than to delay the credits screen.
And it's not only about the repetitive puzzle solving that Hellblade is plagued with, but also about how most puzzle scenarios of the game are completely disjointed from Senua's story. In one of the later levels, you have to enter four different worlds to solve a puzzle in each. Only after you solve the puzzles in each world can you progress in the narrative. But what baffles me, is the fact that the devs purposely decided to not make them a part of the overall narrative of the game, probably add the puzzles one by one in a linear path. Such facets of the game really take you away from the immersion, something that is essential for this kind of a game.
One of the gems of the horror genre, Silent Hill Shattered Memories, which was originally released for the Nintendo Wii, has many similarities to Hellblade. But, rather than take you away from the experience for puzzle solving, Silent Hill makes it the heart and soul of the narrative itself, keeping you hooked to the experience while not for once giving you a sense that it is a tool to increase the play time.
No matter how much I tried to love this game, in all honesty, I feel that this is not one of the better games of its type. However, there is still some credit that Ninja Theory deserves for this title, simply for making it happen.
With this rare attempt of doing something so unique, development wise, in the gaming industry, Hellblade can give rise to a new generation of games, where indie devs are not afraid to invest a little more to bring back innovation to the AAA games.
And a little trial and error can lead to a complete resurgence of the gaming industry as we know it, where game publishers are ready to take risks.