Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice in the test - duel against the underworld

Author: Dom Schott
Date: 2017-08-08 09:00:00
The young warrior Senua takes on the Norse gods to save her lover and herself. In the test, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice turned out to be a unique game despite the classic theme.

The day of Ragnarok is coming! Then the dead will rise from their graves, the ice giants will leave their caves, the dwarves will prepare for battle and the gods will fight the last great battle for the fate of the world. This is how Nordic mythology describes the last days of our world, which the Bible calls the "Apocalypse".

A drawn warrior

At the beginning of the adventure, Senua already had a moving biography with many life-changing incisions, despite her young age. Her parents' house is shattered, her home village was burned down by the Northmen, and her lover Dillion ultimately died a gruesome death. Senua decides to bring her husband, only friend and ally from the hell realm back to life and travels to Helheim. Here she wants to face Hel, the ruler of the Nordic underworld , personally and win back Dillion's soul.

The really special thing about this backstory is the way it is presented to us in the game. Instead of a classic short film intro or long explanatory texts, the development team at Ninja Theory cleverly adheres to the golden rule of show, don't tell! and delivers a first, early climax with the start of the game.

A small rowboat breaks out of the fog bank over a large lake, on which Senua is standing and staring intently into the clouds of mist in front of her. At the same time, dozens of voices boom from our headphones, talking, hissing, whispering and screaming at once. We can only make out fragments of words, "You are looking in vain!", "Turn back!" And "Don't give up!"

Just as confused as we as players, Senua reacts to this cacophony . She looks tense and keeps looking around, rushed, almost fearful. We instinctively press around on the controller and try somehow to escape this uncomfortable situation. But Senua cannot leave her boat, has to withstand the voices, trust in her own strength and wait to see where the current takes her.

With this we have already learned the first and perhaps most important lesson from Hellblade: There is no escape from the voices. Rather, we have to learn to live with them, to trust them - or at the right time to question their advice.

Who needs an interface?

After Senua gets out of her boat on the bank of the underworld, we instinctively wait a few seconds for the interface to appear with the usual information. But surprise: Ninja Theory has decided not to disturb Senua's journey with a single interface element, but rather to let us discover, observe and learn all the necessary information ourselves.

In practice, this turns out to be clearly the right decision - and not only because we can enjoy the sometimes really pretty areas undisturbed and, if desired, also in photo mode .

Because Hellblade benefits almost consistently from the consequences of this self-imposed restriction: instead of a classic life bar, for example, the soundscape is screwed back after serious injuries and the color saturation of the game world is reduced until finally Senua's movements become cumbersome and the warrior attacks her clearly visible wounds.

All of this not only looks great and maintains immersion, but also presents experienced players with the unusual challenge of having to rely on their own eyes and uncomfortable fade-ins.

Creeping sickness

Early in the game, Hellblade introduces darkness as a disease that affects Senua's hand and gradually rots her body - an early price for her plans to challenge Hel to battle. Every time Senua dies in the course of the game, the black plague moves a little further up her arm.

With a text display at the beginning, the game clearly suggests that all game progress will be deleted as soon as the rotting progresses too far. But what's real in the world of Hellblade? If you want to know more about it, you can unfold the spoiler box below. Alternatively, experiment with the risk of perma-death yourself, as this is what the developers intend.

By the way, doing without any HUD aids also has some disadvantages that Ninja Theory does not catch as successfully as the missing life bar. For example, doing without any orientation aid in the form of a map or even just directional instructions has a negative impact, because many areas appear quite uniform and interchangeable, especially in the first third of the game. Here we lost our orientation significantly more than a few times after a cutscene and walked in the wrong direction for several minutes.

Actually, the spectacular setting is a grateful source of inspiration for level designers, but Ninja Theory always lets this potential lie. Instead of comprehensible building groupings and small stories hidden in the world, the design of the levels in the overall context always seems arbitrary and incoherent.

A gigantic puzzle game

Unfortunately, Ninja Theory draws our attention to this weakness again and again by making environmental puzzles the core of the game mechanics. Despite the changing scenery, they always run the same way: Senua enters an area through an entrance that is more or less circular, fairly spacious and closed off by a massive portal.

The locked door shows between one and three runes that Senua must memorize. Then we walk through the cordoned off level and look for conspicuous stone formations, fallen trees or broken branches in the area that, when viewed from the right angle, give the shape of the rune we are looking for.

If we succeed in this puzzle game and we find all symbols distributed in the level, the door opens - and possibly with an interruption in the form of a fight or a cutscene we get to the next puzzle area.

In the second third of the game, Hellblade loosens up the rune scavenger hunt, which quickly becomes a bit tough, with a few extra switch puzzles and perspective gimmicks, but unfortunately in most of the Hellblade environments it's not really much fun to look for every detail.

Ruins and buildings are placed too randomly, and although they look pretty on their own, they don't tell a particular story in the larger context. Hellblade's levels are often little more than puzzle arenas, and Hellblade isn't particularly good at hiding that fact from our eyes.

At the few places where Senua's adventure breaks free from this formulaic nature, we get really innovative and exciting sequences in our hands: Sometimes we have to pass a level in complete darkness and only with the help of our hearing, sometimes we have to Traverse a dimly lit dungeon in whose shadow a deadly creature lurks - if we stay away from the light source for too long, we die. However, these interesting gameplay ideas are the exception rather than the rule.

Who actually loves whom here?

We were more confused than carried away by the personal story of Senua, which becomes more extensive and complex with every piece of information. Without wanting to reveal too much, Senua's original motivation (beloved descends to hell to save beloved) gradually develops into a father complex drama, which finally expands to include a fundamental discussion about the existence or non-existence of gods will - and we are not even sure whether that was all, or whether we simply missed another hook in the story after all.

As spectacular as the finale is staged, we are left with a big, big question mark after what is intended as "the ultimate resolution with a twist".

Much more interesting and better is the story of the many gods, goddesses, giants and other monsters, some of which we get to know as the only collectibles of the game about rune stones with great audio files, or which form the thematic framework for a complete level section.

Probably the most constant thread is and will remain the myth of Ragnarök, who will destroy the world of the northern peoples and will also crush Senua again and again during their march to the feet of Hel. But just as the ancient peoples tell of how a new era of light and hope will dawn after the world fire, so Senua's adventure is ultimate and despite all playful flaws and confusing narrative arcs, a story full of hope and courage that is worth it is to be told and experienced.