WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
I love indie games...
But there's always a separation between them a lot of the AAA releases. It's not the independent industry's fault - AAA titles have much bigger budgets and entire offices of people working under them. That's not to say that independent games can't have scope. Determination and Kickstarter go a lo-o-o-o-ong way, just ask Pillars of Eternity. But still, there's a difference. Things are flashier, stories are grander (some of the time), and developers milk their budget.
Then comes Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, a game that manages to tell a personal, powerful story while also being graphically and mechanically as astounding as any kind of AAA title on the market. The amount of detail in which Ninja Theory - a team of twenty developers, I might add - managed to put into every single ounce of this impeccable game is nothing short of great.
Senua standing before a burning tree in Hel.Ninja Theory
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice follows the titular Senua, a Pict warrior in the 8th century, crossing through the borders of Helheim - the Norse version of Hell - in an attempt to save her lover, Dillion. Throughout her hard journey, voices constantly speak to her and she is chased by the mysterious entity known only as The Darkness. You must solve puzzles, confront mighty giants, and hold back the darkness in order to survive.
Honestly, there's so much good, I don't even know where to start. The graphics are probably some of the best I've seen in an indie game. Ninja Theory's interpretation of Helheim's dark, yet horrifying vibrant landscape is nothing short of artistic genius. Despite being the land of the dead, the developers worked very hard to make it feel alive.
In the beginning of the game, Senua rows her boat through the murky swamp of Helheim's borders. You move through the foggy world, and see the impaled bodies of the dead sticking from the ground. It's violence is not played up - it's subtle. You absorb it, and you feel the tension creep up the back of your neck as the voices intermixed with narration speak to you and Senua. It's chilling - and proof that beautiful graphics aren't always in your face - subtlety goes a long way.
Narration also plays a huge part in this game's cohesion. One of the voices that plagues Senua also acts a narrator - the narrator speaks directly to the player. They narrate Senua's journey to you, and also question her. This Narrator, voiced by Chipo Chung, has a somber quality to her voice. There's care in it, but also a sense of detachment. This gives the entirety of the game an ethereal feel, despite its mostly terrifying nature.
Enemy designs!Ninja Theory
The design is also impeccable. I can't speak for Scandinavian culture, but this felt pretty on point. Ninja Theory worked with an actual expert in this subject matter, Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe. It shows. Senua, and the beasts she fights, seem to match pretty well with their mythological descriptions. And the writing doesn't feel forced either - it's all cohesive and blends well together.
Now we move onto a rather delicate topic - Senua's psychosis. I can't speak too much on it, because that would be too much of spoiler. But, the care put into it's portrayal in this game is beyond anything I've seen in a video game. Usually, this subject matter is handled horribly. I thought we were going down that same path as I moved through this game. They didn't - they went somewhere I never expected a game like this to go, and it was both a relief and a godsend. It meant the world to me to see mental illness portrayed with such accuracy.
Senua fighting a guard.Ninja Theory
The ONLY bad thing is the battle system. Honestly, this is nitpicky, but I feel like there needs to be a little more variety in what you can do. It's very hack-and-slash, but there's nothing to it. You have a strong attack and regular attack, and you can dodge roll. Again, this was probably done deliberately, because this game is definitely more about story than anything else - but that's not really an excuse, especially for an action game.
But yeah, that's totally it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
PLAY THIS GAME. You need to. The game is important, and I think it's groundbreaking. It's beautiful, it's gameplay is a little simple, but that only serves the overall narrative. A narrative which is unlike any other game you've ever played. Just... play the game. Go. Do it now. Right now. Go.
Shann Smith is a lover of video games and has played games since he could hold a controller. He is a freelance writer, playwright, screenwriter, and also writes the Video Gay-Mer column on Popdust! If you have any games you'd like him to unpack, hit him up!
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