The developers at Ninja Theory have been very clear that Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice wasn't made to please the tastes of all gamers, but instead it was made to give us a new experience that will engage us in a new way. Tameem Antoniades, the game's director, has said that this will probably lead to a fairly polarising reception, and we definitely agree with him.
Part of the reason for this is the story, and the core concept, both of which are very simple - You control Senua, a young woman who's going to hell to set her deceased boyfriend free. Think that sounds weird? That's only the start of it. Senua is suffering from psychosis, which leads to some visual and audio oddities for both her and us as the player. Voices in her head keep talking to her, which gives us minor hints as to what happened to her in the past, while also depicting how her mind keeps breaking more and more with every step she takes towards hell.
This is obviously a very serious subject, but the game treats it with a respect and depth we've never seen in the medium before, and it's clear that Ninja Theory has done a lot of research, while also translating this into some interesting gameplay. The world around you will often transform beautiful nature into some very disturbing environments, for example, and these transitions aren't just to tell a story, but also to change the gameplay as well. Most of the game is very linear and not hugely interactive - not exactly what Ninja Theory's known for, but it's clear that they're trying something different this time around. Sure, you'll come across a few sequences where you'll have to fight against creatures of different shapes and sizes, but these are far from being as stylish as the studio's other games; they're both slower and offer less variation than both DmC: Devil May Cry and Heavenly Sword. Senua herself, however, is self-trained, so she doesn't have as many flashy moves. If you're looking for challenging and acrobatic sword fighting, then, this probably isn't a game for you, as the combat seems to be there just to change up the pace in-between puzzles and story-based sequences.
This is mainly a so-called walking simulator that wants to tell a story about mental illness and how they can affect people. Schizophrenia, claustrophobia, and psychosis are just some of the subjects we'll explore through the story, and we do so in different ways. It's very interesting to see how Ninja Theory has turned these themes into gameplay mechanics that explain how it can affect a person, and one of the most common examples they use is having to find different shapes in the environments. The doors will have one, two, or three symbols on them that you'll have to find in the environments. Having to explore the area to get a new perspective on things to see similar shapes really makes you think about people out there who see these things without wanting to. Great animations and fine voice acting really heighten this experience as well. Senua isn't one of the overly confident and quick-witted protagonists we're used to seeing these days; she's an insecure woman who tries to fight against her visions and the voices in her head that keeps telling her that she's a failure. Antoniades has said that Hellblade isn't meant to be fun, after all we're meant to be engaged in a whole new way. We never smiled once during the story, instead we'd often find ourselves just sitting there thinking about what we had just experienced.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that everything presentation-wise is very good. The game looks amazing, while the binaural audio making it feel like the voices are inside your own head. That's why it's so frustrating that the sense of immersion goes out the window because of technical problems on the standard PlayStation 4 console. The PlayStation 4 Pro version is pretty much problem-free, but the standard version suffers from some severe frame-rate drops, especially during the otherwise impressive visual transitions. We've also clipped through environments and even witnessed Senua fighting with an invisible sword during one very dramatic sequence. Again, these are problems we only experienced on the older PS4 model, and the PS4 Pro and PC versions perform close to perfection, so we hope Ninja Theory manages to patch the issues.
What they won't manage to patch is the monotonous gameplay during sequences that we think might get repetitive for some. Going through the cycle of fighting, finding shapes, watching a cinematic sequence, and then returning to a short fight will, without a doubt, get tiresome for those who want a more interactive experience. You'll get a few sequences with some very interesting puzzles and fights that you won't see anywhere else in the game, but most of these are very close to each other, which ruins the pacing in our opinion. We'd love to have seen these spread more evenly through the game to keep things feeling fresh between the otherwise repetitive gameplay sequences.
Ninja Theory said that it didn't want to make a game that was supposed to entertain everyone, that instead gave us an experience we'd never seen before, and in this regard, they definitely succeeded. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice will undoubtedly lead to some polarised opinions. Those of you who are looking for a deep and engaging story should definitely give the game a try, however, those of you who are looking for entertaining and varied gameplay should probably stay away. This is a game that wants to explore new themes, and to its credit it does so in a great way; the presentation is stunning and you'll really feel like how Senua does thanks to great audio design and stellar performances in what's a really atmospheric world. Some of the experiences will linger with us for a long time, which makes it so sad that the monotonous gameplay and technical problems (on PS4) makes the sequences in-between fairly forgettable.