Review by snakenamedjoe

Reviewed: 08/21/17

Everyone should buy this game on principle alone

Hellblade: Sensua's Sacrifice is an ambitious attempt for a small game development team to compete with mega huge developers in the AAA game market without the monetary backing of a publisher forcing them to sacrifice their vision. It was a bold decision, and they succeed brilliantly, delivering a game of exemplary quality, matching and even exceeding the standards set by games with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Developer Ninja Theory has further cut costs by distributing the game through digital only channels. You cannot buy a hard copy of this game. It's available only though online distribution on the PlayStation store, or on Steam for PC. However, apparently suffering from the same psychosis as their titular main character, they've passed all of those cost cutting savings onto the player by releasing the game at half the price of a traditional AAA title.

This is a beautiful game with a unique narrative, untainted by the hands of greedy producers, and melding the highest quality visuals ever seen in a game with the type of artistic vision usually reserved for small games trying to cut corners on quality by substituting art, and all delivered at an amazing $30 price point on launch day!

You read that right. This low budget game surpasses the most graphically intense games ever made, such as Horizon Zero Dawn and the Witcher 3, and yet is available at half the price of these games, passing all the savings from not using a publisher on to their customers! This is the best bargain gaming has seen in generations, and gamers should buy this game on principle alone just to show their support to this publisher free independent AAA game development model.

GAMEPLAY

Sensua's Sacrifice is a linear action game. Gameplay revolves around sword combat, puzzle solving, and minor exploration elements.

If you've ever been the person on a gaming forum complaining about how modern games hold your hand too much, this is the game for you. There is no hand holding. At all. There is no map - mini, or otherwise. There is no HUD. There are no objective markers telling you where to go. There are no tutorials teaching you how to play. You're thrown into the game world, and it's up to you to figure it all out with no assistance from the game in any way.

Actually, you do get some assistance, in the form of Senua's psychosis. The lead character of the game suffers from mental illness that seems likely to be a combination of post traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. As you play through the game, you'll constantly hear voices. Much of the conversation playing in Sensua's mind is just meaningless chatter, but if you pay attention, these voices will also give you hints, tips, and even warn you of danger in combat when an enemy is sneaking up behind you.

• Combat

Despite what you may have heard, the combat in the game is actually quite deep and detailed. Sensua has a substantial list of combat attacks and combos, along with various different methods of evading and blocking attacks. Sensua grows and unlocks new abilities as you progress through the game. But with no menus, no tutorials, and no explanations of how to do anything, you may not even realize it when Sensua has gained a new move.

The problem is that the combat in the game is spread out through large sections of the game. It's not uncommon to go 20 minutes or more between combat sections of the game. There are no areas with random encounters, or enemies you can fight just for practice. Every fight is a story based encounter that you can only fight once per playthrough. Since the game doesn't ever give you any kind of tutorials, and there is no place where you can go to just practice fighting, many players will probably never master the combat and may come away from the game feeling that it was little more than a button masher. In order to get more from the experience, you will have to take it upon yourself to find a time and place to practice the combat.

You will have to take the time to figure out every move and combo for yourself. It seems unlikely that even online resources will ever have a proper list of moves such as you've grown accustomed to in other games. Less hand holding was what you wanted, though, right?

It must be noted that there are several negative video game tropes that pop up in this game that are actually much more pronounced in this game than in even the worst offenders of these detrimental mechanics. These mechanics are often intentional, and are integrated into the story of the game, and they do not hurt this game the way they often hurt other games, but they can still get frustrating from time to time.

The camera is way too close to Sensua for comfortable fighting. This is intentional. It's meant to give you a claustrophobic feeling, and keep you on your toes, wondering what threats might be waiting just off camera. And while you've probably played other games where the camera is too close - no, the camera is reeeealy too close... It is extremely difficult to get more than a single enemy on frame at once, and you're often forced to fight up to half a dozen enemies at a time. Because of the close camera, you have absolutely no peripheral vision, and will be constantly getting attacked from off screen unless you go to great pains to position yourself where you can see all of your enemies. Sensua's voices will warn you of attacks coming from off screen, and this might help you do a block or evade, but it can get quite frustrating to never be able to face an enemy for more than a couple of seconds without being forced to back off to avoid getting clobbered from off screen.

Making this even worse, enemies will unapologetically spawn wherever they feel like it. They will spawn right behind you, or right in front of you. They will attack immediately - often spawning in the middle of their attack animation. Due to Sensua's psychosis, and the mind bending premise of the story, this makes sense, since Sensua is obviously struggling with a disconnect of reality and an inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, but it still gets old quick, since nearly every enemy in the game will spawn right next to you, and they'll often be in the middle of attacking as they spawn. You have to be ready to block and evade at all times, because even if you seem to be a safe distance from your enemies, another enemy could have just spawned right behind you and could be about to clobber you at any moment.

All of these mechanics are intentional, and designed to make the game a stressful experience, and they do that well, but just because it was intentional that doesn't mean you won't occasionally get sick of the game taking cheap shots at you. Be prepared for some frustration. This game is designed to make you feel the stress and frustration and helplessness associated with having a mental psychosis, and as a result, you'll occasionally need to just set down the controller and give yourself a few minutes to cool off and collect yourself.

Another problematic mechanic that was not intentional, is the targeting system. Since there is no HUD or any type of marker in the game, it's difficult to tell what enemy you're targeting at any give time. It's quite common to plan an attack against the closest enemy, only to have Sensua go rushing past the enemy you thought she'd attack to take a swing at the guy behind him, leaving you in a very vulnerable position trapped between a group of enemies that will relentlessly take advantage of your mistake, with the guy you were planning to attack now standing right behind you, in prime position to ruin your day.

• Exploration and Collectibles

The game takes place in a linear world, and it's a good thing that it does. With the complete lack of user interface, it can get quite difficult to find your way around. You'll likely spend a good portion of your first playthrough lost, struggling to tell which direction you came from and which direction you need to go next. The environments sometimes lack easily discernible landmarks, and every direction you look often looks quite similar.

Each new area you explore will present you with a new type of challenge. Challenges include finding ways to dispel illusions, transporting back and forth between alternate versions of the world, using other senses to find your way through dark areas, lining up objects within your line of sight to create patterns or objects, and more. Every section has a new type of challenge, keeping the exploration and puzzle solving elements fresh and entertaining throughout the game.

The game has a set of collectible lorestones, each of which give you a portion of Norse mythology related to the events that are happening in the story. In the linear architecture of the game, once you've passed certain checkpoints, you'll be unable to go back through to old areas to collect missed lorestones. This can make finding the lorestones somewhat stressful. There are not too many of them, however, and they're not too difficult to find most of the time. Collecting the full set of 40-50 lorestones will complete the only missable trophy in the game, with all the other trophies being rewarded simply for progressing through the story, making for an easy platinum trophy on PS4.

Sensua's animations are slow and realistic. This could prove bothersome to impatient players who have grown accustomed to characters who sprint constantly as they move around the world. Personally, I found Sensua's maintainable jog to be much more pleasing and immersive than such unrealistic sprinting animations found in other games, but if your only concern is getting through the game quickly, this could be another point of frustration.

STORY

While the game has an interesting story, the presentation of that story is somewhat abstract. There is very little exposition or dialog. Most of the story is told through narration performed by the myriad of imaginary voices running through Sensua's head. Because this narration is easily confused with bits of meaningless chatter and musings, the story can be difficult to follow. Some voices seem to be speaking directly to you as the player, while other voices are speaking specifically to Senua, telling her the story, and still other voices are just musing back and forth to each other, or simply talking to themselves.

It's the task of the player to pick through the random thoughts and visions, intermixed with tidbits of Norse mythology (as well as some other mythologies such as Danish and German), to try to figure out exactly what is going on and piece together the story in your mind, rather than having the story cleanly delivered to you through the usual narrative style. Because the focus of the game is on Sensua's psychosis, you will never really know if anything you're experiencing is intended to be literal, or if it's just Sensua's personal interpretation of various lore and mythology as seen through the lens of her mental illness.

The game includes a video on the main menu called "Hellblade Feature". This is a making of video that explains the concept behind the game. The feature starts with a Spoiler Warning, and suggests that you not watch it until after you've finished the game. I would advise you to watch this feature before you play the game. There was nothing in the feature that I considered a spoiler, and in fact some of the information shared is required to understand the story at all. There are terms mentioned in the game, such as druth and geilt, which are required knowledge to piece together the story. However, no explanation of what these terms mean is actually included in the game. They are presented in the game as if they should help you to understand the story, but if you don't know the terminology, just hearing those words does nothing to help you understand what is happening. In my opinion, watching this video will not spoil the story, but might give you enough information to be able to interpret the story as you play through the game.

GRAPHICS

As mentioned earlier, the graphics are stunning. This is easily the best looking game of this generation. Animations are likewise stellar and lend an amazing sense of reality to the character. Cutscenes are actually a mixture of in game animation, and live action cinematics, with some characters portrayed by live actors instead of computer models, and it's nearly impossible to tell the difference. The lack of any HUD or onscreen display further enhances the beauty and immersion of the game. Playing on my regular PS4, the framerate does stutter a little bit, but with the slow animations, this was never detrimental to the gameplay.

SOUND

Sounds in the world are similarly convincing. The game is designed specifically to be played with headphones. The soundtrack was recorded with a special 3D microphone that is designed to simulate voices and sounds coming from different directions all around you.

When wearing headphones, I would occasionally need to remove my headphones to tell if something was happening in the game, or in the real world. Could there really be a thunder storm rolling in during the hottest part of August?

Since many of the game's puzzles revolve around senses other than sight, having a good sound system or wearing headphones will improve the quality of your experience immensely.

The music is sparse, and you can tell they were trying to keep to a budget - but the music they do have highlights the game perfectly, and is occasionally catchy enough that I've caught myself humming it to myself hours after playing.

PLAYTIME

This is a short game by any metric. The entire game will likely only take six hours or so on your first playthrough. Someone who knows the game could likely complete it in around three hours. There is no side content and very little filler, and much of the time involved in the game is simply the time it takes to move around the world with Sensua's slow and realistic jogging pace.

The game also does not have a lot of replay value. You might end up wanting to do a second run through the game to collect any lorestones you missed on your first playthrough. Dedicated players may choose to spend some time mastering the combat to get the most out of their experience.

Don't expect this game to keep you occupied for more than a few days. It's an incredible value for the quality of the experience, not for the number of gameplay hours.

CONTROVERSY

There have been a couple of controversies surrounding this game.

First - the possibility of permadeath. Early in the game Sensua contracts a rotting disease in her right hand. Every time you die, the rot creeps further up her arm, and the game warns that if the infection reaches her head your quest will be over and you'll lose all your progress.

This seems to be done just to further increase the level of stress and tension associated with the game. Players trying to test this permadeath threat have not been able to succeed in failing enough to cause the game to make them start over. I have personally noted that the level of the rot seems to be reset to a predetermined amount during various cutscenes in the game.

Still - while the general consensus seems to be that this was merely a bluff designed to increase tension, it cannot be said with certainty that a permadeath might not occur in the game. If this bothers you, I would advise you to regularly back up your save to a flash drive, so that if you do get your save erased, you could simply load up an old save to restore your progress. But if it is possible to lose enough to trigger this supposed permadeath, you would have to be doing really, really poorly at the game to ever have to worry about it - especially considering that the game includes an automatic difficult setting which adjusts the game's combat difficulty according to your skill.

Second - The Jim Sterling controversy. Jim Sterling initially gave this game a 1/10 rating because as he was playing the game he ran into a progression halting glitch involving torches, that stopped him from being able to move forward and complete the game. He had to start all the way over when he was almost at the end of the game.

Sterling eventually backed off of his harsh review, changing his score to a more respectable but still low, given the game's overall reception, 7/10.

While I do not agree with Sterling's low review score and found his reaction to it to be quite unprofessional, I do have to report that I did also hit a progression halting glitch near that same area in the game, and had to start over near the end of the game. It was not the same glitch as Sterling. Rather, I had a gate that was lowered when I left an area that prevented me from reaching one of the puzzle elements that I had not activated yet - a blood stain on the floor that I needed to view from a specific angle that could no longer be reached because of this needless gate preventing me from reaching the necessary viewing angle for the puzzle.

Ninja Theory has released a patch (1.01) since I encountered this glitch - so it may or may not have been addressed as of this writing. I would guess that the more widely publicized Jim Sterling glitch has probably been fixed. For me, this glitch was not a huge deal. It's a short game, I really enjoyed playing it, and I did not mind having to start over. It only took about 2 hours to get back to where I was at, and I had a much better understand of the story and the combat, resulting in a much more enjoyable experience the second time around.

However once again, I would recommend backing up your save regularly, as I did notice several other sections in the game where you are needlessly blocked from returning to areas, and I could see these things turning into more nasty progression halting bugs. Back up your save. The PS4 gives you the option to back up your save. That is, in my opinion, its biggest advantage over the XBox One. Take advantage of it. Back up your save.

RECOMMENDATIONS

I would strongly suggest this game for any adult gamer. It's an incredible value at the $30 price point, and most players will find something they can enjoy here.

I personally find the content to be too mature for young audiences. I would not even recommend this game for teens, unless they are quite mature and have a good honest level of communication with their parents.

Depictions of brutal realistic violence and the slaughter of innocent people, coupled with the realistic depiction of mental illness and further struggles from coping with the horrors in the game, could make this game disturbing, or even potentially harmful, to young players who have not had the appropriate discussions with their parents, or do not have someone they can talk to openly about their own internal struggles.

Far more than most games, this is a game that parents might need to be prepared for it to bring up some uncomfortable discussions about uncomfortable topics.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (US, 08/08/17)

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