Back’s Benlog: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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In an effort to chip away at what has become a massive backlog of games, NJoystic is slightly dismayed to present what will be a reoccurring feature, “Back’s Benlog.” This will be an absolutely not brief, way too god damn long look at some of the many games Ben has bought but took forever to actually play.

Today’s title: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

(Minor spoiler warning: I do talk about the ending. I try to avoid story specifics, but it’s hard to completely avoid some plot ideas there)

My only familiarity with Ninja Theory’s work is from playing DmC: Devil May Cry, and that game left a conflicted impression on me. On one hand, I thought the feel of that game was pretty well done. The combat felt good besides some “simon says” simplicity in regard enemy weaknesses, and the additions of air-dashing and grappling in particular made the franchise’s occasional dips into the platforming pool much more sensible. But when it comes to DmC‘s story and tone, I have really come to hate the game. It didn’t have to be Devil May Cry 3 for me, but whatever the hell that story was and who those characters were just made that game something I never want to revisit.

With that in mind, I do try to remember that DmC happened the way it did in large part because Capcom pushed for such an extremely different take on the series. It was the studio’s execution that let me down, but Capcom was pretty transparent in their say on the direction. If nothing else, the game put Ninja Theory on my radar as a studio I wanted to pay attention to, albeit with some caution.

Hellblade has mostly cemented those feelings for me. Ninja Theory strikes me as a capable studio with the ability to make some truly memorable games that also come packed with a variety of frustrating elements and design decisions. It’s an impressive game for its scope considering its independent limitations, but it is also an irritating bastard of a game to actually play.

There really isn’t any one culprit for my issues with Hellblade, though. The story is interesting and its use of mental illness themes is done in a way that feels like a genuine effort from the developers to tackle a tough issue to present in a work of fiction. It puts all the events of the game into a bizarre, often scary, and engaging focus. For the gameplay, I thought the perspective puzzles could be a pretty clever mechanic when the game needed to slow down, and the combat has moments of satisfaction that remind me that this team has some good ideas about what an action game should feel like for a player.

It really is just how Hellblade executes all these things together that feels off to me. Some fights and puzzles worked, some survival-horror elements were genuinely scary, and the story is one I would recommend provided you can handle how irritating a well-thought out depiction of voices in your head throughout an entire game can be. Yet each part of this game feels very separate from the rest of it, which made each part drag by the end.

It seems crazy to complain about a game dragging when it only took me about 6 hours to beat, but Hellblade feels noticeably padded out to me. The mechanics of the combat and the puzzles are very limited and that gets exposed well before the end. Now part of this is a potentially unavoidable consequence of a tight budget. The enemy variety and combat depth just can’t be there for the gameplay to carry Hellblade on its own, and I’ll admit it would be unreasonable to expect it to.

So games often mask those shortcomings by excelling at another aspect. This game should be trying to do that with its story, yet its story felt like it got messed up and lost its focus due to these mechanics. There was more than one point where I felt confident that the game was about to start ending, and instead it would throw a new barrage of areas and fights at me. Some of those challenges and moments were memborable, but they eventually felt really disconnected from Senua as a character and what I was feeling in her position. In moments where I felt at my most determined to reach the ending with her, Senua would be constantly knocked back by what felt like a checklist the game had to fulfill.

Powerful moments and great performances in Hellblade ended up feeling lost on me because I started to see each fight and puzzle as just another “video game thing to do” and not an actual moment in the story. Normally, I would be quick to say this is a failure on the story to not keep my attention, but I think the fault lies in some of Hellblade‘s design. I can’t imagine a game that could end the way Hellblade does that would possibly work for me, and it’s because the game seems to have that “checklist mentality” about how many fights and what types of fights a game needs to have, even if the combat depth isn’t here for that typical action-game structure.

I’m going to talk about the ending now. Again, I am trying to avoid plot specifics, but there’s no real way to talk about the mechanics of the ending without touching on the story a little bit. Read on at your own risk.

Throwing Senua into a gauntlet that ultimately ends with a “supposed to lose” fight is not inherently a terrible idea for this story. A lot of great games have managed pull off some stellar endings by implementing some sort of idea of “letting go” of the control you’ve had as a player the entire game. It’s an interesting way to get the player feeling connected to everything they’ve done, regardless of how much they may or may not have enjoyed themselves up to that point. Hell, that’s a huge part of why I think NieR: Automata has a nearly perfect ending. The virtues of sacrifice and letting go for the sake of some sort of hope is an instantly relatable thing for most people.

But I didn’t feel like I was letting go in Hellblade, and this ending was the ultimate disconnect from myself and the main character. I felt like I had just lost because there’s nothing in that fight that feels insurmountable compared to anything you fought before. It’s the same enemies and they just keep respawning. You have to lose, but you’re not getting hit by any sort of overwhelming force. Senua’s equipment wasn’t breaking down. She wasn’t visibly getting exhausted. The only thing that differentiated this from every other fight was that the “boss” would stun her occasionally. Like other challenges before it, this became another “video game thing to do” to the point that I was completely caught off guard when the game started wrapping up upon my failure.

I could see how some would argue that being caught by surprised is the point, but there’s surprising a player with a “left turn” ending and then there’s completely taking them out of the moment thematically. I feel like Hellblade crossed that line, and what should have been the strongest moment of the game actually just made me feel a little disgusted at what the game ended up becoming mechanically.

I will probably play it again one day, and I do recommend Hellblade overall. For all my criticisms here, there really isn’t too many games like it, and the whole game ultimately feels like a bold test for Ninja Theory to see what they could pull off on their own. The result is plenty of potential and a good chunk of well-done moments, even if the story and the mechanics felt almost completely out of sync for me by the end. It’s by no means a bad game, and the storytelling aspect is miles beyond the studio’s previous work. The game just feels like an unpolished mash-up of all its ideas, though.

So like I said, when it comes to Ninja Theory, my approach will continue to be one of interest and caution. Fortunately, while my caution continues to be validated in certain respects, the studio is also justifying my interest more and more.

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