Watching the credits roll after eight hours of play, I was left dumbfounded by the journey that Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice had allowed me to take, and the individuality that it seeped out of every pore. But yet, I was also a little disappointed by the gameplay that carried it.
There's no doubt that it has amazing storytelling. Mature, dark and meticulously directed, Hellblade offers the most praiseworthy depiction of mental health issues and their effects on an individual seen in a videogame yet. Senua, the game's protagonist, is both hero and villain rolled into one; the entire game an internal battle between her and the bleak darkness that tries to overwhelm her. But her condition is never glorified, nor is she ever portrayed to be a monster; she's just a normal young woman whose ordeals are laid out before you. And it's hard to not empathise with her plight.
There's a great use of audio, with a myriad of voices constantly building you up, knocking you down, filling you with self doubt and putting you on edge. Sometimes all at the same time. The world around you twists and distorts, making you question what is real and what is simply a figment of the imagination. Hellblade is a constant barrage on the senses that is frequently truly unnerving, giving you a sense of Senua's fractured psyche.
Visually, it might just be the most impressive looking game ever made. Maxed out on PC, there's the odd low resolution texture that sticks out like a sore thumb, but otherwise, Hellblade is photorealistic. Well, as photorealistic as its occasionally hellish landscapes can be. Story scenes are enhanced by the clever use of live actors, the recordings of which are integrated into the environments as if they were apparitions. It's Senua herself who steals the show though. Her animation is simply astounding, especially with regards to her facial expressions. Every word looks like it's meant and delivered with passion. You can see the pain and suffering Senua is feeling, and it really gives all your actions gravity. It feels real.
The creatures and warriors that you encounter on your journey are extremely detailed and lifelike too. And because of it, combat is eeriely realistic. With each violent swing of your sword wounds appear. Heavy blows cause your opponents to reel. And when near death, you can sense their desperation. Your moveset is rather small, but the visceral authenticity and measured nature of combat gives it all the depth it needs to remain engaging. You need to make use of the space available to you to ensure that you don't find yourself surrounded by enemies, and parry strikes effectively to create openings. At times you can focus, decloaking enemies protected by the hazy darkness or slowing down time to give yourself the advantage. At its prime, Hellblade's combat is simply sensational, but then the game puts a foot wrong by making some of its bouts too long-winded.
With its limited moveset and a handful of enemy types, the enjoyable skirmishes found in the first half of the game soon turn into full-blown battles of attrition which eventually wear you down. A quick fight with three or four enemies is exhilarating, but when the game throws four or five waves of them at you, it soon becomes nothing more than a slog. It's probably what Ninja Theory intended - to wear you down and make you feel hopelessness and despair - but it doesn't make for a fun gameplay experience.
Hellblade's puzzles unfortunately suffer from the same fate. Offering a nice change of pace from the action, you'll spend a lot of time looking for symbols that open doors and navigating portals which offer a different perspective on your current environment. Sometimes these puzzles can be a tad too obscure, leaving you to begrudgingly wander around an area time and time again as you search for the random object or patch of light that serves as the solution. Other times, you'll have done so many of them already in the last half an hour or so that you'll just be bored of the mere idea of doing yet another one, eager for the taste of action.
Thankfully though, the strength of the story and the variety of the gameplay on offer keeps you plodding on until the end. You'll get mad, tired, maybe even a bit bored, but then the story will step up a gear or the gameplay will throw you a curveball and you'll be sucked right back in. Had Hellblade's puzzle and combat sections been a little more concise, it would have no doubt been a masterpiece in my eyes, but their often drawn-out nature drags the whole experience down somewhat.
Regardless, Ninja Theory ought to be praised for what it's achieved - an adult story that's told like no other, combat that's skilful and harrowing, unique environmental based puzzles and light, scenic adventuring. It's just a shame that some of Hellblade's gameplay components at times feel forced. Maybe it's artistic vision that's to blame; the will to make players feel like the journey is an uphill struggle, that the odds are stacked against them. The early warning that the game has a permadeath system, which doesn't actually seem to ring true, certainly indicates so. But either way, even though Hellblade may be held back from being the absolute masterpiece it could have been by some unfortunate flaws, it's so unique and special that it definitely deserves to be played.