Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice finds success in simplicity

As we near the end of 2017, I find myself looking back on the year in games and thinking about which I consider to be my personal “Game of the Year.” Granted, I have played more than a few high-quality games that were released in 2017, but as spectacular and immersive as those games have been, I think deep down my 2017 Game of the Year choice is Ninja Theory’s moving single-player title Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

Released in August as the first game to be independently published by Ninja Theory, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tasks players with venturing into an ancient world of horror and darkness as they help protagonist Senua confront the trauma and mental illness that has plagued her all her life.

However, the game also does something else. It embraces simplicity, stripping away many of the ancillary systems that modern gamers have come to rely on more and more, and showing that, when it comes to telling an engrossing story and keeping players engaged with tense combat scenarios, sometimes less is indeed more.

A Guiding Hand

In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, there are no waypoints, no HUD markers, no mini-map, nothing really to clue the player in as to where to go or what to do next. Nothing, that is, except for the voices. To help properly convey the psychosis that Senua suffers from, the player is constantly barraged by disembodied whispering voices which definitely add a creepy layer of immersion (especially if you play with headphones as Ninja Theory suggests), but which also help to guide the player towards their next goal.

The voices even help in combat, taking the place of usual HUD warnings and prompts by faintly shouting things like “Behind you!” and “Look out!” when enemies close in.

Not having any sort of visual HUD markers may sound annoying in theory, but Hellblade’s simplified controls ensure that the lack of a HUD never feels frustrating or hindering to the player. Senua automatically vaults over low obstacles and ducks under low-hanging barriers as she approaches, leaving the player free to scan their immediate surroundings and determine the best way to get where they need to go.

Again, the voices can help in such instances, providing clues but never overtly saying where the player should go to next, something which has the nice side effect of enhancing the feeling of accomplishment when the player does finally figure out how to reach their next goal.

The Sword in the Darkness

Hellblade’s combat system is another area in which Ninja Theory’s decision to prioritize simplicity paid off in a big way. The amount of different combat maneuvers Senua can perform isn’t terribly broad, consisting of little else than light and heavy sword strikes, physical attacks like shoves and kicks, and defensive moves like dodging and guarding, but there’s still a ton of technical depth when it comes to how that limited repertoire of techniques can be applied, especially once the player makes it further into the game and starts encountering new enemy types.

Thanks to the way in which it’s structured, combat in Hellblade feels visceral but never overtly complex, challenging at times but never overwhelming or unfair. Honestly, one of the few criticisms I have about Hellblade is that there isn’t an optional mode where I can just engage in endless combat encounters, that how much the game’s combat system resonated with me (though, in fairness, I am a little biased since Hellblade’s combat also reminds me a lot of the combat systems found in From Software’s various Dark Souls games).

Every Failure is a Lesson

Perhaps one of Hellblade’s most controversial elements is its so-called perma-death threat. The game threatens the player that if Senua is killed too many times before reaching the game’s conclusion, the player’s save file will be erased and they’ll have to start back at the very beginning of the game.

Yes, that sounds like a wholly unfair and frustrating system to deal with (good thing it wasn’t true), but over time, I realized the threat of perma-death wasn’t meant to frustrate or annoy me, but to teach me.

With every death, I had to take a step back and carefully consider where I went wrong, making sure to learn from my errors since the stakes were drastically higher than they are in most other games.

Now, granted, you get the feeling that you’d have to die a lot for Hellblade’s perma-death to be triggered, and you can naturally mitigate the risk by playing on a lower difficulty level, but even still, the mere fact that I believed the perma-death threat led me to approach every new encounter in Hellblade with a level of respect which I doubt I gave to many other games I have played.

Valuing The Journey, Not The Destination

While Ninja Theory undoubtedly took a lot of risks in developer Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (not least of which was publishing it independently), what it ended up making shows that the studio was wholly confident in the experience it was providing to players.

Hellblade has no big setpiece moments, no DLC, and heck, even the one tiny instance of collectible-hunting it contains feeds directly into the game’s overarching narrative of Norse Mythology and metaphor, making it feel like a natural extension of the core experience rather than something that completionists feel obligated to do.

Hellblade is the first game I’ve played in a long time where I finished it not because I felt obligated to see it through to the end, but because I actually wanted to bear witness to the conclusion of Senua’s journey. The game has no tangible replay value to speak of other than a trophy/achievement attached to finding all of the aforementioned collectibles, but even still, I find myself drawn to the game, wanting to play through it again (the stellar combat I already mentioned and the fact that Hellblade isn’t a very long game definitely help in that regard).

I’m not saying that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is for everyone, but if you’ve ever wanted to play a game that respected your desire to figure out problems on your own, kept you on your toes with thrilling combat encounters, and opened your eyes to the many struggles that those suffering from mental illness have to face on a daily basis, you absolutely cannot pass up the latest from Ninja Theory.

Not only is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a game that has the power to change lives, it’s also just an all around good game, more for what it doesn’t do than what it does.