I have always thought of Ninja Theory as the UK’s answer to Japan’s Platinum Games; both companies make almost universally fantastic games (almost) and both are starved of the kind of widespread commercial success that their talents so often deserve. Don’t get me wrong, both teams have had their moments, but when you look at the quality of games such as Bayonetta 2, Enslaved and DmC: Devil May Cry, it’s disappointing that none were the sales smash that they so obviously deserved to be (and don’t get me started on that bullshit surrounding Dante’s hair in the utterly fantastic, DmC: Devil May Cry).
Perhaps that is all about to change though; Platinum Games have a relatively major hit on their hands with the superb, NieR: Automata and Ninja Theory, well, I can only hope that their brilliantly ambitious independent project finds the kind of audience that its quality, design and, dare I say, importance, so thoroughly deserve.
Touted as a triple-A independent video game, Hellbade: Senua’s Sacrifice represents a brave move by a company that have taken what is an undoubtedly delicate subject matter in mental health and married those themes and issues to a more recognisably ‘video game’ structure and setting. This of course could have ended up in tears for all involved – get the mental health side of the story wrong and you can come across as insensitive or even exploitative. Get the gameplay wrong and you’d be left with an unbalanced experience that would have been unable to carry those themes successfully through a 6-8 hour experience.
Luckily, despite the occasional technical hiccup, I’d argue that Ninja Theory have knocked it out of the park, and in the process, delivered one of the most memorable, haunting and, despite its position as an indie title, one of the most visually impressive video games of 2017. I suspect that its message and skilful incorporation of mental health issues into an ‘enjoyable’ video game template (it’s enjoyable in a highly stressful, deeply moving kind of way) will steal the headlines, but it really is worth mentioning what an outstanding technical achievement this is.
Up there with Horizon Zero Dawn as one of the best looking games on PS4, Senua’s Sacrifice looks every inch the triple-A experience, and with its disturbing artistic beauty comfortably matching its impressive technical achievements, it’s a wonder that the game was created by what is (by today’s standards at least), an incredibly small team of developers and artists.
The facial animations are particularly impressive (something of a Ninja Theory speciality), and when combined with the stellar voice work and consistently brilliant dialogue, deliver a strong technical base on which to build its carefully studied subject matter. Senua in particular, with her huge expressive eyes and fantastic motion capture performance from Melina Juergens (Ninja Theory’s video editor who ended up getting the part full time after what must have been a rather impressive stand-in performance), really does take you on a journey as you live through her physical and mental struggles throughout the game.
Working alongside psychologists, neuroscientists and people who have suffered from and struggled with mental psychosis, Ninja Theory were clearly incredibly keen to create a believable interpretation of serious mental health disorders. Whether they were successful is always hard to say, but what is here feels genuine (or as genuine as it can feel in a decidedly fantastical setting) and in many cases has been successfully incorporated into the gameplay in a way that feels surprisingly natural. Whether it be one of the many voices you encounter warning you of incoming enemy attacks or the narrative being built both internally and (possibly) externally by Senua’s psychosis, your journey through the depths of this unforgiving world and Senua’s relentless mental illness prove compelling from the games’ beginning to its moving and perfectly pitched finale.
Of course, as good as the story and characterisation might be, with this being a Ninja Theory game, there is an expectation of the combat being top-tier, and while it is used relatively sparingly, Ninja Theory have not disappointed. It might be basic in its design, but the combat has a huge amount of weight and a great sense of connection with the brilliant parry system and ability to slow down time proving especially satisfying. Whether it be a run of the mill enemy of one of the games’ monstrous boss battles, the combat always feels suitably brutal. Some might find that the cinematic camera that pulls in very tightly to Senua’s shoulder is a tad too close to the action, but while it is possible to lose enemies that are positioned right behind you, the voices in your head keep you aware of incoming enemy attacks while the view itself lends the action a suitably claustrophobic and very immediate feel.
Senua’s Sacrifice is also home to its fair share of puzzles, ones that, like so much of the experience, carefully implement aspects of Senua’ mental illness so that they feel like a natural component of your journey rather than a clumsily shoehorned video game mechanic. If nothing else, they provide a nice change of pace from the otherwise relentlessly bleak world that Senua inhabits. Despite being mostly solid, the puzzle design is a little more hit-and-miss than other aspects of the game; they are never bad and are often quite fun, but there are a handful of somewhat fiddly puzzles that at least briefly lifted me out of what is an otherwise all-encompassing experience.
With its carefully implemented themes, its fantastic visuals and exceptional delivery, Ninja Theory’s latest stands comfortably alongside their very finest work and proof that the industry has room for a middle ground beyond the extremes of mega budget triple-A and low-cost indie development. This is a game with indie credentials, experimental themes and the kind of triple-A polish you would expect from a first party release. Whether it be the brilliant combat, compelling characters or striking visuals, Senua’s Sacrifice represents a genuinely gifted development team functioning at the top of their game without the constraints that come with working for a major publisher. If there is any justice in the world, this will be a big hit for Ninja Theory and give players the chance to experience more video games with the same sense of ambition and bravery in the future.
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