Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. Some of these are forgotten gems, some you will guess straight away. Others cover more than one game in a series, or compare two similar games.
This week’s game is a hugely notable indie hit, but also in a genre that has been underrepresented on our list so far: a more horror-oriented title.
#8. HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE, by Richard Flint
Simply put, the hack and slash, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is a masterpiece in immersive storytelling.
Even before the game’s release, Hellblade was an intriguing project by developers Ninja Theory. The premise of the title, as advertised during several interviews and community updates on social media, was to create an independent game at a AAA standard. The focus was to make a gorgeous single player experience on a low budget that explored not only the interesting lore of Norse mythology but also the very real effects of psychosis.
While the idea of an independent project to a AAA standard sounds impressive, Ninja Theory is veterans at the hack and slash genre developing games such as Devil May Cry, Heavenly Sword, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. In Hellblade, the extravagant combat mechanics from previous Ninja Theory titles is stripped down to the bare and savage essentials. The game opts for a more basic battle system with the essential heavy and light attacks with dodging and kicking to counter enemy attacks. Players can mix and match between the light and heavy moves to perform limited but devastating combos to stagger and knock back enemies.
The way combat encounters work throughout the game is similar to other hack and slash games where the player stumbles upon a wide open space only to have the exit sealed and numerous challenging foes appear. While the game has only a few enemy types, their designs are so strikingly unique allowing the player to easily identify which tactic would be best for that situation. Basic foes that Senua will encounter come under four categories: warrior, protector, keep guard, and revenant. The warriors act as the main punching bags of the game and will often pose little threat unless a large group of them is present or when assisting the shielded protectors. The keep guard and revenant, however, require both skill and patience to defeat rather than standard button mashing. Keep guards will swipe at Senua with their massive two-handed axes causing an unblockable attack that will stagger and knock down the player if not dodged or countered correctly. The revenant on the other hand will rush in for a fast and relentless attack before fleeing, once the revenant has taken enough damage they will enter their second phase which allows them to become ghost-like for a time to avoid Senua’s attacks.
Despite the fairly limited combat, where Hellblade shines is the exploration and storytelling. Players join Senua on her journey into Helheim as attempts to free the soul of her deceased lover, Dillion, from the clutches of Hela. As a Celtic warrior, Senua is a stranger to the Norse world and is guided through her journey by her friend and medium, Druth, who teaches both her and the player about Norse mythology. The dark and tormenting nature of the game is immediately apparent as Senua carries the severed head of her dearly departed which acts as Senua’s motivation and crutch. What makes Senua’s tale so interesting is her struggle with her mental illness. Not only does Senua experience increasingly harrowing scenarios, but all the while she is tormented by negative and paranoid voices that undermine her decisions and question her actions throughout the game. The voices add a level of sheer desperation and urgency to each of the varying environments and creates an entirely different, almost ASMR, experience when using a headset.
As if the task of delving into hell while suffering from a severe mental illness was not enough, developer Ninja Theory announced that the game would have a permanent death feature. While the permadeath announcement ended up being a white lie by Ninja Theory, it nonetheless had the desired effect of getting players more invested in the experience. When first released, players were led to believe that a grotesque mark covering Senua’s right arm, received after losing an unwinnable fight, would gradually grow with each defeat until Senua is totally consumed.
Only a few boss encounters take place throughout the story. Unfortunately, several of these boss battles boil down to facing a more powerful version of a regular enemy type. In the case of Surtr and Valravn, the two are initially fairly intimidating not only from a story perspective but also when first encountering them. As the player progresses, however, they will quickly discover that these two introductory boss characters become little more than exaggerated enemies that do little to differentiate from the norm. The next boss players will encounter is one of the stand out moments from the game named Garmr. As Senua journeys deeper into hell, she comes across a dungeon-like tower where she must venture down to defeat the giant beast that guards against any intruders. The entire build up and execution of this fight is a terrifying experience which leaves the player with an immense sense of accomplishment after overcoming it.
The final and most challenging fight is against the half decaying horror, Hel herself. What was supposed to be the most intense and important confrontation of Senua’s journey ends up being a nonstop struggle against waves of regular foes. Eventually the player will have to face each of the previous boss characters simultaneously until finally facing off against the towering monster that is Hel. While the fight itself is a slight let down for the overall experience, the emotional weight behind the struggle makes the climactic battle feel entirely worth the struggle up to that point.
Every aspect of Hellblade is designed to make the player feel at a disadvantage to their surroundings. The characters and story combine to make one of the most engaging and rewarding experiences of modern hack and slash games. The representation of psychosis may not be entirely accurate but is respectful and informed enough to give an artist’s interpretation of the condition.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was previously only available as a PlayStation 4 exclusive but is now available on PC and Xbox One as well.
DON’T FORGET ENSLAVED
For players who have already tried Hellblade, or are just raring to check out a fascinating gameography by an underappreciated developer, all of Ninja Theory’s titles are worth a look.
Heavenly Sword, though short, provides a concentrated blast of over-the-top slightly wuxia-flavoured action in the vein of God of War. DMC: Devil May Cry on the other hand, is an unfairly maligned entry in that storied series for its changes to the format and, to be fair, a touch of discrimination over the switch from Japanese to British developers.
Of Ninja Theory’s games though, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is the least hack-and-slash based, and also the most forgotten by time. Following the character-driven, linear structure of Uncharted, and released on the same day as the first Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Enslaved never stood a chance. The platforming is more basic than Uncharted 2, the preeminent game in the genre at the time, and the story also plays more esoteric and mythological, as befitting its writer Alex Garland who would go on to write and direct the similarly intriguing science fiction pieces Ex Machina and Annihilation.
In short, what makes Enslaved as interesting as Ninja Theory’s other productions probably doomed it from the start. Within, players find wonderfully subdued performances that actually use facial motion-capture as part of the storytelling, set in a vibrantly post-post-apocalyptic universe that was more-or-less co-opted by Horizon Zero Dawn several years later.
Unfortunately, none of its strengths are in the sorts of meat-and-potatoes mechanics that support a hardcore fan-base like Devil May Cry. For an independent passion project like Hellblade, such a focus on storytelling was brave and inspired. In Enslaved, though, publisher Bandai Namco probably wanted to appeal to the hack-and-slash crowd with a mainstream blockbuster. Instead, what Ninja Theory turned in was a Ninja Theory game through-and-through; the sort of project we hope that Microsoft might allow them to take another swing at as a first-party team.
Thanks for joining us this week for a couple of games that are just outside the mainstream spotlight. Next week the focus on psychology and action continues with a straight-up survival horror game. Do you have any sleeper hits that you wish had a spotlight shine on, or near-misses like Enslaved that you wish had gotten more play? Share them in the comments below and always stay with OnlySP for more on our favourite single player games.