Contains boss spoilers.
There are a lot of good things to be said about Senua’s Sacrifice, most notable is the binaural audio and how that overtly draws us into Senua’s state of mind with several voices. I’m far from an authority on the subject of psychosis, but the way the game handles the voices feels very mature. They explore a variety of emotional states, reassuring Senua, sometimes encouraging her, but often are more negative, expressing a lack of confidence or determination. It’s this that is probably the most unique element of the game and with some other interesting elements is what makes the game stand out, but I think the game, as an overall package is lacking, particularly in its gameplay, which is what I want to talk about.
The gameplay has two major parts to it. Slower open areas or paths in which a puzzle must be solved to continue and closed off combat sections where you face several enemies or a boss. The combat is okay, the mechanics of it work fine and it feels reactive enough, nothing incredible, but the lack of enemy variety, or any kind of combat variety at all to explore the combat mechanics means combat often feels out of place and doesn’t add much to the game, outside of a few examples. The Northmen are the the primary enemy and there’s only 4 different kinds of them. Every combat encounter other than bosses are a different combination of Northmen in a slightly different environment, with environment having little to no effect on combat. So since the combat is so limited in scope, what is it bringing to the game? Compare it to the combat in something like Ico or The Last Guardian, other games where combat isn’t complex. In those games the combat is a tool to heighten the theme of companionship between the player protagonist and their companion. In Ico enemies will try to escape with Yorda and you must prioritize who to fight in order to prevent that. Likewise, in The Last Guardian enemies will try to escape with you, and Trico takes on most of the combat, while you assist in small ways and calm Trico down after combat. So my question is this: How does Senua’s Sacrifice’s combat reinforce its themes? The most I could say to this for the vast majority of combat encounters is how the voices react to your success and failures and warn of incoming attacks, but that’s far more of an impressive detail then it is a main pillar of the combat.
There are two main answers to my stated question. The first being the bossess, who are often built up as a character in the level before you fight them overcoming them is a real victory for Senua, particularly Fenrir, who torments her relentlessly. Through defeating him Senua can gain back a piece of her sanity. The other is a section of drawn out combat where you walk through a hellish landscape of lava and endless hands reaching out to you, you’re overwhelmed with enemies. It works brilliantly as a low point for Senua. A similar part happens towards the end but I feel it is less impact considering Hela had been built up as the major villain, yet she is not our ultimate challenge instead a gauntlet of enemies we’ve already faced many time are. The vast majority of combat encounters don’t feel anywhere near as important my examples above, and I have a feeling regular combat encounters are in there because it’s a game and people expect games to have combat.
Puzzling, on the other hand, does feel more integral to the game. Many areas having their own unique puzzle gimmick. There is a reoccurring puzzle, in which the player must find certain symbols in the environment. This is meant to encourage exploration, I guess, but exploration in this game just isn’t very fun, considering how uninteractive and linear the environment is. The areas where you have to look for the symbols are clearly marked by floating symbols, so you don’t have to look too hard, you go to the right area then walk around a bit to find the right angle to view it from. It’s not complex, doesn’t require much thought and it’s far more common than it needs to be. I pose the same question again: How do these puzzles reinforce the themes of the game? Other puzzles are better thematically, like in Valravn’s area, where you must walk through arches which can change the setting slightly for you to continue, Valravn being a “god of illusion” this works. Many puzzles in various areas follow a similar structure, with the setting around you being altered in some way for you to continue, but these puzzles are disappointing in their lack of complexity. They are not iterated on enough, but it’s not just that, the formula of the puzzles themselves are not fluid enough. They revolve around exploring the setting in two different states the goal being to find which state has the correct path. While, the effect is cool, it’s not really a puzzle at all, and doesn’t require much lateral thinking.
I have mostly focused on criticisms but there is another element to Senua’s Sacrifice that I would really like to praise and that is its horror set pieces. They manage to really convey a sense of unease. The most memorable one sees you chased by a fiery beast through a maze, just looking at the beast will damage you. This happens to be pretty much the only time where the rune puzzle work well, because of rush you’re experiencing to quickly find each rune and line up your vision. The visual effects, the overwhelming audio and the voices’ conflicting messages really stand out during these moments.
Despite not particularly enjoying Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I’m glad it has managed to find success with its development model. Lower budget, shorter games for a lower price is generally something I want to see more coming out of the larger game studios.