Okay. I've been trying (with some mild success) to avoid this thread until I finished the game. Here are my final thoughts.
First off, this game hit at a weird time in my life. Our 8-year-old cat, Persian, suffered a fatal heart attack two days ago and died while we were driving him to the emergency vet. I've been around death before, but I haven't been there as it took hold. Seeing him slowly fight for more and more air as his lungs filled with fluid. It's two days past and it's stuck with me and I can't shake the images from my head. Senua's initial quest, then, to strike the images of her lover's death out of her mind and redeem his soul, resonated strongly. It's a coping mechanism, right? We try to remember the life lived, instead of nursing the trauma.
Meanwhile, the headlines right now are total Ragnarok. We've got increasingly foreboding news that suggest that war with North Korea could be inevitable. World leaders who are more concerned with their egos than the wellbeing of millions. My home state of Virginia was just besieged by white nationalists at UVA, causing chaos and leaving several innocents severely injured. Tragedy this week has struck on a personal, national, and international scale.
Enter Hellblade. This game is masterful at putting the player in a mindset of absolute terror and confusion. I've heard some people claim that it isn't a "horror" game, or that it isn't "scary." But, to me, Hellblade is one of the more terrifying games I've played. It's not a paralyzing fear, such as Alien: Isolation, where the threat of a monster around the corner keeps you frozen in fear, it's more of a mental fear like SOMA, where your audio/visual perceptions work to create a world that is absolutely oppressive and inescapable, and yet your quest is so critical that you can't help but push on.
For the most part, this game approaches combat in a way that I've been pining for as narrative structure in videogames has become more complex and more mature. Hellblade uses combat and violent set pieces as punctuation. In the game's best sequence, a wildly-inventive, nonviolent series of trials is capped off with a burst of violence that serves as an emotionally and physically-draining pay off. The game's automatic difficulty serves the same purpose it did in Resident Evil 4
, creating high-tension moments that push the player to the brink without punishing the player.
If players are looking for a suitable comparison, I think that Hellblade's combat most reminds me of Alan Wake's combat system, in its cinematic, claustrophobic immediacy.
The story, meanwhile, is engrossing throughout, and its BBC miniseries length puts the player in Senua's mind for a perfect amount of time. Any longer and it might have been unbearable. The acting is all tremendously well done. In a sense, it's like the developers took a look at those few excellent opening hours in 2013's Tomb Raider reboot, and found a way to enrich and stretch it out through an entire narrative experience.
The game's strides forward in big-budget storytelling make the small missteps even more visible. The FMV videos, for example, are almost always poorly lit, failing to gel with the rich lighting of Senua's world and creating an effect that occasionally comes off as amateurish. Given the near photo-realistic vistas we're presented with elsewhere, the jarring FMV integration can run the risk of taking the player out of the experience.
Elsewhere, some of the song choices can feel a bit too on the nose. The ending song, in particular, felt like it sucked the air of what should have been an emotional release.
Finally, the game's latter third overemphasizes combat in a way that seems overly gamey. It's a concession that I'll make for a game with "blade" in its title, but it's still a tad disappointing seeing how well it was paced through most of the game.
Narratively, Senua's Sacrifice is near the top of the pile in 2017 in a year that is full of narrative brilliance in videogames. It's nonviolent representations of psychosis are consistently inventive. The game takes two mechanics, combat and rune-finding, and twists them in new ways that serve both the gameplay and the game's narrative push. One sequence, played out in near pitch-darkness, seamlessly builds the game's characters and puts the players in a situation that makes psychosis feel real. It's brave, it's bold, and it's many successes outweigh any niggling negatives.
Overall, I'd say the game is the best thing Ninja Theory has done yet, and I'd count it alongside other top-notch 2017 experiences such as Night in the Woods and Stories Untold. Buy it.