A short criticism of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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.

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Every Game I Played in 2016

There’s been a lot of praise for the games of 2016. Something I can’t really find myself agreeing with. I can only really think of one game that blew me away this year, The Last Guardian. It doesn’t compare to last year, which had both Undertale and Bloodborne as two of, in my opinion the greatest games of all time. Though it wasn’t a bad year… for games, I could think of worse years. It’s unfair to expect every year to reach that quality of last year, but a lot of games that seemed interesting just sort of bored me. I’ll go through every game that I played which launched this year and give you my opinion on them in the order I played them.

Firewatch

First game I played of the year and it was okay. One of the more interesting “walking simulators” I felt like it was mostly comprised of a few interesting ideas which it fails to follow up on. Specifically the small example of choice via gameplay when you encounter the girls in the lake there’s a few actions you can take like throwing the stereo in the lake, but that’s pretty much the only example of that kind of choice. The interaction between the two characters whose names I’ve forgotten was good enough and the method of dialogue choice was natural enough. The exploration was alright if you turn off the player marker on the map, but there’s not much reason to explore anywhere other than where the story directs you to, which makes the world feel less natural. It’s okay all it really needed to do was expand on its more interesting ideas.

Miitomo

This was a pretty funny time waster for a day or two, but it’s just a limited idea so it just doesn’t work beyond the very short lived time it was popular for.

Dark Souls III

The first really good game of the year. I’m a huge fan of From Software’s Souls games and Dark Souls III is a respectable entry in a series of masterpieces. Though it doesn’t even compare to Bloodborne or Dark Souls I, it should be praise to how good those games are that DS3 is still an amazing game itself. I found Dark Souls II fairly lacking, but III drops most of the mistakes of it’s predecessor, with great interconnected level design returning being a big point for me. In general I just haven’t been a fan of the lore of the Dark Souls sequels, particularly the cycles idea. Dark Souls III did end up relying on fanservice quite a bit which is used both effectively and not so much, I just found myself taking the story elements less seriously. One of the most effective uses of fan service, though, is Siegward of Catarina, a character resembling Siegmeyer from the first Dark Souls, a bumbling but loveable knight in onion like armour. In the original Dark Souls we end up helping him in his quest whenever as he is constantly in trouble, Dark Souls III completely subverts this by having a character who we end up relying on, he charges into battle to help you. That quest-line is the most memorable thing from Dark Souls III to me.

Ratchet and Clank

I loved the Ratchet and Clank games on PS2, so a reimagining of the original was something I was definitely going to get. It’s alright, I honestly haven’t found it to be that memorable I almost forgot it for this list, but it is fun enough for what it is. Nothing crazy just an alright game.

VA-11 HALL-11: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

This game quickly caught my attention out of nowhere and I found it fairly entertaining for a while but it failed to keep my attention because of the lack on interaction. It is a visual novel, I found the characters to be pretty interesting, I appreciated the setting, but I was expecting something more like Papers, Please. Probably my own fault for expecting that, if you like visual novels you’ll probably really like this. This Matthewmatosis video explains my own opinion on the game similarly.

Enter The Gungeon

I didn’t like it. I guess that style of rogue-like where you don’t keep any progress across deaths is not for me.  Though, I did find the actual shooting base gameplay to be fun. What especially annoys me is the randomized bosses which means you can’t focus on learning the boss attack patterns as you probably wont get that boss for another few attempts, the same issue I had with The Binding of Isaac. Many attempts just feel like a waste of time and not very satisfying.

Pokemon Go

I tried going out and catching some Pokemon a few times, it was really buggy and than I stopped being interested. It had a lot of potential, but the lack of trading and an actual battle system meant it ended up being something I just stopped caring about.

Pokemon Sun

This is a good game. I was very disappointed with Pokemon X and Y, but this makes up for them and more. The setting is great, especially how it uses the theme of evolution in isolation in it’s Alola form Pokemon and in the designs of many new Pokemon. Team Skull are entertaining and actually have realistic motivations. Though it is quite cutscene heavy and starts off really slow, it’s my favourite Pokemon game since Black and White.

The Last Guardian

I’ve already written about this. My game of the year.

Overwatch

I was late to overwatch, mainly because I was waiting until I could build a gaming PC. I got to it by the end of the year and yeah, it is really fun. It’s great how streamlined and accessible it is, it feels good to play. I’m finding Overwatch is really capturing my attention right now. I’m not really a fan of the lore, though. It takes itself way too seriously, even when I saw the CGI reveal trailer that everyone was wanking over I found it a little embarrassing. Compare Overwatch lore to TF2’s lore which realises it’s a dumb game about shooting people the same people and dying, so it makes its lore acknowledge why the same people are killing each other over and over again. Of course this doesn’t really matter because the game is still really fun, so who cares?

Dishonored 2

I’ve been slowly making my way through Dishonored 2. Not near finishing it but I have enjoyed it so far. The setting and level design really stands out to me. I just reached the Clockwork Mansion and the design is amazing, it feels exactly how it should, like the mad creation of a insane genius. I don’t think the stealth is amazing but it serves its purpose and makes the game very tense. Combined with the dark atmosphere the game is very imposing. The main story hasn’t been interesting so far, it starts with an interesting idea of the crown killer which has a lot of mystery and implications behind it, but that’s immediately overshadowed by an extremely similar set up to Dishonored 1 and then quickly wrapped up in the first mission. I just don’t find the plight of restoring a monarchy to be interesting, but everything else about the world, the lore, the characters, the world itself is incredibly interesting.

SUPERHOT

Didn’t like it. Not entirely sure why, I just found it boring. A neat idea but the levels felt very much based on trial and error and not much else. Not for me.

Event[0]

Game Maker’s Toolkit convinced me to try this one out and it is a really good idea. I enjoyed it a lot. The many mysteries here drew me in, who are these characters? How do I leave? Should I trust the AI, Kaizen? The interactions with the AI were entertaining and even when it didn’t understand what I was saying it still made sense in the context of the setting as it would seem like the AI is malfunctioning or purposefully trying to change the subject and avoid what I am saying. It was lacking in puzzle design but I still found what was there to be very entertaining, maybe there should have been just a little bit more to it.

Drawful 2

Crazily good party game, funny, clever and creative. I got this out on Christmas and New Years Eve and everyone had a good time. Way better than monopoly.

Fibbage XL

Similar to Drawful funny game of improvisation. A good party game, but I prefer Drawful.

My favourite games of the year are, The Last Guardian, Dark Souls III, Overwatch, Event [0] and Pokemon Sun. Dishonored 2 might be up there when I play more of it. In 2017 I’ll mostly be looking out for The Nintendo Switch, Zelda and Red Dead Redemption 2 (if it actually comes out in 2017)

Have a great year!