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.


Thoughts on The Last Guardian

Spoilers below.

Obviously, The Last Guardian is a game I’ve been waiting for. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Team Ico and Fumito Ueda’s previous work, with Shadow of the Colossus being one of my all time favourites. Obviously, The Last Guardian is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me, so it’ll be no surprise to find out that I really liked the game and it’s definitely my game of the year.

What really makes The Last Guardian is the many little moments scattered throughout. One of the earliest points where I realized I was going to like this game was just after I solved a puzzle, standing outside with Trico, who goes into a shallow pool of water and rolls around in it. The boy laughs “I thought you didn’t like water” I go up to stroke Trico, before continuing onwards. This is a slow paced game, a very slow paced game. If you rush through this you will miss all the important little character moments, the tiny pieces of foreshadowing. If you don’t stop and smell the roses, then there’s really not much to the game at all. This obviously means that this game wont appeal to many people who play games for very different reasons, but I don’t think that makes the game any less valuable.

In most respects The Last Guardian is more of a successor to Ico than it is Shadow of the Colossus, following on with the puzzle solving, character escorting, and exploration of a linear space, that made Ico so unique at the time. Trico is a large creature which the player will need to climb at various points, so there’s the big parallel with Shadow of the colossus. All 3 games explore the connection between the protagonist and another prevalent character, who you often rely on and explore the game with. The Last Guardian is the most prevalent and best example of this so far. Despite it being more comparable to Ico I think this is an element in which Shadow is more relevant. In Ico Yorda, was the ghostly girl we assisted through the world, but most of the time it was us helping her, occasionally she’d help us up or open a door for us, but we solved the puzzles, it’s only right at the end where she saves us in a major way. Shadow has a more mutual relationship, imagine travelling The Forbidden Lands without your horse, Agro. There’s even a few colossus that are unbeatable without her assistance.

The Last Guardian goes a step even further, in what I would call “interactive character development” Starting the relationship with an aggressive, chained up Trico, who will even attack the player and ending up with a Trico who whimpers when we’re not in sight. One of my favourite moments, towards the end, sees the player stormed by an army of knights, while Trico is held back by a stained glass eye which, throughout the whole game Trico has been in fear of, not being able to go near. Seeing us in an unhelpable situation he overcomes the fear jumping in to save us.

All of the puzzles in the game serve the purpose of furthering this relationship, they often aren’t complex, but they involve working with Trico or achieving some task that will help Trico and that’s what really sells the bond between these two characters, the interactivity of the relationship. Ueda knows, arguably better than any other, how to use the medium of games to tell a story.

One of the places where this bond really comes through is the combat. Here we see a major parallel with Ico. Where Yorda was captured by shadow creatures who would try to drag her away, the player had to beat them with a big stick to fend them off. In The Last Guardian the roles are reversed, kind of. Trico, will be doing most of the fighting, and enemies will attempt to pick you up and drag you away, but we’re not completely helpless. While the combat in Ico recieved many complaints. (I thought it was serviceable, but definitely felt out of place, and too “gamey”). The combat encounters in The Last Guardian are very interesting, they make sense, why would I be taking on these enemies when I have giant monster besides me. The most this little kid could be is a distraction, keep yourself safe while Trico deals with them, your role afterwards is to calm Trico down and remove any spears. Despite this less dominant role I still found the combat very engaging and enjoyable. It does shake itself up every now and again, which makes it feel more relevant and never like it’s just been inserted because it’s a video game and “video game need combat”. The combat furthers the relationship between the boy and Trico while remaining enjoyable and varied. The most memorable encounter for me was when two knights were holding up stained glass eye shields, preventing Trico from entering the area. The player has to go on ahead, alone. Taking on the knights without Trico’s help, you feel weak, but all you need to do is knock the shielded knights off the edge they’re standing by. It’s a challenge since there are more knights chasing after you, but it really drills into you just how important Trico is. It isn’t a mere NPC for us to escort, in fact sometimes you feel like the NPC being escorted. Trico is more than that, he is a companion, a friend.

I shouldn’t need to tell you about how impressive the animation work is, or how Trico acts like a real pet, it’s there, you can see it for yourself. I can tell you how by the end of the game I felt so attached to Trico that I did not want my this character to die. Often I might be expecting a character to die in a game, or sometimes even criticising a game for avoiding killing off a character when it makes sense to do so. Towards the end I might have thought Trico’s death was coming, I might have known it would be very impactful, but I didn’t care, I did not want that to happen.

Unfortunately I think the pacing does mess up towards the end. There are several climactic moments in the last 2-3 hours that are just broken up with menial moments of linear exploration, many of which don’t really involve many puzzles. I think it would have been far more appropriate to cut out the slower moments between the climatic final moments, such as Trico flying and the fight with the other beast, in particular I felt like the moments after you revive Trico, which lead to the ending, felt dragged out and unnecessary.

It’s a shame, because I didn’t enjoy the ending battle too much either. I felt like bringing in many other beasts distracted from the rivalry that had been built up between the two earlier, which should have came to a climatic fight. Instead Trico just gets beaten up helplessly, which makes the situation feel desperate until you realize you can just sort of sit around and nothing really happens, which really kills the tension. It would have been more believable to have Trico fight back and dodge, even if he is still clearly being over powered and can not overcome the enemy himself, it would make the scene far easier to believe over the time it takes to save Trico.

Shadow of the Colossus has probably my favourite ending of any game. One thing you’ll notice happening in all of Ueda’s endings is the protagonist fainting at some point, it’s the perfect excuse to take control away from the character in a way that make sense. The Last Guardian follows through with this, again. I was hoping for something more like Shadow of the Colossus where you’re given control over very important parts of the ending, even if you’re destined to the same fate every time and nothing you can do will change that. Though, The Last Guardian does set up something very different from the themes of Shadow’s ending, and I still found the its ending cutscene very effective, very powerful and it made sense. Requiring the player to call Trico to leave is a great choice too, reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 3’s ending.

I would say The Last Guardian is a huge leap over Ico, but there is one thing in comparison to Ico that quite disappointed me, the level design. Ico has a more interconnected level design, similar to what is often seen is the Souls games now. I understand this isn’t so important to some people, but it’s something I really appreciate as it makes the setting feel more real and allows me to enjoy exportation far more. There are a few example of you returning to older locations but these pretty much only happen through scripted moments when intended by the games.

Sorry if the last few parts have been to negative, I have complaints about the game, but it is certainly my favourite game of 2016 and I will not soon forget it. Especially one part in particular, one part that I think my be my favourite moment in any game, ever.

The part when you’re separated from Trico, after he dives. Following a similar story beat in Ico. You would expect this to be a sad moment where you struggle without your partner, but that’s only part of it. You wake up after being separated from Trico. The place you’re in seems a little alien, where what appears to be glowing technological things are around, you may be confused, you might feel out of place or isolated. You go up a creepy elevator shaped like a cage, like something you’d expect to see in Sen’s Fortress in Dark Souls, you know this place probably isn’t safe. The path in front of you has collapsed, Trico would be able to jump that gap, you cannot, you have no choice but to climb across a narrow metal fence, you’re missing Trico right now. You continue climbing your way up crumbled stairs and broken ledges. The silence combined with the few clips lonely of music is reinforces the sense of isolation. You see feathers, is Trico okay? You follow the feathers to find a tail hanging from above, the music becomes somewhat joyful, but by this point you may realise, that’s not your Trico, as you climb the tail the music becomes only a little bit sinister. You jump across to a tree branch it creeks, you get a quick glance at the beast, it’s not Trico. The branch snaps, and the beast notices you. The emotions this scene provokes has already been incredible, but now begins an, intense, stressful escape scene, you can’t beat this thing, you have to run away, right now. Just when you find an elevator, when it’s going up and you’re approaching safety, the beast jumps up and drags you down. You’re helpless, stuck in a cage as it claws at you, there’s nothing to do. Then, a sound, the beast stops, turns around and eventually runs away. You’re safe, but still stuck. After rolling around hopelessly, the game fades to black and then cuts back with the boy waking up, you hear a distant roar, is that Trico? What else do you do but call for him? There’s a small hole in the roof of the cave, where the light of the outside shines in. Trico breaks through, the music is incredibly joyful, Trico is finally back.

Think about the range of emotions this scene takes you through building on the relationships already established in the game, your friendship with Trico and your rivalry with the other beast. It’s sad, it’s scary, it’s lonely, manipulative, stressful, and then joyful finally. I can’t think of a better example of an interactive scene in any game. In any industry filled with power fantasies The Last Guardian is not afraid to disempower you.

Now for a few details of the game and what I thought of them. Needing to clear the symbols off the screen to restart after a failure state is a nice touch, that makes death feel a bit more engaging and is more immersive than a game over screen. Narration was a little unnecessary, I think its only real reason to be there is to give the player hints on what to do, similar to Dormin in Shadow of the Colossus. A hint system that is consistent with the story, it succeeds in doing that. But during many story sections the narrator will just say the obvious when nothing needed to be said at all. The game is already showing, there’s no need to tell. The animation is as stunning as I would expect from the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. The graphics aren’t mind blowing but the game does look very nice, the way the light shimmers off Trico’s feathers, especially nearer the ending, is perfect.

The Last Guardian is a brilliant game, I’ll probably need some time to think about how much I truly appreciate it. I would say currently I prefer Shadow of the Colossus for its wider achievements, but I’d pick The Last Guardian over Ico, though all 3 games are incredible. It’s the only game I could think of where I was smilingĀ  almost all throughout. I’ll praise a game enough for making me smile at certain points, but to have me just smiling during normal gameplay, that takes something special.



Dark Souls’ Estus Flask: The Best Healing Item

Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, the setting, the exploration, the combat, it all comes together to create a brilliant package. I think one of the many reasons the combat works so well is a pretty simple but ingenious element, the healing system. Dark Souls uses an item called the Estus Flask as its primary method of healing. Not only is it an undead favourite, it’s probably the most important item in the game.

The Estus Flask works like this: you get 5 chugs before it’s fully depleted, dying or resting at a bonfire, the Dark Souls equivalent of checkpoints, refills your uses. There’s a lot more to it than that, such as the kindling system, but we’ll get into that later. These rules are perfect because it means that the player can never get into the situation where they’ve ran out of healing items and need to grind for more. Given the challenging nature of the Souls games the player will likely rely on healing a lot, but often when players run up against a challenge they have a feeling of “just one more try” the fact that you have this reliable healing source means that the flow of playing the game and taking on challenges is never broken by the need to grind for more healing or even the threat of running out. This is especially important for how the bosses work in Dark Souls, it may take several attempts to learn their pattern and finally defeat them, but you can keep going back to confidently fight the boss knowing you will never need to grind.


Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, the predecessor and successor to Dark Souls respectfully, both have these problems. They both have healing items you pick up throughout the game and attempt to supply you with it regularly, like how potions work in many games, but if you reach a particularly tough section your supply can be easily depleted, creating unnecessary annoyance on top of the challenge you’re already facing. One of my biggest issues with Bloodborne was, despite it releasing after Dark Souls, it had this inferior healing system.

There is another, rather contrasting, problem. If players do grind they can end up with far more healing items then they actually need, making the game easier. This is very possible in Demon’s Souls. The Estus Flask’s limited uses manages to solve this. This combined can create an interesting risk/reward situation in the game, that I’m sure many players have experienced, where if you run out of Estus uses or are close to doing so while in an unknown area you may contemplate whether to go back to the previous bonfire to gain back your Estus uses and try again, or continue in the hope another bonfire maybe be nearby and risk dying.

As the player progresses through the game, you find Fire Keeper Souls, which are used to upgrade your Estus Flask, so that it heals more HP. A pretty standard idea, to keep it relevant as you upgrade your health stat, but it does give you a nice little piece of lore about the fire keepers and you can also choose to kill fire keepers for more if you’re a terrible person, though you will need to keep one alive to upgrade the flask for your awful self.

The Estus Flask, as a game mechanic, manages to fit in with many other mechanics of Dark Souls perfectly. Considering 3 or 4 hits from many enemies can kill you healing regularly when on low health is really going to help get you through an area. Unlike Dark Souls, in many other games you heal by pausing the game, going into a menu and selecting the healing item, which then instantly restores your health. Not only is this unimmersive it can also trivialise combat. Instead the Estus Flask can be used by the press of a button during real time gameplay, but most importantly, much like every attack in Dark Souls it has its own, fairly lengthy, animation and timing. An element you think would be so simple actually means a lot as it allows healing to fit in as a strategic part of the combat. When fighting an enemy and you’re on low health you will have to prepare for the right opportunity to use the Estus Flask or they will likely punish you during the drinking animation. Meaning healing is not too easy to pull off, but works just like attacking an enemy would in Dark Souls’ combat, something you have to strategically do at the right moment.


There are other ways to heal in Dark Souls, such as Humanity or Divine Blessing but those are both depletable resources so would generally be used as a last resort. You can also gain use of healing miracles with enough of the faith stat, though magic in general does make the game a lot easier, it’s worth noting that these healing miracles have a pretty long animation time which means it would be very hard to fit them in during combat, and are mostly intended for use in-between combat encounters, so Estus Flask still remains the primary healing source.

Which brings me to a very important mechanic that I’ve avoid until now, the kindling system. It has not appeared in any of the other Souls games, which I think is a shame, because it’s brilliant. The reason I think this is because there’s a lot of debate about whether Souls games should have an “easy mode” and I’m sure I’ll write about that another day, but the short answer is: no. The slightly less short answer is: there are already in-game solutions to make Dark Souls an easier experience. The Kindling system is just one of them. It works like this: throughout the game you collect a resource called Humanity, when resting at a bonfire Humanity can be used to reverse hollowing which enables features such as co-op but most importantly, kindling. Use another Humanity to kindle the bonfire and now you have 10 Estus uses after resting at that bonfire! Doubling your Estus usage makes a huge difference and should enable players to take on challenges they struggled with earlier. This is a far better solution than just having an easy mode, as it relies on an in-game resource and mechanic, meaning it fits into the setting more than just an option in the menu and there must be some kind of sacrifice of resources before kindling, making it a trade-off. Even if Humanity isn’t a particularly rare resource, the “too good to use” factor will make players consider before just kindling every bonfire straight away. If you’re finding a specific area challenging, kindling the bonfire for that area means you just get extra uses from just that bonfire and you can take on any further areas at the default level of challenge (5 Estus uses, unless you have over 5 Estus left over.) Whereas many players would stick to an easy mode even if they have the ability to take on a harder challenge. You also gain the Rite of Kindling later in the game which allows you to further kindle the bonfire for 15 and even 20 uses of the Flask.

For what Dark Souls does, the Estus Flask works perfectly as a healing system. It prevents unnecessary grinding, stops the player from having far more healing than is needed, creates a kind of dynamic difficulty setting and fits in perfectly as an element of Dark Souls’ combat. It’s one of the biggest improvements moving from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls. I can confidently say it’s the best system of healing in any game that I’ve played.



Okay, so this is the first post I’ve written out on here and feedback or other opinions are always welcome. I’d like to improve my writing, as I don’t think it’s great, but I do hope I’ve put across my ideas successfully. I hope to do more more discussions of game mechanics and also some reviews, but I’ve never ran a blog before so this is entirely new to me! Thanks for reading!