Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
I have run out of patience with Ninja Theory. For the longest time, I thought they were genuinely interested in making good games. However, with Hellblade they have made it clear that their priorities skew heavily in favor of aesthetics and story, with game design given the lowest priority. If you have played any other title from Ninja Theory, you will know what to expect from Hellblade.
Hellblade consists of exploration, puzzles, and sword combat. None of these aspects are interesting or well developed. The world is full of invisible walls, with climbing being a context-sensitive action. It is similar to adventure games like Dreamfall, except with no method of interacting with the environment, because that is not the point of the game. It is a curious regression from how this genre usually plays. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West had this same problem, where I often wandered into invisible barriers trying to step over a tiny rock. The puzzles you come across are so simple they barely qualify as such. Like PT you interact with objects by zooming in the camera with R2. Solutions are signposted with visual markers, audio cues and controller vibrations, so you do not have to use your brain to solve them. You just have to run to the end of an artificial corridor, stand where the controller vibrates and hit R2. This works for the entire game.
Combat is borderline serviceable. Parrying an enemy attack feels good, and dodges work well. But hitting an enemy feels like you’re slashing through a block of foam, and there’s little depth to the system. The only way the game scales difficulty is by making late fights take place in arenas so small you are constantly attacked from behind. In these tiny arenas, the camera mashes against the rear wall so you cannot see what is happening. The combat feels like something simple thrown together out of obligation because the story said the protagonist is a warrior. Nothing about this combat system is inventive or exciting. It doesn't feel like a system created by people who enjoy playing these kinds of games.
The reason I am coming at Hellblade with such a negative tone is that this is a game from outside the AAA publisher system. This game is supposed to embody the positive aspects of indie games. But it doesn’t. It is just as blind to the fundamentals of game design as any bloated AAA production. It was the final nail in the coffin for my trust in Ninja Theory as game developers. I do not think they should be working in this genre. This game shows they have no interest in any of the mechanics used in this game. They should pivot to making Telltale style games, or just make movies. I like games in this genre. And I feel insulted playing a game where these mechanics are treated in such a lackadaisical manner. Ninja Theory treats exploration, puzzles, and combat as something you grudgingly add to a story to make it marketable. And I don’t agree with that. They can get stuffed.
During the last third of Hellblade, the buildup to the finale was so good, I was ready to change my mind and give it a grudging recommendation. Now that I have seen the ending, I am changing my mind. It fell flat. It felt like several half-baked ideas mashed together, which made it feel rushed and insecure. The overwrought narration did not help. To some, the intense aesthetic experience might make this worthwhile. But I found it simplistic and tedious. I do not think it is unreasonable to expect better than this, especially from a veteran studio. Neither the journey nor the payoff was worth it.