Did you ever know this game was out? Elijah Wood personally came out to show off the game at two E3 showcases. But now the game is out, and not a peep. Also, despite heavily marketing it as a VR experience tailored for the PS4, it’s also available on Xbox One and PC. Which is suspicious, but how does it play? It plays like someone tried to combine Get Even with PT, that’s what it is.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a genre-blending action and puzzle game developed and published by Ninja Theory. Originally out on PC and PS4 last year, the game has recently been ported to Xbox One. In it, the titular young Nordic woman finds herself coming to wits with a bad case of psychosis while trying to fight her way into the mythological dimension of Helheim in order to fulfill a promise. The game strongly encourages the user to play with headphones, as many recordings of people speaking to you using binaural audio techniques highlight the struggle Senua has against her own mind. In a time before mental illness was truly understood, you have to deal with voices that are constantly criticizing everything that you do while battling the Northmen who guard the realm in an immersive melee combat setup. The game put a lot of work into verifying the historical accuracy of the Norse Mythology being utilized along with having several medical professionals on board to accurately depict the psychosis. It’s an ambitious project from what used to be a AAA developer who decided to carve its own path on the game-o-sphere.
Dour and grim, the high fidelity graphics are exactly what you would expect out of a big budget game, only done on a much smaller scale. As a far more linear game, a lot of craftsmanship went into every location. This was especially important when various uses of lighting were implemented, having some sections make you navigate successfully from near pitch black environments to dark and stormy vistas and bright and sunny vales, and then swim in a terrifying river of blood. The Northmen NPCs who you fight all had a lot of care put into their design and animations, with enough detail to make them as imposing as they are every time you encounter them. And then there’s Senua herself, mo-capped and acted in the performance of a lifetime by Melina Jeurgens, whose motions and behavior are so jarringly true to life, it many times puts the big budget games to shame. The graphics never broke, the immersion was constant, and everything meshed perfectly.
It’s really hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, so I’d prefer to just expound on the game description and what it means for the future. This game is a physical and emotional journey wherein the deeper and deeper Senua gets into Hell, the deeper and deeper her traumas manifest. The ending will give you some thinking to do with some final actions that may leave you puzzled, but that’s not all. Upon completion of the game, you are informed that if the game had any psychological impact on you, then they strongly recommended you to go to a website to either contact a hotline or take several brief mental health screenings (only one page of questions) for anxiety, depression, psychosis, eating disorders, and several others. It’s poignant that this game is boldly going places that other games only scraped the surface of (Get Even or Life is Strange come to mind). Plus in terms of the sheer intensity of the experience and the impression it leaves, I have to say that this is the true video game equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. That’s the book, not the game EA put out in 2010.
Another masterwork is the audio. As stated above, the game utilizes binaural sound in order for it to sound like there are voices talking to you in your head coming from any 360-degree point. Jeurgens herself nails every emotion and line the game gives her flawlessly. It’s one thing to be able to handle the script you are being given; it’s another thing to express every grunt, flail and scream with raw power every time. The sound design intertwines with the soundtrack, frequently warping ambient noise slowly into some roaring nordic chants and chamber orchestrals as if someone took the Skyrim soundtrack and then Hans Zimmer asked Satan himself to do a remix. Also of huge importance is hearing the voice of one of the antagonists, whose booming timbre comes in about a third of the way through the game to recite a soliloquy about Senua and the inevitable end of her journey. Truly a masterwork.
With nothing in the way of a HUD or tutorials, this game throws you in, but it’s easy enough to understand what you need to be doing to figure things out (And you can always just check the menu for key bindings). The immersion is great and requires you to listen to your surroundings while occasionally relying on the voices to help you, even if they sometimes lie. There are about 3 forms of gameplay: first, there is the melee combat in which you fight the Northmen, in a very satisfying and intense fashion with an automatic difficulty scaler that keeps the challenge just right, so that every encounter you get, you need to be at your best. Then, some levels have a gate with runes on them and the only way to unlock the gates is to find the runes in your surroundings, often using forced perspective or looking at certain objects at unique angles to find them. Finally, there are environmental puzzles where the challenge you must complete in order to continue isn’t always spelled out for you. All in all, the runes can sometimes be a pain but you will always eventually figure it out because the game helps you at least know where you need to be to find them. This game is one of the many new games out there that manages to find balance in using different forms and genres of gameplay that create a cohesive experience. Ever pushing you forward to fight nightmare after nightmare, this game can create a true force of willpower in the player, egging you on no matter how difficult or scary it gets.
The game never disappoints, is almost completely devoid of bugs and glitches (a couple major ones were fixed from the original launch) and just keeps you going forward, eager as ever to explore this horrendous land of anguish. The game isn’t ever outright a horror game and there are no cheap horror tricks employed throughout the length of the adventure. But it’s also hard to call this game fun. It is a game that will leave you in awe, dread, and discomfort. It might even evoke some self-discovery, again, as the game draws to a close. Overall, this game is a modern masterpiece that deserves to be played, but be prepared before doing so- it’s not easy to stomach some of the things you’ll see.
Very few games will be able to evoke what makes Hellblade such a good game, but this game along with several other unique experiences are paving the way to a new genre of gaming that far extends the “walking simulator” monicker of its predecessors. It’s also one of the greatest arguments for video games as independent works of art, as this experience would not be even close to the experience if put onto any other medium. Unless you are particularly squeamish, do not pass off on this game. And of course, if you yourself feel in the grips of mental distress, a game like this may offer you a new perspective on your whole life.
In this waking nightmare where all dreams come true, you searched for control. A way to pull through. When you were in love you left him in tears. To smother your furies and banish your fears. But in darkness they came, through stormy black seas, they raided these shores. Do you still hear his screams? And now that you’re home he’s so far away. They’ve taken his soul. To these gods you cannot pray. They can break you, but not your promise. Even death won’t keep you apart. Through this darkness, you will find him. In your sword still beats a heart. You fought for love unspoiled. By your darkness within. You fought for your dreams, now there is no way to win. In the head of his corpse lies the seat of his soul. So you must carry his vessel and bring him back home.
What Remains of Edith Finch is an interactive narrative adventure game developed by Giant Sparrow and published by Annapurna Interactive. This game is the first from the newly founded publisher, a video game division of Annapurna Pictures. The game sees you as a young woman returning to her childhood home, a bizarre cut & sewn structure that defies explanation. You spend your time in the game finding secret passages and reading books about the members of the family and how they all eventually met their demise. For a game about death, it does manage to be very colorful in story and gameplay elements.
This game hits that sweet spot of style vs realism that doesn’t quite go too far one way or the other to set it off balance. You can tell that special attention was made for each and every room you enter inside the house. Often times the design of the rooms themselves tell you more about the character before you read about them in their diary. But it’s not just striking a good balance, it also has range. Throughout the many stories of the game, some alternative art styles will pop up like cel-shading and other stylized art. And the placement of the subtitles of the game are well-crafted. These subtitles don’t just sit at the bottom of the screen, they occupy the space you’re looking at. There are several moments when you can even interact with text as it appears before you. While projecting subs onto the environment isn’t necessarily a new idea anymore, this game still manages to be considerably inventive with it.
I cried at the end. I mean, that’s not actually all that hard for me to do that. But, it was surprising that such a whimsical story about people dying could emotionally affect me. Especially when I didn’t feel that much of a connection with any of the characters. The game doesn’t expect you to necessarily identify with characters though. Merely, the essence of the story is basically about telling stories in and of itself. It would be a disservice to the game to go into details about the story, as the game is rather short. Sitting anywhere between 2-3hrs max, it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. In fact, the timing was actually rather perfect. Your interest in these tall tales can only go on for so long, so after one particularly poignant tale, the game moves on to the finale on cue.
This is one of those games that also expertly implements procedurally implemented music, with music meant to play during certain cues, ever changing as the game takes you through every character’s big adventure. With a lot of variety, the songs featured go through a range of different genres based on the mood and setting of every character’s story. Then there’s the titular Edith Finch, who is going through the house and reading out many of the stories that are presented. Actress Valerie Rose Lohman, whom doesn’t appear to have any other major claims is a great host, delivering a performance without taking things over the top. All the other actors who narrate their stories sound real and believable, again no sign of overacting, even when things do get a bit ridiculous. Not to spoil it, but the “spooky” narrator puts on a great show, especially in his aping of old TV horror specials.
And here’s the rub. It may be unnecessary to call an interactive narrative experience game (or walking simulator as you may casually refer) derivative, as these games were born upon the successes of breakthrough titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home. But that second one in particular is a real sticking point, because Edith Finch and Gone home are heavily focused on exploring a house that tells you a story. But in GH, that story is told to you by figuring it out for yourself, as you move from room to room and pick things up and thumb through old journals, scrapbooks, tapes, and other junk. Here in Edith Finch, you have stories that are directly delivered to you in a largely linear guided tour with very little agency in interacting with anything inside the rooms. You just go from one to the next, following convoluted paths that involve hidden passageways but somehow always lead you to where you need to go. That’s my only real point of contention, a game like this has been done better before, especially in terms of engagement. While some walking sims have a lot of things for you to stop and take a closer look at, this title is far more akin to the of a Disney ride, complete with unsettling implications.
At not one point was I bored while playing. I never felt like anything had to be rushed. I wasn’t annoyed by any of the minigames. The pace was perfect. Loading times were non-existent and transitions were seamless. Most importantly, this game is truly accessible. The controls are simple enough for most people to grasp and non-demanding of the player to be particularly agile or quick. Anyone can play it, and that’s a good thing for games like this. Some games in this genre can be far more challenging, but not this one. There’s only one exception, as one of the penultimate stories has you doing two things at once. Do one activity on your left thumbstick while doing another activity with your right thumbstick. Not necessarily the hardest thing in the world for sure. But in terms of acting like a sort of “final boss” it is the most difficult little game in this anthology. When I think of games I like to show my sister, who used to play games 1v1 with me ages ago, this is the kind of game I like to fire up, give her a controller, and let her enjoy the experience firsthand.
Wonderous and humble, this game about a cursed family with a disturbing propensity for unfortunate deaths is not something you’d expect to be a fun and enjoyable experience. But it is. This game has enough new ideas to feel more engaging than just being force-fed exposition. If you like interactive narrative adventures (walking simulators) and want to see something refreshingly good, this is the one to pick up.