Games review: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on Switch is a technical triumph

If the name Ninja Theory rings a bell, they’re the studio behind Heavenly Sword (which this bears a surface resemblance to), Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, and the unfairly maligned DmC Devil May Cry. The combat in Hellblade is a lot simpler than DmC, but there’s a real weight to every swing of your sword. Fighting has the perfect level of speed and responsiveness, with the feedback from blocking an attack being a particularly fantastic mix of visuals and gameplay.

There aren’t many enemy types, and the game never finds anything more interesting to do with them than have them walk slowly towards you in enclosed spaces, but our main complaint is that encounters always seem to go on just that bit too long. Especially the exhausting, but not actually very difficult, boss battles.

Sadly, the puzzle side of things is far less interesting than the combat. Strangely, most of it revolves around the Riddler puzzles from Batman: Arkham Asylum, where you have to line up parts of the scenery to form a symbol (runes in his case). Apparently, the optical illusions simulate an element of real medical symptoms, but really… there’s a reason they took them out of the later Batman games.

There are occasional variants where you have to look at a fragmented part of a bridge or stairway at a certain angle, so that it looks whole, but those are the only recurring puzzle elements. There is also a brief attempt to channel Zelda’s light dark/world concept, and a clever bit where you can only move around by trying to sense where a breeze is coming from via the controller’s rumble; although this is largely ruined by giving too many obvious visual clues.

Hellblade was always a peculiar game and had an appropriately mixed response when it was first released on PlayStation 4 and PC in 2017. We know some people rate it very highly, but apart from being technically the first Microsoft game on Switch (Microsoft now owns Ninja Theory, which is ironic given the Xbox One version only arrived last year) it does have another key point of interest beyond its gameplay and storytelling.

The graphics on the original version were staggeringly good, with visuals that bore direct comparison with the very best on the PlayStation 4. That was remarkable enough but what was especially notable is that Ninja Theory are a relatively small team and were purposefully setting out to prove that a game with a medium-sized budget, sold for less than full price, could produce something that looked and played as well as a AAA title. And in that respect Hellblade was an unequivocal success.

The question now is how close does the Switch version get to the original graphics? The answer is surprisingly close, despite the obvious difficultly of the task and the fact that the game runs on Unreal Engine 4. Look closely and you can see that everything from texture quality to resolution to the quality of the lighting has taken a hit, but unless you’re comparing them side-by-side the difference is surprisingly minor.

This is in part due to some clever use of pre-rendered sequences, that were real-time in the original, and shows the amount of effort that Polish team QLOC, best known for Dark Souls Remastered, have put into the port. Like Doom and Wolfenstein II, the resolution can sometimes get so low the graphics become oppressively blurry but all the many compromises are balanced enough that Hellblade remains as playable and visually impressive as it ever was.

We just wish we could recommend the game more enthusiastically, but despite having so much to admire individually nothing seems to gel together properly. The story, or at least what the game is trying to say about mental illness; the combat; and the puzzles all seem like they’re from completely unconnected games and the only aspect that is truly successful is the combat. Your mileage may vary, but either way sometimes it’s not just what you do but the way that you do it.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

In Short: A technical masterpiece with some of the best swordfighting combat in years, but the storytelling and puzzle elements come across as muddled and awkwardly mismatched.

Pros: The core combat is fantastic and on a technical level this is one of the best Switch ports so far. Ambitious and well-researched narrative.

Cons: The puzzle elements are horribly dull and the game eventually runs out of interesting things to do with the combat. Poor pacing and confused storytelling.

Score: 6/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Price: £24.99
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Developer: QLOC and Ninja Theory
Release Date: 11th April 2019
Age Rating: 18

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