Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017, PS4)

Whether it’s high budget action, or twee indie melodrama – games can and have done it all. But I still feel there’s too few games that tell stories that need to be told. I want more stories that feel important – stories that you insist your friends make time for; because they say something worth listening to.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one such game.

Playing as Senua, a skilled but troubled warrior, the goal of the game is to venture into Helheim, the Norse mythology’s underworld, to rescue the soul of her deceased lover Dillion. To read such a summary of the plot, you’d think it’s all very God of War. Venture into Evil Land, snarl, mash the square button, execute enemies in over the top fashion, snarl some more, grunt about how tortured a soul you are, fight a boss, end. In execution, Hellblade is a much slower, less bombastic yarn. The intro sets the tone perfectly for the ensuing ten-ish hours. Travelling on her own, Senua slowly sails through a misty, ominous swamp. The credits slowly roll by. Prominent among them, top billing in fact, are the game’s historical and mental health advisors. The folks at Ninja Theory want to make things clear from the jump; we’re doing this, and we’re taking it seriously.

As the credits drift past, Senua is bombarded by a number of voices that are never introduced to the player, but it quickly becomes evident they are representative of some kind of psychosis in the titular heroine. They aren’t overly-acted caricatures, at least not at first. They’re disembodied voices, peppering your ears with short, monosyllabic taunts or ridicule. If you’re using headphones as the game recommends, the audio design is immediately impressive and harsh.

Hellblade is a story about mental illness. Emphasis on about. Senua’s struggles with the “darkness” represent an interesting wrinkle on her more literal adventure to Hel, but this is unreservedly a nuanced, sincere, unrelenting story about a person struggling with psychosis and the social alienation that comes with it. From the previously mentioned internalised voices, which often can get muddied up with the narration of the story, causing a deliberately overwhelming feeling, to the game’s liberal use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope, Hellblade is enigmatic in a way that made me feel very closely tied to its protagonist. It’s gruelling, confusing, upsetting and tiring; but in such a way that I was totally engrossed.

The revelations surrounding Senua’s past are largely reserved for the game’s second half, and I won’t spoil them here, but I was constantly impressed with how Ninja Theory utilised her story to make broader points about mental health, and our reaction to it as a society. It isn’t a quirky character trait, nor is a straightforward objective to be beaten. Hellblade wants players to understand the difficulties people in these situations face, and not simply think of them as problems to solve.

With so much to say about the story and how it’s told, and I really could go on and on, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of adventure or ‘walking simulator’ game. In reality, it has the heart and soul of one, but it’s wrapped in the body of a quasi-character action game. As she ventures towards Hel, Senua will fight enemies, battle bosses, solve puzzles, and tackle some unique set pieces that, again, I won’t spoil here. The combat can best be described as functional. You have a heavy attack, light attack, a block, and a dodge. The movement is weightier and less flashy than, say, Devil May Cry, and feels more grounded and visceral. The enemy designs are repetitive and it quickly begins to feel like most of the fights are used as padding or a scenery change from the exploring and story chatter. I’d describe it as ‘not bad’ but stretching ‘not bad’ out to ten-ish hours simply doesn’t work.

Likewise, the puzzle solving is functional and, at times, satisfying in its mix of cleverness and simplicity – but it has a template that is repeated far too often. The majority of puzzles see you trying to find a spot in the environment that will cause elements of the world to line up, creating an image that matches one that is painted on a locked door. Some twists on the formula, including an early section with portals that experiment with ‘impossible space’ and illusionary walls, are fun. But like the combat, it outstays its welcome.

The second half of the game offers some very imaginative set pieces and boss battles, which finally offer a highlight for the game that isn’t tied to watching a cutscene, but it feels like too little too late. Around the six or seven hour mark, I was getting frustrated. The story had amped up but the combat and puzzle solving felt stagnant, blips of creativity aside. I wouldn’t go as far as to say these mechanics should have been fully discarded, but the balance is certainly more than a little off. When Hellblade finally starts to show its hand, the last thing you want is a laborious square-mashing brawl between you and the next revelation.

These grievances didn’t detract from my desire to keep going though, and when I reached Hellblade’s conclusion, it was more than worth the bumps along the way. The ending of Hellblade is one of the most poignant, powerful and bittersweet things I’ve seen in a video game. It’s stuck with me for over a week, and I’ve watched it back a dozen times. The writing and performance capture, which impress throughout the game, really stick the landing. Likewise, the game’s unlikely but very cool use of FMV (yes, full motion video with real actors) is used to perfection here.

Hellblade’s minor failings can’t tarnish this absolutely staggering achievement for Ninja Theory. The game’s handling of mental health isn’t just good; it manages to not feel tokenistic or self-congratulatory. It has a harsh, uncompromising story, and doesn’t offer simple solutions – yet still feels uplifting when it’s all said and done. It won’t win any awards as a character action game, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice will undoubtedly be remembered as a classic for year to come.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017, PS4)

Naughty Dog is at an interesting cross-roads in 2017.

They’ve cemented their legacy as one of the absolute best developers in the world at what they do. As narrative-focused shooters go, they lead the pack. But as the years tick by, their formula, particularly in the Uncharted games, has been well and truly sussed. The Lost Legacy is another gorgeous, charming adventure with solid gameplay and an easy-to-binge run-time, but it’s hard to not feel burned out on the series at this point.

Prior to release, many would have argued last year’s Uncharted 4 was a rickety bridge too far, but the game ultimately recieved adoration for telling the franchise’s most mature story to date.

With Lost Legacy, a $40USD standalone, the series regresses somewhat, feeling a little more Uncharted-by-numbers than last year’s ‘game of the year’ contender.

You play as Chloe Frazer, a fan favourite from Uncharted 2 and 3, who is teaming with Nadine Ross, a cool but underutilized anti-hero from Uncharted 4, to track down the elusive ‘Tusk of Ganesh.’ While the dynamic between the two heroines gradually evolves from frosty to friendly, and will charm you along the way, there isn’t much to sink your teeth into as far as character development goes. Despite inventing a previously unheard of brother out of thin air, four games deep, the last entry’s dynamic between Sam and Nathan Drake was compelling and fleshed out, as was Nate’s parallels to antagonist Rafe. Lost Legacy feels like a step in the wrong direction as the heroes’ odd couple routine is very aged at this point, and worse still, they’re teaming up to fight the most one-dimensional villain of the series so far. Naturally the minute to minute banter is great – Naughty Dog knows how to write likeable characters and genuinely funny gags. But if you were expecting something deeper, such as what ND offered in the previous Uncharted, or the seminal The Last of Us, you will be disappointed.

In the gameplay department, things are similarly showing their age. The cover-based shooting feels like it hasn’t advanced since the earliest days of the PS3/360 generation. While Nadine and Chloe boast some tremendous tag-team animations when engaged in melee combat, the encounters mostly feel like busy work you’re just getting through so you can see the next cutscene. Despite the open combat arenas seemingly encouraging you to grapple, sneak and larp around to your heart’s content, getting creative kills as you go, the bullet sponge enemies go against that. Playing in anything other than a hunkered-down, military, cover shooter style has always resulted in frequent deaths for me.

One sizeable section in the middle of the game gives you a faux open world space to drive around in, with core objectives and side quests you can tackle in any order you’d like. It doesn’t massively change how you’ll play the game, and feels more like a bit of technilogical muscle flexing. But hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Naughty Dog games were always maligned as gorgeous but linear, to a fault; with Lost Legacy they’re encouraging people to engage in some virtual tourism. The space they provide is jaw-dropping. It’s huge, without compromising the series’ trademark detail and weather effects. Coupled with the always fun Photo Mode, you can spend a few hours just looking at the various nooks and cranies of the world, marvelling at how good ND are at making the most of the hardware at their disposal. The objectives scattered across the map are still very typical of the series, and simply letting you tackle them in any order isn’t the Hail Mary that will keep it interesting, but it’s a fun novelty on this occassion.

Puzzle solving is another key ingredient in the Uncharted formula, and in this case it’s one that is still holding up pretty well. There are a decent amount of puzzles squeezed into the eight-ish hours of Lost Legacy, and they’re mostly a perfect balance of challenge and accessiblity. Some sections mix things up by having larger scale puzzles that you’ll need to solve with quick reactions and platforming, so it’s not always a simple ‘line up these pieces of an amulet’ job. 

Fans of the Uncharted series will definitely enjoy this shorter adventure. While much of what makes the games great is getting tired, it’s still produced with a level of polish and charm that makes it compelling. The mix of crazy set pieces, including an all-time great in the franchise, puzzles, combat and exploration – appropriately mixed up and trimmed to fit in a less than ten hour experience is hard to argue with. As well worn as the tropes may be, it’s hard not to crack a smile in the company of Naughty Dog’s characters.

Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4, 2017)

As the story of Horizon began to show its hand, about 40 or so hours into my time with it, I was excited to see it through to its conclusion. The bizarre dystopian world was starting to unravel, and I was very close to learning how it all came to be. With that in mind, I started to focus entirely on the game’s main quest – foregoing side activities and miscellaneous sight-seeing.

When I did this though, it didn’t​ sit right with me. In my own head, I wasn’t playing the game properly. In the dozens of hours that had come before this, I enjoyed Horizon as a real ‘stop and smell the (robot) flowers’ game. A game of exploration as much as a game of action. A game where I relished talking to villagers who were selling their wares at the local market, just as much as I did the large-scale dinosaur battles.

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Horizon is so much more than the sum of its parts. On paper, it’s an open world action game with crafting, RPG elements, and a post-apocalyptic setting – you know, every triple-A video game ever. But with its wonderfully well-developed protagonist, jaw-dropping visuals, and a very unique twist on the ‘after society has fallen’ setting, it manages to elevate itself above other games with those very over-done descriptors.

If the world of Horizon was confusing to you when it was first revealed (a Native American-inspired society of tribes, juxtaposed with robot dinosaurs? And it’s set on Earth just a few hundred years in the future? What?) then, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the story of the main campaign. The world of Horizon is more than just a backdrop for our protagonist’s arc – how it came to be is a major plot point. You’ll spend as much time learning about what happened to society as you will about what drives the tale’s heroine; Aloy. It serves as great motivation​ – a legitimate sense of discovery driving you forward.

The gameplay is similarly compelling; offering solid stealth and combat mechanics that develop over time. The second half of the game introduces foes five times the size of the first half, and gives you more tools to experiment with when taking them down. Tripwires, ropecasters, proximity mines, freezebombs, electric arrows – the list goes on. The arsenal is robust enough to allow you to play as you please, but there are strategic bonuses to using certain items in certain fights. Aloy’s ‘focus,’ a plot-device MacGuffin that gives her ‘video game protagonist analysis vision,’ highlights the various parts of each dinobot, with suggestions on how best tackle them. In some instances, mounted weaponry from the machines can be blasted off and used against their former owner; it’s wonderfully satisfying. Some gear is locked behind side quests meaning the aforementioned deviations from the main campaign are often worth it. You’ll meet a colourful cast of warriors, get some new toys, and accrue XP to unlock new abilities in the game’s simple skill tree.

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The nuance and variety in the robot battles is juxtaposed by the idiocy of fighting human enemies. Foes of the homosapien variety have uninspired AI patterns, and even fail to live up to them on occasion. Whether they’re snipers, brutes or beefy sub-bosses, most rival tribesman just charge at Aloy mindlessly, often getting hung up on level geometry or immediately losing interest the second you disappear around a corner. It feels antiquated and lacking in polish – which are not terms I’d use to describe the other 90% of Horizon. Goons fumbling their way through scenery aside; Horizon wows at almost every turn. The game is an almost never-ending series of vistas, with ‘god-rays’ poking through the clouds every morning and a giant pale moon at night. Almost every location is sprinkled with airborne snowflakes, flower petals or ash, which along with the swaying brush and trees makes the environment feel alive. The elegant orchestral score, along with Aloy’s charming monologues about the scenery or weather, mean the game is beautiful to listen to; a ‘podcast game’ this is not. With a robust ‘photo mode’ at your disposal, it feels like developers Guerilla were well aware this was a world worth poking around endlessly.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn is a beautiful and satisfying game. It establishes a fascinating premise and actually sticks the landing in the final act; a rarity in video games. The gameplay is open-ended and varied, with the silly human enemies and repetitive side quests not tarnishing the thrill of the game’s core missions. While Horizon works magnificently as a stand-alone title, this is certainly a world I’d happily revisit in years to come.

Mafia 3 (PS4, 2016)

Here’s a video review I produced last year.

It was a format I was toying around with a lot in 2016, and hope to revisit in the future. I enjoy editing but it is a tiring process, especially on a budget — you might be able to tell this isn’t made with elite level tech or software.

Regardless, I like how it came out and hope to get back to video reviews soon.