”Hellblade Selling Above Expecations, Nearly Breaking Even For Developer” is a bit of a downer title for something that is far more exciting. The news isn’t that Hellblade is going to turn a profit, quotes from the studio make it clear that was always going to happen. It’s that Hellblade is going to turn a profit months earlier than expected, meaning the game is selling rather well.

”We own the IP this time. It’s opened up a bunch of doors and possibilities that we just didn’t have until this point.” Antoniades, chief creative director at Ninja Theory told GamesBeat. “In terms of a model, I’d say it is a success.”

Not only does Ninja Theory own the IP to Hellblade, they self published it. In doing so, they necessarily made a smaller game with a smaller team than a AAA title gets, but now they are reaping that reward as there is no EA or Activision there to take their share of the profits.

The exciting thing here is that maybe, just maybe, this could be a signal to the industry. Not every game needs to be a massive AAA adventure. Not every game needs to be filled with random loot boxes. Making a good game on a less astronomical budget can work!

And yeah, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a good game. I played it over the course of two days and thoroughly enjoyed it. Without jumping straight into spoilers, the game opens with Senua, a Celtic warrior on a quest into a Norse version of hell to save the soul of her lover after he is tortured and killed in a Viking raid. Except, this isn’t a game about a heroic damsel or femme fatale epically storming the gates of hell. It’s a story about a deeply troubled young woman being pushed over the edge by tragic events trying to overcome her own demons while giving everything she has to save someone who she loves.

It is a very dark, very gritty game. Starting at about a minute in, things like bodies impaled on spikes is a normal you’ll need to accept. The game includes somewhat graphic looks at things like fire sacrifices, making your way through a dark place filled with monsters, or what it feels like to die. But all of this is in service to its story and is laser focused on what Senua is feeling and experiencing. Ninja Theroy worked long and hard to correctly portray various aspects of mental disorders in how Senua reacts or sees the world. This is a game where what they called “the low hanging fruit” of correctly portraying psychosis meant making amazing and chilling use of 3d positioned voices constantly talking to you, laughing at you, encouraging you, mocking you, and being afraid for you and for themselves!

All in all, the story is dark and introspective and extremely well done. It’s told fairly out of order, but I like that sort of thing. Piecing together what happened and when and why without everything being spoon fed was a fun challenge. And the acting done for Senua is the best I’ve ever seen in a game. Period.

Gameplay wise, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is something like Epic’s Infinity Blade mobile games from a few years back. Senua is the best rendered character model I’ve seen in a game, but they can get away with that because the entire game is a close up perspective on her which limits the amount of environment that need to be rendered. It all looks really good, but there is that sense that it can only look so good because it is very carefully keeping you to tight hallways on outdoor corridors of trees or whatever.

The combat also reminds me a good bit of Infinity Blade. Combat has a very fixed feeling to it in contrast to something like Tomb Raider or Horizon: Zero Dawn. Instead of scampering and dodging in an open world, combat is always in small-ish circular areas or occasionally on wide bridges. Instead of the camera being freeform, it is always behind Senua and always focused on an approaching enemy. At first, it can feel a little restricting. You can switch which enemy the camera focuses on (and thus which enemy you are engaging) but you are basically always facing an enemy.

Fortunately, this somewhat fixed, somewhat mechanical feel is made up for by simple but very well done combat. Combat is a game of dodging, blocking, attacking, and counter attacking. If the sort of base sword wielding enemy is about to try and hit you with a heavy attack you can see it in his great character animation and choose to dodge to the left or right, or you can hold a block and absorb the impact while being thrown off balance, or you can counter with a well timed parry that will allow you to flow into a counterattack combo. So, combat is about picking the correct move in real time to avoid damage or attack your opponent. Enemies with light swords can be beaten through easy blocks and the occasional heavy attack to break their guard. Enemies who carry a shield require a kick or a shove to break their guard since your direct frontal sword attacks are mostly useless. There’s also slow enemies with large heavy swords, and fast enemies who duel wield knives that they can throw at you.

Combat gets frantic and challenging as the game throws more enemies at you. They cluster around you and it becomes a game of picking the right enemy to focus on and of dodging and blocking enemies who attack from the side or behind. And all of this is happening while a chorus of voices in Senua’s head cheer you on, or warn you of an attack behind you, or fret as you take a hit, or taunt you as you are about to die, or urge you to finish an injured opponent. Once again, this game is gritty and violent. Get knocked down in combat and you can see the pain on Senua’s face. Having to stand back up after a near fatal blow feels hard and the game even goes so far to drastically limit your attack speed and power for a few seconds until you recover. It makes every battle tense and terrifying, even if mechanically there isn’t really as much danger of failure you are lead to believe. There are certainly times where you chain together dodges and attacks and blocks and combos that let you slice through an otherwise hard group of enemies and it feels very satisfying… so it’s not all grit and pain. It is fun, as well!

Taken all together, from the extremely excellent facial capture and acting for Senua, to the hellish story about her quest to defy the Norse gods, to the combat that is somewhat simple but deeply satisfying, to the various set pieces and puzzles you’ll face, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a fantastic game. It is not particularly long. Maybe 5 hours. 10 hours at most. But those hours are packed with narration and combat and storytelling and creepy frightening sights.

That the game is apparently doing well and is being considered a success pleases me greatly! 🙂