Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a psychological, cinematic, story-driven game, yet the combat system is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
We will discuss how the combat is conveyed through Senua’s character, how everything is displayed and communicated to the player when there’s absolutely no HUD, and how the up-close and personal camera is fair even with multiple enemies pressing against you.
Video has visual context and Hellblade dev diaries. Hyperlinks were added to the article to compensate.
Living Through Senua’s Nightmare
Hellblade’s combat system is a rare combination of vulnerability and skill. Skill in games is just not appreciated enough and is often falsely associated with “too hard” or “unfair” when they’ve been conditioned to press a button really fast to kill things.
Senua has weight behind every attack; yet despite her toughness, she’s not only physically vulnerable, but mentally as well. The weight behind every attack is Senua’s desperate attempt to trudge onward to reach her beloved and to fight the voices that tell her otherwise. The player experiences this and, through the magic of binaural audio and absolutely no HUD, lives through the nightmare that Senua herself is living through.
The Magic of No HUD
Wait, a game without a HUD? What is this, Call of Duty’s Hardcore mode?
Instead of a HUD, Hellblade conveys everything through very clear visual effects, sounds, and telegraphs. Typical of any well-made skill-based game, the enemies have well-telegraphed attacks that make it clear when and/or where the attack will happen and so they feel fair, unlike several enemies and bosses in a certain game.
Each sword strike or parry has bright and obvious particle effects so the player always knows what is happening. The enemies recoil as blood visibly splatters. There’s never questioning: did I get hit, or did my strike get through to the enemy?
The enemy health is shown through visible cuts on the body. If they’re low on health, it shows through their gait and their posture as they clench their wounds.
Senua’s health is displayed through post process effects, with blood marking the screen, the sound of her heartbeat, and change in audio and lighting. It never feels like it lasts too long, like you have to remain hidden for an obscene amount of time, which would start pushing the game toward being unfair.
However, it’s not simply “you’re well” and “you’re hurt.” There are different levels of being damaged.
The mix of post process effects and being knocked down for certain lengths of time really grabs Senua’s current status as she’s beaten over by careless maneuvering or poor timing. Everything is clearly laid out and telegraphed visually and auditorily without any hand holding.
Conveying Vulnerability & Speed Through Senua’s Stance
Senua is towered over by the enemies she faces. She has to utilize her speed and positioning to overcome her obstacles rather than brute strength, which produces a skill-based and immersive system for the player to delve into. Senua is fully aware of her shortcomings and of her vulnerability against such towering and powerful foes.
Her stance is evident of that. She leaves herself open to trick the opponent and to gain an advantage using her speed and agile movements.
Senua remains unpredictable by leaving her sword behind her, especially because of how important it is to pay attention to your opponent’s sword at all times. The sword’s weight also helps with quickly backstepping out of harm’s way.
The Depth of Simplistic Combat
The combat is simplistic, but it was purposely designed that way.
The combination of smooth and fluid animations and simple yet deliberate combat through light attacks, heavy attacks, kicks, evades, and blocks or parries, produces depth as the player constantly improves upon their skill throughout the game. There’s no level-up system, no skill tree, no unlocking new abilities or moves — just pure, skillful combat all about timing and positioning that tests your ability as a player against tough and stronger enemies.
As players become more experienced in their mastery and immersed in Senua’s character, each player can create their own experience through this simplistic combat system.
Yet despite this simplicity, through smooth and fluid animations, there are different attack combinations.
You can chain running attacks. You can run in for a satisfying kick, then follow up with another running attack animation without having to run again, such as the satisfying smackdown of the heavy attack.
The kick can actually be chained into and becomes a punch. Light attack or heavy attack twice, punch, then follow up with different light or heavy attack animations.
You can forward dodge and kick to bash into them, then follow up by slicing your sword through their body. The way it’s all framed makes it all the more satisfying.
Once you obtain Gramr, there are two types of parries — one with special effects and one without. Hitting the perfect parry is not only obvious due to the special effects, but it’s much more satisfying and makes you feel more immersed in the combat.
Again, once you obtain Gramr, you can light attack, hold heavy, dodge, then release for a seamless animation.
There’s a block and a parry mapped to a single button that depends on your timing. Pulling off parries, or even blocks, in tight situations can prove intense as you struggle against multiple enemies at once. Coming out alive makes you feel the weight of the struggle and Senua’s insanity leaking into you.
The Voices That Make Combat Fair
Which, surprise, answers the pressing question of how could the up-close and personal camera possibly be fair with multiple enemies pressing against you?
The psychosis that haunts her — the very essence of the game itself.
The voices push and pull throughout the game, and it’s no different here.
The uplifting, “You are a capable warrior,” and, “It’s not over,” versus the voices telling you that, “You will die,” as you lie grasping for life and lifting yourself back up to chip away at the seemingly meaningless struggle before you.
The voices that tell you, “Don’t give up,” while demanding you to end him. You can almost feel the reprieve as you near the end of the struggle when the voices tell you, “It’s nearly the end.”
They scream at you to “Focus”, which is a game mechanic, but just the wording in itself is powerful.
The voices will yell in urgency “behind you!” or “evade!” or “get out!” Yet these voices don’t feel like hand holding. The voices don’t trigger every single action and therefore leave moments for your own warrior prowess and silence that only makes you wonder if you’ve been abandoned by those voices who you’ve always called home. Through binaural sound, the voices come from all sides of differing volume. They become a part of you. They ARE a part of you.
In fact, the voices are such a part of you, that they work with you mechanically.
The camera is important when maintaining that cinematic, up-close, and personal experience. Ninja Theory got away with such an up-close angle because of these voices. As they yell “behind you!”, you know more about your surroundings without having the camera zoomed out or a flashing arrow that would ruin the entire point of removing the HUD. Zooming the camera out would have spoiled that cinematic, personal framing of Senua, especially for an experience of this caliber.
The way Senua and the combat is framed ties together perfectly with the role that the voices play when being surrounded and attacked from multiple sides, or when an enemy is about to strike with brute force and you have to use your agility and speed to “get out of the way.”
And finally, slight spoiler, but it’s not something I really noticed until rewatching the footage.
Toward the end, the voices whisper instead. “You’re surrounded,” “watch out,” “behind you,” “careful,” “be careful, Senua.”
There are no longer any voices telling you that you can or can’t do anything.
You’re stronger now as you face the horde and cannot fall.
You’ve been through Hel, and you’re stronger for it.
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