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Game Reviews

‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’: The Greatest Battle Is In The Mind



At the announcement of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the perpetually beleaguered Ninja Theory promised to deliver an independent game with triple-A production values. Following roughly six-to-eight hours of light exploration, tactical combat and a truly singular story, that promise was in good faith; but a little misguided.

Despite the polished look of triple-A game, players will find Hellblade is fresher and more unexpected than the comparison suggests. Although it delivers on the pillars that have defined Ninja Theory’s oeuvre, both the title’s challenging subject matter and the way it breaks the modern traditions of action games are likely to upset a lot of core gamers looking for a standard big-budget adventure—even as those same core gamers are the ones who should be championing it.

This divide is nothing new. Each of Ninja Theory’s games have suffered from this split, offering a deep and story-driven experience but also suffering from one or other aggravating circumstances. Without fan backlash, brand confusion, or another external problem, Ninja Theory could have been as big as Rare or Naughty Dog by now.

The first game under the Ninja Theory name, the PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavenly Sword, missed the boat in the under-performing early life of its system. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West released on both of the current consoles at the time, but was dropped on the same day as the more expensive and brand-dominating Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Not to mention that the title’s structure had basically been beaten to the punch by Uncharted 2 the previous year. Even when it came to DMC: Devil May Cry, the game had the brand-recognition that Enslaved lacked, but was dogged by retrograde technology decisions and a fanbase that turned toxic from the moment the new Dante was revealed.

Hellblade: Senua's SacrificeHellblade marks the developer’s attempt to break the pattern of bad marketing decisions and entrenched fan culture by turning to self-publishing its own IP. Combining the in-your-face performance capture of Heavenly Sword, the tight pacing and idiosyncratic storytelling of Enslaved, and the strange worlds of DMC, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice finds Ninja Theory at the height of its Ninja-Theory-ness.

The game tells the story of Senua, a woman from Orkney in the north of Scotland, who lives with psychosis in a time long ago when mental health was a zero-sum game. She is branded a ‘geilt’, a madwoman, ostracized and blamed for anything remotely unexpected that happens around her. The game starts with Senua’s descent into her mind’s version of the Norse underworld, and discovering Senua’s history is part of the enjoyment of the story, so any further description would include spoilers. Rest assured, though, the presentation of this story is one of Hellblade‘s most outstanding features.

Ninja Theory has made something truly special by conceiving of an action-adventure that takes place inside the mind of its protagonist, and then actually researching mental health in the real world in order to treat its subject with respect. More so than any other depiction of these issues on screen, Hellblade elicits understanding, while at the same time showing the terror, confusion, or beauty that hearing and seeing things can result in. Even if players have not gone through—or been close to someone who has gone through—what Senua experiences in Hellblade, the game will still evoke empathy for her humanity, rather than just pity for her condition.

So yes, it is beyond cathartic that a story, let alone a game, has come along that might actually teach people to think differently about psychosis and mental health in general. As for the rest of it, Hellblade is an oft-frightening action-adventure with thrilling combat, and sound and visuals that rival many larger games in imagination and execution.

As stated at the start, it will not be to everyone’s taste. Much like the early
Silent Hill games, Hellblade makes use of its distorted reality to take sharp turns into psychological horror, but also like older horror games there are long stretches of inaction between sudden and terrifying combat encounters. Navigating the gorgeously rendered and bleak world of the game is quite simple, the only findable items being lore stones that relate stories in Norse mythology that are pertinent to Senua’s quest. In these exploration scenes, she also moves like a character from the mid-2000s, such as Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil 4, stomping from corridor to corridor with not much else to do but examine the environment. The fact that about a third of play-time comprises blatantly un-cinematic walking scenes and occasional, simple puzzles, will be what turns away those on the fence—since the story and the combat are nearly impeccable and well worth investing in.

Cut scenes in Hellblade perform a surprising number of clever tricks to help keep the game’s budget from ballooning out. Senua herself is the only character model with a speaking part—all other characters are created with FMV (some of which was so well integrated that an onlooker commented on how realistic the graphics were). Much of the dialogue is spoken off-screen anyway, as the game’s chief storytelling tools are inside Senua’s head: the voices known as the Furies.

Recorded using 3D sound (experiencing it with headphones is highly recommended), the Furies are constantly commenting on things seen and unseen; on Senua’s state of mind; even narrating the events of the game for the player. The player themselves is implied to be joining them by picking up the controller at the start of the game.

The Furies even have a role to play in combat, voicing support or pessimism and calling out to help Senua avoid enemy attacks. On the whole, they represent a concept that could only work in games (indeed, worked wonderfully in Bastion), and if only one thing is stolen for future titles from Hellblade, it should be this.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Unfortunately, the combat itself seems destined to be overlooked, due to its apparent simplicity. With regenerating health, no HUD, and no in-game description of the combo system, Hellblade‘s depth comes instead from tactical positioning and an escalating array of imposing enemies. Choosing where to dodge and when to parry, especially given the risk of being surrounded, is challenging and entertaining despite a lack of unlockable skills or experience points.

Of particular note are Hellblade‘s bosses: at several points through Senua’s journey she must face towering warriors that equal or better the inventiveness of Ninja Theory’s previous boss work. As their creative design and difficulty clearly indicates some inspiration from Dark Souls, the only disappointment is that there are about as many boss encounters in Hellblade as an early six-hour stretch of a Souls title. About three-and-a-half, being generous.

At the end of the game, however, story is king. Hellblade‘s moody environments, excellent sound design, and terrifying enemies all support some of the studio’s best writing on any of their games, with dialogue and pacing that far exceeds the try-hard-edginess of DMC. Although many will see the story’s conclusion coming early on, the emotional impact these events have on Senua herself are well earned.

Any gamer who wants to see the medium expand creatively should give Hellblade a whirl, and thanks to some commendable development decisions, Ninja Theory has released the video game medium’s most thoughtful depiction of a difficult subject since Valkyria Chronicles tackled World War II. By experiencing the journey of a strong warrior who nevertheless must live with psychosis, players might even come away with greater empathy for those in their world who live with psychosis.

Having produced a game of such quality independently, Ninja Theory may never need to work with a triple-A publisher again, at least not for the benefit of fans. Hellblade is not fun in the way that a triple-A game is expected to be—even when it dives into pure horror—but it is a game that brave players will relish the opportunity to experience, even in its slower moments. Great out of 10.

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.



Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale



Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.


Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.


At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.



Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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