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



Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

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

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.



AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch

In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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Game Reviews

‘Tamarin’ Review: Monkey Trouble

Like Yooka-Laylee before it, Tamarin flounders in its attempts to recreate its source material for a more modern audience.



Tamarin Game Review

Developer: Chameleon Games | Publisher: Chameleon Games | Genre: 3rd Person Shooter/Platformer| Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

You have to be of a certain age to recall a game like Jet Force Gemini. One of Rare’s one-off titles of the N64 era, like Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini never earned itself a sequel but was a fun sci-fi adventure for its time. It’s this same energy that Tamarin, from Chameleon Games, attempts to channel.

Made up of former Rare staff, the folks at Chameleon Games are almost certainly the best team to make an attempt at rekindling such a long dead franchise with their spiritual successor. However, as can be the case with retro throwbacks, sometimes it’s better to ask whether you should bring back an older style of gaming, rather than if you could.

As we’ve seen with games like Yooka Laylee and Mighty No. 9, it often seems that the idea of an older game or franchise being resurrected for modern audiences is better to imagine than to actually play. While the occasional Bloodstained does come along to buck the trend, more often than not we get a game which is too faithful to its sources to make a mark or too different to rekindle that old love and nostalgia.

All of which is to say that Tamarin, while very faithful to its inspirations, never quite hits the mark that brings it to the next level. Part of this is the natural aging process, particularly of the first era of 3D platformers and adventure games which spawned on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While many of the games of that generation packed in endless hours of fun, so too have many of their mechanics aged terribly.

Tamarin Game Review

This accounts for Tamarin‘s weakest point, which is undoubtedly its combat. The shooting sections of the game, while channeling another Rare franchise that balanced cuteness with cartoonish violence, are just so mechanically terse that they drag the game down egregiously each time they crop up.

Like with Jet Force Gemini, players will spend much of Tamarin battling troubling insectoid enemies that threaten the peace of all of civilization. Also like the game which was such a clear inspiration for Chameleon, Tamarin brings back the clunky 3D aiming reticle. Not only is the shooting janky here, it feels downright unwieldy when you first get your hands on a firearm.

Though players can get the hang of it with a little effort and some reworking of how they see shooters, there seems to be little point in doing so. Tamarin‘s braindead AI and sparse few enemy types make combat feel like much of an afterthought to the experience, despite how central it is to progressing through the game.

To be fair, Tamarin does also bring some of the good from its spiritual forebear. The gradually growing arsenal of laser guns and rocket launchers does feel fun to play with, and the game is peppered with plenty of upgrades for the guns along the way. Sadly, then another of the Space Invaders style mini-games will pop up and derail things all over again.

Yes, there is a strange reference to yet another long gone gaming franchise here. Unlocking certain doors requires players to start from the center and aim the analog stick around firing at hovering, shifting rows of bugs. Again, it feels very unwieldy, and by the end most players will simply settle for spinning the analog stick wildly while firing with the machine gun for maximum ease.

Fortunately, more successful are the platforming sections. Making up the other side of Tamarin‘s coin, is a game more inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country 64 than anything else. As players travel through the outside world, gathering collectibles and gaining new abilities as they go, Tamarin shows much more variety than its combat sections.

With clear cues marked on the terrain to denote which areas require upgrades or new abilities to traverse, Tamarin is generally able to point you in the right direction across its world, though a map or minimap would help matters considerably. Though the game is split into many separate areas, they often look so similar that it can make the game hard to navigate and harder to remember where previous markers were for exploration. Even a rudimentary map feature would make this far less of an issue.

Alas, the exploration flounders on occasion as well. Jumping sometimes feels a bit too flighty and can even break the game at times, allowing players to jump off of surfaces they shouldn’t be able to normally. Further, the need to hold down a button and press another to grab certain collectibles is totally unintuitive and is another feature that seems to be more or less pointless.

As such, for all of it’s cute mascot spiritedness and lovingly attributed influences, Tamarin ultimately falls short in bringing back some of the best franchises of yesteryear. Though the effort is a valiant one, Tamarin, hampered by the flaws of the games it attempts to emulate, is just too clunky in its execution.

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Game Reviews

‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered’ Review: Some Games Age Like Milk

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.



Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Developer: Square-Enix | Publisher: Square-Enix | Genre: Action-RPG| Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Mobile | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

There’s a bit of a storied history between Nintendo and Square. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is an important part of that history. Or rather, the original version, released in 2003, was.

While it might seem to younger gamers like Square-Enix and Sony have always been close, Square had a different best friend for much of the 80s and 90s: Nintendo. Though a rift developed between them when Square opted to focus on CD-roms rather than cartridges for Final Fantasy VII, that rift only lasted for about 6 years. The game that signalled the end it? Well that was a new release exclusively for the GameCube: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Though Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released to relatively positive reviews 17 years ago, the game has not aged well. The quest of a caravan of crystal bearers to refill their crystal’s power and protect their homes from a deadly miasma, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

The first, and most considerable, problem with the game is that the quest at the heart of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is tedious and repetitive. Players ostensibly go from area to area on a world map, exploring uninteresting towns and beating lackluster dungeons. If this wasn’t enough, players are also forced to replay these levels over and over again in order to gain enough upgrades for later levels.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all RPGs ask players to level up in order to succeed. You’re not wrong, it’s simply the structure of levelling up that makes this experience so trying. The only way to level up in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is to beat the entire level again. Players are not rewarded experience for killing enemies but instead can choose one stat to upgrade each time they complete a level. What this means is that every tiny upgrade to your character can take 10-15 minutes at a time to get.

This wouldn’t be as trying on your patience if simple, basic flaws in the game weren’t so egregious. Hit detection is incomprehensible at times because, even when your character seems to be standing right next to an enemy or boss, they often fail to connect their attacks. Even worse, rather than mapping different attacks to the face and shoulder buttons, players must cycle through them one at a time, with the attack button standing in for defense, magic, healing or food consumption.

Of course, much of this has to do with the format of the original game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was meant to be played with link cables and Game Boy Advances connected to the GameCube. Each player would have a different bonus displayed on their GBA screens and, as such, players would work together in local multiplayer, aiding each other with their unique screen information as well as their combat skills.

Naturally the GBA had only two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, hence the layout. However, it’s been 17 years, and it’s pretty egregious that Square-Enix didn’t even think of giving players an option to rework the button layout. Doing so would make combat much more dynamic and help to fix the often clunky feeling of battling the game’s monsters.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Adding to the tedium are unskippable cutscenes all over the game. Every single time players challenge a boss, they are forced to sit through the same cutscene introducing the boss. Further, there are random events that occur on the world map which are also unskippable, even if they’re repeats of events that the player has already seen. Haplessly tapping the confirm button to skip through dialog that we’ve already heard should not be an issue in a game released in 2020.

These flaws were mostly a part of the original release as well but what’s the point of remastering a game if you haven’t fixed anything? Even the visuals in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered have failed to receive much polish. The game looks murky and fuzzy rather than sharp and clear. If Square-Enix could clean up Final Fantasy VIII for its gorgeous remaster, what stopped them here?

This is without even mentioning the loading times, which are frankly absurd for a game nearly two decades old. Again, it seems that getting this remaster out the door trumped quality control for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, which does nothing to help the game’s case.

Though the game is markedly more fun when players join you to take on a level, even the online connectivity has serious issues. To make matters worse, if a player chooses to use the multiplayer, they’ll have to carry a chalice around themselves if no one joins them, picking it up and putting it down all through the level.

Since single player has an AI character who will carry it for you, this option could be easily added to multiplayer, disappearing when (or if) someone actually joins you. This would allow the structure of the game to remain static regardless of whether someone joins your game or not, instead of making the game harder if no one decides to pop in.

While game director Araki Ryoma has promised to address the issues with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, the game has aged so poorly that, even without the flaws of the remaster, it’s hard to recommend it to modern audiences. Sad as it is, some games are better left in the past. Such is the case with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

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