Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017)

The idea of an “independent triple-A” game is quite obviously an oxymoron, but still Ninja Theory make a convincing attempt at it with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. A triple-A game by definition is created by a massive developer and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. Ninja Theory is attempting to break the mold by creating an experience that feels like a triple-A title, but was cheaper to create, cheaper to purchase, and is a shorter and more focused experience. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice could easily be passed off as a niche triple-A title with its stunning visuals and production value. I really support Ninja Theory’s efforts as the industry seems to only focus on triple-A and indie games, so few games are released between these polar opposite designations. I would love to see more games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice that are not cheap little indie games but are not massive and sprawling triple-A titles, a happy medium would be appreciated. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a narrative-driven hack-and-slash which details the experience of Senua, a Celtic warrior who suffers from psychosis.

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It is evident right from the beginning of the game that mental health plays a key role in this game. Senua hears whispering voices in her head at all times, these voices gossip about Senua and occasionally aid or discourage her journey. The player is actually described as one of the voices that guides her. It is imperative that if you play this game you must play with a binaural headset, as these voices are critical to building tension and immersion to the experience. Not only does Senua hear voices, but it is apparent that much of the game is played in Senua’s mind. What she is fighting is often not real, and she visuals terrible imagery as a result of her psychosis. I would describe the game as a psychological-thriller, tons of unsettling atmosphere and a constant sense of dread are instilled by Senua’s psychosis.

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Moreover, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is undoubtably a dark game due to the nature of its content. Horrifying depictions created by the mind of Senua make it clear that this game is not for the faint-hearted or squeamish. Senua journeys through Helheim, the Norse version of Hell to save the soul of her beloved. She fights gods and foul creatures alike as she journeys through Helheim. The game has a heavy emphasis on Norse mythology, and I quite liked how some classic Norse tales are dictated to the player as you travel through the world. It may be just a small thing, but I really did enjoy hearing accounts about Sigurd, Odin, Thor, and the rest as I walked from place to place. Furthermore, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterclass in immersion. There is no heads-up-display (HUD) like in most games, there are no obvious tutorials, there are no button prompts, the only thing on the screen is Senua. Even the default difficulty in the game is “auto”, meaning that if you play well it automatically gets harder and if you play poorly it gets easier. Nobody has to mess around with the difficulty settings, you just play the game out and it will find the appropriate level of challenge for you. All of this combined with the psychological themes in the game made me really feel like I was actually one of the voices accompanying Senua. It is very easy to get immersed in the world, the atmosphere, voices, imagery, and lack of HUD really make the experience engrossing.

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It is obvious that the gameplay was not the main focus of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It is primarily meant to be an immersive, artsy, and narrative experience. The motif of Senua conquering her “darkness” may be a little heavy-handed at times, but for the most part the game hits the mark. Where it falls flat a little is in the gameplay department. Combat is initially a little slow as you get used to the controls, but as the game progresses it quickly ramps up. Your swings and strikes feel properly weighted and the controls are very responsive and easy to learn. The voices even play a big part in combat as they warn the player when an enemy is attacking you from behind, allowing you to dodge or parry and enemy that you did not initially see. Everything feels fluid and intense, and this is complimented by the pure spectacle of the combat. Loads of visual effects and beautiful animations accompany your attacks, making the whole experience engrossing. The issue is that the combat is not very deep, there are only a few enemy types and you mostly fight every enemy the same way. Once you master parrying no enemy could possibly pose a threat to you, and eventually the combat becomes tiresome and repetitive. Towards the end of the game, there are long and drawn-out sections of combat that feel like you are fighting an endless wave of enemies. By this point, the excitement of combat had worn off and it felt like a slog to battle my way through hundreds of copy-pasted enemies over and over again. This could have been solved if more complex enemies were introduced towards the end of the game, because by the half-way point I felt like I had seen everything the game had to offer in combat.

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The other aspect of gameplay are the puzzles. Most of the time progression is blocked by some form of puzzle. Sometimes you had to find a specific rune shape by lining up environmental objects. For example, aligning some trees and houses to create a “M” shape. Other puzzles include walking through magical gateways in the right order. Or finding a way to create a bridge by looking at it from a certain perspective. Generally, these puzzles were not great, but they were inoffensive. They are not particularly hard and they require very little thinking. For the most part I did not hate these puzzles, but I was not really in love with them either. Towards the end of the game the puzzles actually got somewhat interesting, but mostly the puzzles felt like filler. Apart from puzzling and fighting, the main thing you will be doing in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is walking. This is a narrative heavy game and plays as such. If you want constant action and are not okay with just soaking in the environment, atmosphere, and emotions that the game provides than this game is not for you.

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All in all, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does precisely what it set out to do. It is a visually stunning game that could be passed off as a triple-A title, and it tells a surreal and twisted story about a woman suffering from psychosis. It is easily one of the most immersive games I played, and its atmosphere was captivating. While it does struggle a bit from the gameplay perspective, it does not significantly drag down the experience. Both the combat and the puzzles are passable, and at the very least are not frustrating. While I wish they both offered more depth as the game went on, they were not offensively bad either. For these reasons I give Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice an 8/10. It is an enthralling experience that portrays the effects of psychosis and grief on the mind of a Celtic warrior.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)

Turn-based games are fairly decisive, you either love them or you hate them. I tend to be in the “love them” camp, and many of many favorite series are turn-based and strategic games. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reimagining of the 1993 turn-based game X-COM: UFO Defense. The purpose of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that the world has been invaded by aliens, and the player is put in charge of a worldwide organization to combat the alien threat. You oversee everything, from building your base and recruiting new soldiers, to making sure every country is safe and supports you, to commanding the squads during missions, every minute detail is a decision made by the player. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seamlessly combines two aspects: turn-based combat and base management. Both aspects revolve around each other and create an addictive feedback loop.

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Much of the gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is turn-based combat, in which you field a small squad of your planetary defenders against an unknown alien threat. Much of the time you are raiding UFOs that crashed, but you may also assault alien bases or simply defend cities and their denizens from being abducting. You have four different classes at your disposal: Heavy, support, assault, and sniper. As you train up your soldiers, they will progress along their paths and gain new abilities and talents to use in combat. Of course, aliens also get more threatening as time moves forward. After every mission, you will bring in a haul of resources from the defeated aliens, allowing you to research and reverse engineer the foreign technology. Allowing your own soldiers to field plasma rifles and other alien gadgets. This progression loop is immensely satisfying, you complete a mission, use the loot to upgrade your weaponry and base, and bring that new technology out on the next mission. Strategically maneuvering against opponents is not the only aspect of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as there is also a solid base building facet.

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Similarly to how you upgrade your weapons, your main base will also become more advanced as time progresses. You must build laboratories, workshops, satellites, and power generators to keep up with the alien threat. Furthermore, you must strategically decide which missions to tackle, as often times you will be forced to choose which country to assist. You must attempt to keep every area at a low level of panic, or else they will drop their support for your project. Managing these different panic levels is crucial, and the player has to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of every choice. You also choose what to research and build, and doing these things takes a lot of time, so you must choose wisely to maximize your effectiveness. Outside of the base building and combat, XCOM: Enemy Unknown does not offer a whole lot, but that’s okay. The story is serviceable, it’s a pretty standard alien invasion story. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is what it is, which is a tactical turn-based game with base management aspects.

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There are a few key issues that I have with this game, the first being the randomness. Almost every turn-based game uses some form of a random number generator (RNG) to keep the player on their toes and create a different experience for every player. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is widely known for being very frustrating in this aspect, as a couple of bad dice rolls can lead to the death of a soldier. I’ll admit, I probably just have a personal vendetta against the RNG in this game as I have literally missed what was displayed as a 100% hit (turns out hit percentage is rounded up, so I only had a 99.6% chance but it was displayed as 100%). The frustration for me stems from the fact that it is very easy to get attached to your soldiers, and most players will probably have around 10-15 super soldiers that they rotate in and out of missions. Losing one of those guys on a .4% chance is infuriating. I would have preferred it if the game encouraged you to keep a much bigger group of usable specialists, because losing one guy out of fifty is not a big deal but losing one out of ten is.

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The other issue is that RNG is always going to feel bad, but there are plenty of ways to make the player not resent it so much. Modern Fire Emblem games for example use a system called “true hit” which, without going into mathematical details, make the chance to hit a target higher than what is actually displayed. For example, what is shown to be a 70% chance in Fire Emblem is more like an 82% chance. Another solution is to use “pseudo-RNG”, which would increase the odds of hitting subsequent attacks if you missed a high hit chance. The purpose of implementing either of these systems is simply for user experience. The developer should want the player to not absolutely abhor the RNG, as it can lead to rage-quits and a lot of anger. Furthermore, too many random odds in a tactical game like this will inevitably lead to a few select players getting absolutely screwed by the RNG.

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Other than the randomness, there were a few other problems I had with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The first being the lack of objectives in any given mission. The goal in most missions is simply to kill all the enemies, which is a fairly boring task and does not give the player a whole lot of incentive to innovate tactically. Also, aliens just wander aimlessly because they have no objective to defend. My favorite missions in the game were the ones in which you fought other human forces who are attempting to hinder you. In those missions, the player must either defend an encoder with secret information from the enemies, or you must hack the enemies’ encoder to obtain their information. In both types of these missions there is some sort of objective where all the action will be centered around which make the maps far more engaging. Implementing some sort of goal in every mission would go a long way to make missions more interesting and diverse.

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Furthermore, adding mission objectives would also alleviate the next issue, which is that the game is often just way too slow-paced. Because of the aforementioned randomness, the player must play extremely carefully as to not make costly mistake. The optimal strategy is to slowly creep forward a few tiles per turn until you reveal group of aliens through the fog of war. Once revealed, these aliens will automatically move to cover and be free to blast you on their next turn. The player is encouraged to move in a way that will reveal these enemies at the start of the turn, and then have all the rest of your soldiers follow up immediately to kill the aliens as to not give them a single action. Maps can be fairly large and your squad never gets bigger than six, and you are not going to split them up to cover more ground as that is an unnecessary risk. The player is left to slowly sweep a large area searching for the last aliens to exterminate. It can get fairly boring and respective after a while.

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As a whole, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a solid tactical turn-based strategy game. It definitely has major flaws that I hope are addressed in future titles. While the missions and base building can be addictive, there are a few things that need to be fixed. Slow and repetitive missions, no objectives, and the random factor of the game are the major issues that I would like to see fixed in the future. Hopefully, the next XCOM game can build upon the franchise and improve upon the foundation that XCOM: Enemy Unknown established.

The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings (2011)

It is always interesting to see how a developer progresses across games. Without a doubt the largest improvement I’ve seen is CD Projekt Red and The Witcher series. The first entry in the series certainly had a lot of heart and inspiration behind it, but it was an ultimately clunky and it underwhelmed me. That being said, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has made great strides to improve nearly every aspect of the game. The visuals, story and most importantly, gameplay, were significantly upgraded. There were still a few bizarre design decisions that baffle me, but regardless I consider The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to be a stellar RPG and a must play game if you are remotely interested in fantasy.

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The most obvious improvement is in the gameplay department. The original game’s combat was point and click, most of the gameplay was pure preparation and understanding your enemy’s weaknesses. Thankfully, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings built on the preparation-based concepts from its predecessor. Gathering ingredients and performing alchemy to create potions is invaluable. Instead of just choosing a predetermined “fighting style” like in the original, in this game you proactively choose between heavy and light attacks depending on the enemy and circumstance. Furthermore, in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, you dodge, block, and parry by actually pressing buttons and responding to enemies’ actions, rather than being a static chance like in the original game. Item usage also got a massive overhaul, allowing the player to seamlessly integrate traps, bombs, and other related items into their combat repertoire. Still, I would not consider the combat in this game to be stellar, but it is beyond serviceable and was not a source of frustration like the original game. There is absolutely no doubt that the gameplay took gigantic leaps forward from its predecessor, and that is what is so remarkable about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

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While the gameplay was undoubtably a massive improvement, The Witcher series is first and foremost an RPG, so story and roleplaying aspects should be the focus of the series. It is fortunate then that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has such an engaging and gripping narrative. The Witcher is often described as a gritty, realistic, and mature fantasy series, it is not a fairytale story, and this title certainly follows that standard. The player regularly has to choose between the lesser of two evils, and you will often regret and rethink your decisions after the fact. It is obvious that these games are grounded in reality, even with their fictional magic, creatures, and world. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells the story of the monster hunter Geralt, who was framed for the murder of a king. As you hunt down the king’s assassin, you experience a wartorn land, humans fight nonhumans, and foreign invaders seek to seize the opportunity to claim power now that the king is dead. Geralt’s amnesia also begins to clear up throughout the story, which challenges previous knowledge and expectations that you have. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells a riveting story and I cannot wait to play the next game to see what happens next.

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Obviously, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings made notable improvements over the first game, but there are still a few strange design choices that cause nothing but frustration. The first is that potions are unusable during combat. At first glance this makes sense as it prevents player from stocking up on potions and just chugging one whenever you take some damage. However, this is already prevented because potions heal you gradually rather than all at once, so you cannot just chug for instant regeneration in combat. This is annoying because it is not always obvious when the game is going to throw you into a big battle or boss fight, as there is usually a long cutscene or dialogue segment beforehand. What usually ends up happening is that the player talks to another character, gets tossed into a boss battle immediately afterwards, and then has to reload a save from 10 minutes prior just to drink a potion and sit through all the dialogue again. Another odd choice was to separate the world into 3 different acts. This was possibly because of engine limitations rather than an intentional choice, but it is a flaw nonetheless. Once you complete an act, you cannot visit that area again or do its quests, which makes the whole world feel smaller and more confined. There are also a few usability issues I had with the game. The user interface was messy and difficult to navigate and I frequently encountered glitches and bugs which forced me to restart my client numerous times. These issues were common enough that they significantly hampered the experience, they are not just small nitpicks.

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As a whole, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings managed to make great strides to improve upon its predecessor. More developed combat and a gripping story make the game worth experiencing. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a quintessential action RPG, and it is no where near as clunky as the original. It is evident that CD Projekt Red put forth a lot of effort to improve on their flagship series, and it shows. If the next game improves as much as this one did, it may very well be a masterpiece.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (2015)

There have been few games that can match the feeling that Hotline Miami provides. The unreliable narrator and his hallucinations provide a sense of confusion and unease. The gratuitous violence was shocking but was a subtle commentary on violence in the medium. Additionally, the fast-paced gameplay was brutally precise, leaving a sense of adrenaline and accomplishment. The same cannot be said for Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, it felt like an imitation of the original. Still, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is an entertaining experience, but it lacks the careful execution and craftsmanship of the original game.

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First and foremost, the gameplay and level design feels like a haphazardly created version of the first game. The level design in particular is a shocking downgrade. The series is based in a remarkably fast-paced environment in which the player partakes in shooting sprees and beatdowns on the mafia. What makes the game so interesting is that both the player and the enemies die in a single hit from a melee weapon or bullet. You have to quickly rush your way through levels to outpace the enemies and make sure they don’t catch you off guard. The player is encouraged to move rapidly to keep ahead of the enemies, you always want to be shooting first. The issue in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is that this style of gameplay often feels discouraged. There are so many long hallways that the game funnels the player into. You cannot see the enemies before they see you, leading to unwarranted deaths. Moreover, levels are littered with windows that make it impossible to rush through the level as enemies will spot and kill you instantly. Furthermore, each level is longer and houses more enemies, meaning it will take longer to complete each section. Melee weapons lack viability, as the open spaces encourage the use of guns. The giant floors and wide-open areas encourage caution and careful planning opposed to fury and bloodlust. This shift in dynamic is not suited to the series, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number feels more like a puzzle game than an adrenaline pumping and violent frenzy. Hotline Miami makes the player feel like John Wick, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number makes the player feel like a redshirt off of Star Trek.

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The other bizarre change is with the general format and presentation of the game. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a tale of numerous protagonists. This does create the feeling of confusion and disarray like its predecessor, but for a completely different reason. The original game was focused on a singular character who suffered from PTSD, psychotic breaks, and other mental issues, generating a sense that much of the game was a fever dream. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was confusing just because there were just so many constantly shifting perspectives. Nine different perspectives spread out across 27 levels is a recipe for forgettable protagonists. There were only a few characters that I even remotely felt interested in, the missions that helped make sense of the first game in particular were intriguing, but the rest I just did not care about. Additionally, the original game let the player swap “masks” that changed the character’s moveset and abilities for any particular level. In this game, each character has their own individual gimmick. So instead of choosing how you want to play, you are forced into certain playstyles and are obligated to put up with frustrating gimmicks. I will admit it was somewhat interesting when the storylines of the characters linked up as they crossed paths, but still I just was not particularly invested in any of them.

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As a whole, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number missed the mark for what made the original so impactful. Levels feel fan-made rather than professionally designed, and the gameplay as slowed downed tremendously. The more meticulous style may appeal to some people, but I feel like it just does not match the tone of the Hotline Miami series. Shifting perspectives create a sense of confusion like the original game but make for far less memorable characters. Jacket was an iconic character from Hotline Miami that will go down in video game history, but nothing similar can be said for the characters of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. On the plus side, the soundtrack is just as enticing as the first game’s. While I did rag on the game a lot, the core remains the same: rush through levels and kill the mafia. At the end of the day, the game plays similarly to the original, but lacks the nuance and flow. For these reasons, I give Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number a 6/10. The level design was just not up to par, which severely hampered the adrenaline pumping action which I’ve come to expect from the series.